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Pandora Avenue in Victoria, B.C., in March, 2020.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

B.C.’s seniors are in a housing crisis, with a growing segment of people over the age of 55 sliding into homelessness for the first time in their lives.

Seniors are too often overlooked in discussions over housing, says Jenny Konkin, who is president and co-founder of the Whole Way House Society, and whose family-owned and operated The Avalon single-room occupancy hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Seniors are a generation that doesn’t like to complain, she says, so they are quietly enduring their growing crisis for housing and support.

“We’re seeing them slip through the cracks in the system and they’re becoming homeless. And there’s no current funding for a solution,” says Ms. Konkin, whose Whole Way House program to provide supportive at-home services has become a model of prevention. Instead of waiting for a senior to be evicted, for example, Whole Way House workers help with issues such as keeping up on bill payments and rent, avoiding hoarding issues, taking them to doctor appointments, and helping them transition out of shelters, or into appropriate housing when they come out of hospital.

“You know, seniors aren’t out there with picket signs or yelling at anybody,” says Ms. Konkin. “They’re very quiet … and they’re from a generation that doesn’t want to be a burden, that doesn’t often ask for help. And so, we’re trying to advocate on their behalf to say, ‘This isn’t okay. This is not appropriate.’ As a country, I feel embarrassed that we’re allowing seniors to become homeless. It’s a very scary state to see, when you’re watching it.”

In the Vancouver region, 22 per cent of homeless people are seniors, according to 2023 homeless count numbers conducted every three years by the Homelessness Services Association of B.C. Many of them are new to homelessness, and an untold number are not being counted, such as those seniors who live in their cars, or stay with friends and family, says Ms. Konkin. But despite the growing crisis, Ms. Konkin says the funding is just not there. Her organization was recently turned down for a federal grant from the Reaching Home fund, part of the National Housing Strategy, to help reduce homelessness.

As a result, her group needs to raise $180,000 in the next two months to continue helping more than 100 low-income seniors at the Pendrellis building for seniors in the West End and the Shiloh Place in Chinatown.

“This was a big shock,” she says of the setback. But there are more applicants than funding, including BC Housing programs such as the Community Housing Fund. A major developer who wanted to remain anonymous and another donor had contributed $3-million in private funding in partnership with Providence Living, to provide seniors housing at a site the developer owns. However, their project didn’t get accepted. They are hopeful it will get accepted in the future.

“It’s very upsetting, seeing how they are slipping into homelessness later in age, and government isn’t stepping up,” said Donald Mackenzie, who does philanthropic work in the Downtown Eastside.

BC Housing responded in an e-mail that, last September, a 58-unit housing co-op for seniors opened in Vancouver, using the Community Housing Fund. It was among four other seniors’ projects throughout the province. The province has also beefed up home care by 13 per cent in the last few years, trying to keep seniors in their homes.

Often, seniors are represented in mainstream media as wealthy NIMBYs who are living in large houses. But according to a United Way report released last year, one in four B.C. seniors are barely making ends meet, with after-tax incomes of $21,800.

That seniors that are over-housed and enjoying equity gains is a very incomplete picture, says Virginia Holden, executive director of Greater Victoria Housing Society (GVHS), a non-profit developer of low-income housing. In recent years, Victoria has seen a growing homelessness problem with tent encampments in city parks and on streets. As the population ages, government needs to increase funding for seniors’ housing, she says. The province’s recent $110-a-month increase to rental subsidies for seniors was a welcome start, available for seniors with incomes up to $37,240. Qualifying seniors will also get a one-time top-up of $430.

But that is a small increase in the face of growing rents. In the West End neighbourhood alone, the median rent was $1,750 as of last fall, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The pandemic and the housing crisis have made the seniors’ situation worse, says Ms. Holden. They are living in independent housing longer than they were meant to because there isn’t the next level of suitable housing available to them. Ms. Holden is one of several CEOs from the non-profit sector who are working together to advocate for more government funding to help seniors maintain their homes with programs such as Whole Way House.

“We are in the housing business, not the un-housing business. But our systems are not set up to do the type of care and support lots of these seniors need to age in place with dignity. So, this group of CEOs is trying to get the attention of government to say, ‘Hey, I’m not sure if you are aware, but this group of seniors, even with roofs over their heads, they are still at immense risk,’” Ms. Holden says.

“The population is getting older, and people don’t have the family connections they used to. And it’s harder to get into the next stage of housing because there’s more demand for it, and less available.”

Victoria developer Ryan Jabs had wanted to bring the Whole Way House model to Victoria, so he contacted Ms. Holden at GVHS and offered temporary funding to bring the program to the 100-unit, low-income Campbell Lodge building for seniors, providing meals and other social supports to get people out of their rooms. Now that he’s got the program up and running, he’s hoping the province will eventually step in with continued funding. In the postwar years, governments stepped up with massive funding and partnerships with developers, so they could do it again, he says, albeit with heftier costs.

“I am surprised at how far we’ve let the housing crisis get … that we’ve allowed it to get so bad that we are dealing with the ramifications of a significant crisis,” said Mr. Jabs. “I do think government needs to come in to fund it more … but the solution is from all avenues, public and private.”

He likes to build small developments that create community because living in isolation, particularly in large developments, is a key part of the problem.

“As seniors get older, if care needs aren’t met, or if they are in isolation, they are more vulnerable because they might miss rent payments … so it’s important to have somebody there regularly.”

And although it’s a new program, Ms. Holden is already seeing the payoff at Campbell Lodge.

“This was my Christmas gift, because I’ve been blown away by the impact on that building,” she says.

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