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Why a mere 1 per cent decrease in homelessness is an accomplishment

May 25th, 2011 · 16 Comments

Since the basic numbers of the homeless count came out yesterday, homelessness workers have been ecstatic about the progress made in the last three years. But various critics and observers have focused on the fact that the homeless numbers are almost the same as three years ago. Their conclusion: No progress.

Some of this is pure (and tiresome) politics, of course. Vision and the NPA are battling it out over whether Vision’s efforts have been successful or a sham. (I’ll let you figure out who is saying which.) Apparently no comment on whether Dianne Watts and Rich Coleman are also pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

But some of it is people who are genuinely worried about future efforts at combatting homelessness. Like my Sun buddy Jeff Lee, they look at the enormous effort the province and various municipalities made over the past three years — millions of dollars, hundreds of units — and think, “If all this results in no reduction in homelessness, it must be a failure.”

That kind of conclusion worries me, has worried me all along, because it’s clear to me people often have this unrealistic idea about who homeless people are and what the dynamics are. I fear that too many people think there’s some finite group of 1,500 or 2,000 or 838 homeless people and, if they can just all be put into apartments, the problem will be solved and no one will ever have to worry about it again. So they’re bound to be disappointed when homeless people keep on appearing, after the 1,500 or 2,000 or 838 apartments have been filled.

The reality, of course, is that people move constantly in and out of homelessness. The foster-care system is practically a homelessness factory. As I said in a previous post, usually about four to six times as many people will be homeless in a given year as the number indicated from a point-in-time count.

As well, and here’s the basis for me saying there are signs of success, when the region grows, all other things being equal, so do the numbers of homeless people.

All kinds of people — about 40,000 a year — move here for all kinds of reasons. Some of them start out homeless, sleeping in shelters til they get some work. Others move out for work, lose their jobs, and end up homeless. Some were homeless where they came from and are homeless here and stay homeless.

But the reality is that the number of people likely to be homeless increases at the same rate as the rest of the population, unless some change in social policy makes the numbers swing up or down radically.

Between 2002 and 2005, the number of homeless people in Metro Vancouver went from 1,121 to 2,174. Is that because the size of the region doubled in three years? No. It’s because welfare policy changed, excluding many more people. Welfare rates didn’t go up, leaving those still getting welfare less able to compete in what was an increasing housing market. And the province stopped building social housing outright in 2001.

Between 2007 and 2010, the region grew from 2,199,124 people to 2,374,628 people. (My stats are from the BC Stats website, population estimates 2006-2010) That’s eight per cent. If homelessness had grown by the same amount — something that could reasonably have been expected if nothing changed — there would have been eight per cent more than the 2,660 homeless people enumerated in the 2008 count.

That’s 213 people. If homelessness grew by the same amount it did between 2005 and 2008 — 20 per cent — there would have been another 530 people. But there weren’t. Instead, there were 37 fewer people in shelters (mostly) and on the streets (much fewer than before) in 2011 than in 2008.

That’s a lot of people, considering that much of the new social housing that Rich Coleman got started three years ago is mostly not open yet. And remember, four to six times as many people are homeless in a year as in a given point-in-time count.

That means somewhere between 800 and 3,000 are out of the shelter system and off the streets. They got into one of the new shelters opened in Vancouver or Surrey or Langley. Someone at the shelter got them a line on a cheap apartment. They stayed iin that apartment, perhaps because they got some kind of help from a visiting nurse or social worker, if they needed it.

That’s a lot of lives affected. It might look like nothing much has happened, just from the count. But it doesn’t feel that way to people out there.

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