There are about as many homeless people in Vancouver as there were a year ago, making it clear Mayor Gregor Robertson has failed to meet his high-profile pledge to end the problem by 2015.
The city released the official results Tuesday from its annual homeless count, conducted four months ago, which found 1,746 living on city streets or sleeping in shelters. That's down slightly from 1,803 in 2014. The results left Mr. Robertson promising to do his best to manage the problem, despite pledging when he entered politics in 2008 to rid the city of street homelessness by this year.
"It's been a really tough problem," Mr. Robertson told reporters at City Hall, where councillors received the latest numbers during a briefing by city staff. The count involved a group of volunteers, including the mayor and some council members, roaming the city to count the homeless on March 24. The results suggest the number of street homeless declined by 48 over the year, while the total number of homeless – a mix of street homeless and those in shelters – declined by 57. Volunteers counted 199 people, or 17 per cent of the total, who were under the age of 24. Mr. Robertson blamed various factors for the lack of progress. He cited an "affordability crunch" in Vancouver housing, a shortage of rental housing, limited vacancy – and the reality that homelessness is a problem in cities across Canada. He also blamed the federal and provincial governments, expressing hope that voters will pressure them for more money on the issue in both this year's federal election and the 2017 provincial election.
"Today, we've heard some positive news on a 10-per-cent drop in street homelessness from the last count in March, but the overall level of homelessness remains about the same as in recent years, which is unfortunate given all the investment and housing that has been opened up for people who are vulnerable," Mr. Robertson said.
The office of Housing Minister Rich Coleman issued a statement that said the province has invested more than $500-million in housing for the homeless over the past five years, building about 2,500 new supportive housing units in Vancouver.
"Our provincial housing strategy is the most progressive in Canada and, of all the communities in B.C., none has come close to receiving the same level of support as Vancouver," the statement said.
According to the briefing to council, there have been 615 net new housing units built in Vancouver since last March.
But the presentation also cited such homelessness "drivers" as poverty and severe and untreated addictions and mental-health issues – 58 per cent of respondents to the count were dealing with addiction and substance abuse, while 42 per cent were dealing with mental illness.
The briefing also noted B.C. Housing's waiting list for social housing is 4,000 in Vancouver. In addition, the single-room occupancy hotel dwellings in Vancouver – often seen as the housing of last resort – "are very old and in poor repair." The briefing raised the idea of a bylaw amendment that would require a plan for relocating tenants as a condition of a permit for repairing such units.
Asked if he would be able to meet his homelessness goal by the end of this term – his third – in 2018, Mr. Robertson said, "I will not let up. We will keep pushing with every tool that we have, with all the resources that the city has."
Councillor George Affleck, a member of the opposition Non-Partisan Association party, pointed to Mr. Robertson's failed pledge.
"The count came in at the average that we've seen over the last 10 years," Mr. Affleck told reporters. "The mayor made a commitment, a promise in 2008 to end homelessness. Clearly, he's failed at that promise." He said the consistent numbers on homelessness underlie the failings of the mayor's Vision Vancouver party on the file. "It's very disappointing."
Although Mr. Robertson said Vancouver's appealing conditions are drawing people from across Canada who end up homeless, the count identified just 49 people – or less than 5 per cent of the total – who were from outside Vancouver. Of those, 12 were from Ontario, while 21 were from other cities in the Vancouver region or elsewhere in British Columbia.
"It's a complicated problem to solve," Mr. Robertson said in response.