David Higgins has lived in Vancouver since 1968, but he travelled for work, whether it was in fishing, forestry, mining or construction. At one time, he made a lot of money and then lost it, and so he decided to keep life simple. His last job, at the age of 70, was doing odd labour gigs. But, as he puts it, he decided it was time to “hang up his boots.”
The problem was finding permanent housing. The landlord who owned his small West End apartment kept raising the rent, making retired life on a government pension unaffordable.
“I might have been paying $800 for a studio that was in the West End, and that was almost five years ago,” Mr. Higgins says. “It was going up all the time, and they also had tricks: ‘Oh well, our son in law is moving back in, so you have to get out.’ Or, ‘We are going to do renovations on the building.’”
Mr. Higgins, who will be 74 in January, moved into a homeless shelter, and he flitted between downtown shelters for three years. It was while living in a shelter that he developed a serious heart condition and his health deteriorated. In October of last year, a worker helped him find veterans housing, in the downtown eastside. He has his own kitchen and bathroom, cable TV, and importantly, a support network.
“If I had stayed much longer in that shelter, I would have died,” says Mr. Higgins, who turns 74 in January. “When you are in shelters, that is not housing.”
Mr. Higgins’s story is not unique. For Vancouver-area seniors, there is a housing crisis under way that is exacerbated by the fact that they are a demographic with limited options.
Seniors are the fastest growing homeless demographic, according to the city of Vancouver’s Homelessness & Supportive Housing Strategy, released on Oct. 7. For the past two years, they have represented about one-quarter of the homeless population.
“What the data is showing is that they are first-time homeless — they aren’t aging into homelessness,” says Jenny Konkin, president of Whole Way House Society. Ms. Konkin’s family owned the Avalon Hotel, a single-room occupancy building where she and her brother Josh worked as managers. The family sold the hotel, and the siblings started Whole Way House Society, a non-profit funded by BC Housing and run out of Veterans Memorial Manor in the downtown eastside, which offers housing to 133 men. Ms. Konkin said when she started working at Veterans Manor in 2017 she saw the crisis unfolding for the seniors' population. They need support before they become homeless, and they need their own emergency shelter.
“The fact that we are letting our seniors become homeless, to me just blows my mind,” says Ms. Konkin, who has a corporate background. “They worked the hard jobs to build up our country and I feel like we just left them to kind of rot. So many of our seniors are so alone. It’s heartbreaking.”
Mr. Higgins says he’s one of the lucky ones. He still gets some meals from one of the area’s charity groups, and he talks to people in line.
“I can see there are some women, they are nicely presented, they have maybe not elegant clothes, but they are dressed well. But they are standing waiting for that $2 meal and they don’t have a place. I know they’re in one of the women’s shelters.”
Ms. Konkin knows of seniors who have been evicted and are living in their cars. Some can’t afford the cost of living on a pension; others have been conned out of their savings; others are suffering from memory loss and can’t keep up. Many are too ashamed to ask for help.
Ms. Konkin’s charity, along with other non-profits and Landlord BC, are part of a federally funded seniors solutions lab, she says. It baffles her, however, that as the boomers age into old age, relatively little action has been taken until now.
“There is a very large group of seniors who are no longer able to afford living in this city especially, on their pensions. But that’s what confuses me. We knew this generation was coming up. … We’re just thinking about this now?”
Seniors in Metro Vancouver are more at risk of homelessness than elsewhere in Canada. As part of a recent report from the Canadian Housing Survey, Statistics Canada supplied data to The Globe and Mail that showed 23 per cent of seniors — or nearly one in four — in the Vancouver census metropolitan area are living in unaffordable housing. Unaffordable housing is defined as shelter costs that are equal to 30 per cent or more of total before-tax household income. The national average is 17.6 per cent of seniors live in unaffordable housing.
Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, said that the picture is even grimmer for seniors living alone, with 42 per cent living in unaffordable housing, according to the data.
“Metro Vancouver risks becoming no country for old people,” Mr. Yan said. “Not all seniors have the benefit of home ownership — many are facing a hungry winter when it comes to housing.”
David Hutniak, chief executive officer for Landlord BC, said in an e-mail that his group is aware of the growing numbers of seniors who can’t find affordable housing, and they support the creation of a dedicated Seniors Ministry to address the needs of a group of people that is “falling in between the cracks.”
The system is overloaded. Mr. Higgins said he’d applied for subsidized seniors' housing before he retired, when he was healthy, but he’d been told the waiting list was years' long.
Lorraine Lalonde, 66, was told something similar. She worked in a group home in Powell River, but she had to find a new home once the trailer park she lived in was sold. It took her two years to find a unit in non-profit housing in Burnaby, where she pays less than $400 a month. She too considers herself among the lucky, even though money is tight and she might have to do some part-time work, she says. Unlike others, she has a support network she could rely on, and she’s willing to ask for help. Not everyone is.
“Because I knew it was not going to be easy, I started the process as soon as I could — I was very worried,” she says.
“I knew that as soon as you retire, it was going to be a nightmare. I had to protect myself, right?”
When he found secure affordable housing with an elevator, a room of his own and a support network, his health turned around, Mr. Higgins says.
“I’ve really had a blessed life. I was prepared to die last year, when I got really sick, and a little voice told me, ‘we’re not ready to take you yet, so too bad, so sad. Just get up and put your boots back on.’”
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