Bernie Pauly is associate professor in the School of Nursing, University of Victoria and a scientist at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. Penny Gurstein is director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at University of British Columbia.
Across Canada, 235,000 people experiencing homelessness throughout the year and more than 35,000 people are homeless each night. Homelessness is a national disaster and has been called a public health emergency because of the impact that lack of housing has on health and well being. Despite millions of dollars spent addressing homelessness, why is it still growing? Could data from Vancouver's affordability crisis help other cities answer this question?
A new study, to be released Wednesday by Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver in partnership with the University of Victoria, points to the lack of access to safe and affordable housing as the prime structural cause of homelessness in Metro Vancouver. The report reveals plummeting vacancy rates (as low as 0.1 per cent for bachelor units below $750 in Vancouver), a sharp decline in low-end rental housing stock, and emergency shelter occupancy at 97 per cent or more. Rising rents, low vacancy rates, and lack of available social housing are pushing people into homelessness and preventing people from moving off the streets.
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The overall vacancy rate in Metro Vancouver dropped from 1.9 in 2010 to 0.8 in 2015. At the same time, rental costs have increased; the median cost of a bachelor suite is $920. If someone earning a minimum wage were able to secure a unit, he would be using more than 50 per cent of his income for rent. The situation is worse for those receiving social assistance. While rental costs have increased 16 per cent since 2010, basic social assistance rates have not changed in nine years: Individuals have an allocation of only $375 for rent.
Social housing is incredibly scarce with the number of applicants growing every year and more than 10,000 applicants on the registry in Metro Vancouver this year. The harsh reality is that when people can't afford market rental housing, and when there is no available social housing, more people will become homeless. It also means that service providers struggle to move people from high-demand shelter spaces or recovery program beds into homes, even when they are ready to exit homelessness and move on with their lives.
Housing alone is not enough to solve homelessness, but we can't ignore that the first step to addressing homelessness is a supply of housing that is safe, affordable and available to people with very low incomes. Homelessness is associated with trauma, criminalization, and displacement, and it's being propelled by the lack of funding for social housing. Throughout B.C., the lack of housing supply and the establishment of homeless camps (including "Super InTent City" in Victoria) highlight the problem of affordability and accessibility. The court system recognized that in the absence of housing, people should not be displaced from their homes.
In British Columbia, there has been a significant investment in rent supplements and rent subsidies as well as Housing Outreach programs. The question is not whether we are doing something, but whether we are doing enough. When we look at the numbers of people who are homeless across Canada, the answer is no.
There are several larger issues at play. First, governments need a clear plan to address homelessness and ensure that people who have directly experienced homelessness are involved not just as advisers but also as respected and valued participants.
With their involvement, in respectful and supportive ways, we will be able to understand the need for a diversity of social-housing models rather than a one size fits all. Second, the B.C. government should raise income-assistance rates immediately and ensure that people have enough money to live on; rent supplements should not be time limited. Third, we need a national housing strategy that addresses the range of housing unaffordability from home ownership to social housing for those who need supports.
This is not just a Vancouver problem; it is provincial and national problem that will continue without significant action and investment.