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stephen quinn

Walking to work one cool and damp morning in March, I ran into Eileen Mosca, a long-time volunteer with the Grandview Woodland Community Policing Office. Ms. Mosca and a partner, clipboards in hand, had spent a rainy and blustery night counting homeless people.

Ms. Mosca has participated in this sad, annual enumeration since it began in 2005.

When I asked her what she had encountered she told me, "So many young people."

This week the city released the results of the 2016 homeless count and they're not good. This year, volunteers counted 1,847 homeless people in the city.

That's the highest number since the city and the region began counting in 2005.

In 2008, the year that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was first elected after running on a promise to eradicate street homelessness, a Metro Vancouver count showed that 1,576 people living in the city were homeless.

Beyond a small dip in 2015, the overall number of homeless people has grown steadily. And while the count includes people in shelters, it misses those who are couch surfing, living in their cars or vans, or simply don't want to be found.

When the tally came out this week, I spoke with Ms. Mosca again. She called this year's numbers "shocking."

"This was the largest number of homeless people we have ever found on Commercial Drive, which really surprised us because this was the first time we were counting when there was an actual shelter open at 1st and Commercial," she said.

"We pretty much ran out of time and ran out of forms in the allotted time for doing the survey," She said.

Lani Brunn, a project co-ordinator with the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, told me she wasn't surprised by the numbers after counting in the Downtown Eastside.

"Our shelters at the Lookout Society are always over 100 per cent full for the whole year," she said.

Interestingly, the count showed that one-third of those staying in shelters were actually working.

Sixty-one per cent of those counted had been homeless for less than a year.

The causes of homelessness are many, but at the root of it is poverty, and a lack of affordable and supportive housing. That sounds obvious but consider for a moment that social assistance rates in this province haven't gone up since 2007. A single "employable" person on welfare in B.C. gets $610 per month – $375 of which is a shelter allowance. What can a person living in Vancouver rent for $375 per month? The answer is nothing, certainly nothing fit for human habitation.

You may think Vancouver's insane pyramid-scheme of a real estate market has nothing to do with the guy huddled under a blanket in the doorway, but think again.

With housing priced out of reach for many, renting becomes the only option.

As more and more rental buildings fall and are replaced by tastefully appointed exclusive luxury residences (for which there appears to be an insatiable appetite), the rental market grows ever tighter. Combine that with Airbnb and other short-term rentals and so-called "renovictions" and you've got desperate renters competing for the few decent apartments available. It all trickles down to the lowest end.

I arrived in Vancouver in the post-restraint year of 1983 along with a girlfriend who had secured a job teaching. We had a couple of hundred dollars between us. Even so, we immediately found an apartment in the back of a house at 17th and Main. After a few months we moved to the West End, where we paid $485 for what I considered to be a rather grand one-bedroom apartment.

Later moves took me to Deep Cove, Kits Point, back to the West End and finally to South Granville where I lived for seven years.

The point being that finding an apartment to rent in just about any neighbourhood in the city was never very difficult and was mostly affordable.

Vancouver has always been a draw to young people from across the country, and they keep coming – perhaps unprepared for what they'll encounter here.

Given that fact, is it even possible to eliminate homelessness?

Eileen Mosca wonders. "The idea that we could end homelessness would be based on the fact that the number of homeless has been stable for the past eight years. Well it hasn't, and more people are coming," she said.

If I arrived today instead of 33 years ago, it would be a very different story.

There's a pretty good chance that I would have been marked down on someone's clipboard as another sad statistic.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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