Seven months ahead of his bid for a third term, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says an increase in homelessness in his city is a "frustrating setback" in his high-profile commitment to end street homelessness by 2015.
As a would-be mayor in 2008, Mr. Robertson made the ambitious pledge, but faced questions Wednesday about how he would accomplish it in light of the new numbers, including a 249-per-cent increase between the last count in 2011 and the 2014 tally in unsheltered homelessness.
That figure refers to people living outside, couch-surfing or using homelessness services on the day of the count, a 24-hour exercise across the region conducted one day every three years by hundreds of volunteers who, in 2014, included Mr. Robertson when it was done on March 12.
"That's a very large increase from 2011," Mr. Robertson told reporters at a briefing about the release of preliminary numbers, noting it has been driven by such factors as delayed social-housing projects and lower shelter capacity due to less money from the province, as well as people "renovicted" from single-room-occupancy housing.
With 600 new housing units in the pipeline, Mr. Robertson said he hoped to turn things around before next winter. "This should be a catalyst. It needs to wake all of us up," he said.
The reasons don't much matter to George Shearer, who has been living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside for several years and has been skeptical about the promises to help him. "I don't have much to say to politicians. I don't think we speak the same language," he said on the widewalk while selling sunglasses, toothpaste, shoes and other items collected during his travels.
Mr. Shearer, 45, has been homeless for several years after problems that include addiction issues. He avoids shelters because he finds them too confining and sleeps where he can, toting two carts with his possessions. "I stay awake a lot," he said. "When I sleep, I lose things." He added: "They're dumping a lot of money into the shelters. That's apparent." Mr. Shearer said he avoids shelters because he finds them confining, and hates the "bug problems" and "nutbar neighbours."
The count, which covered communities across Metro Vancouver, also found a 12-per-cent decline in the number of Vancouver sheltered homeless between 2011 and 2014, representing those in shelters, safe houses for youth or transition houses for women, as well as those with "no fixed address" in hospital beds, jails or detox centres.
"These results are frustrating in the City of Vancouver, but we remain steadfastly committed to achieving our goal to ensure we can get everyone off the street," Mr. Robertson said. "There is still lots of work to do, as the count demonstrates, to solve homelessness as a whole."
Mr. Robertson said he can still end street homelessness by 2015 if Ottawa and Victoria maintain and increase funding for homelessness initiatives, including low-barrier shelters next winter. He saluted B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman for his "strong partnership" on the issue. "We've come a long way, but there's another leap that needs to be made."
Mr. Coleman said the count is only a snapshot in time, but the provincial government remains focused on a commitment to open 540 new units in Vancouver by the end of the year. He said he was used to qualified gratitude from municipal leaders like Mr. Robertson. "It's always a 'thank you,' with a 'but…,' without recognizing what's in the stream."
But George Affleck of the opposition Non-Partisan Association party said voters should punish Mr. Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party for making an impossible-to-deliver promise, noting no city has zero homelessness. Mr. Affleck advocated for Vancouver drawing on best practices on combatting homelessness from around the world. "I am not going to make a promise of getting to zero," he said.
Across the region, there was a 5-per-cent increase in people found homeless, to 2,770 people. The figures included increases across categories including First Nations, youth and the elderly.