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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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  • Max

    “Everyone will play homelessness politics, that’s the nature of the game” – Kerry Jang , CBC interview with Quinn.

  • This is an interesting take on things, Frances, but I’ll stick to focusing on the actual numbers. In 2008 there were 1,580 homeless in Vancouver when Gregor said it was a crisis. Today, by Metro’s count, there are 1605 people homeless.

    Have some good things been done? Yes. Sam Sullivan’s Street To Home Foundation is a major player in helping people connect to services and housing. The previous council set aside land and seed financing for the fourteen social housing buildings you mentioned above, and secured financing from the province to create in total 2,000 units of social and supportive housing.

    By contrast, Mayor Robertson focused nearly all of his energy and provincial and city resources on temporary shelters. Most housing experts will tell you that shelters merely hide the problem, and divert resources away from housing.

    Has this proven true? Under Mayor Robertson’s council, the city has managed to initiate 100 new units of social/supportive housing, as mentioned in your article, and have added some units of social housing to the new library to be built in Strathcona. But he also cut in half the social housing at the Olympic Village, so the net number is well under 100 units of new housing initiated under this council.

    By any measure, the previous council accomplished more of lasting value in this battle.

    I well understand the desire of those who wish to tell a “Good News!” story, but the last Mayor was judged by Mr. Robertson a failure because of the number of homeless – not the percentage increase compared to the population, not the number of people in shelters, but the actual number of homeless.

    It’s more than fair to judge Robertson by the same numbers he used to condemn his predecessor, then. Especially when he claimed repeatedly he was going to end homelessness in 7 years, three of which have already passed.

  • Julian Christians

    @ Sean Bickerton
    I agree that we have to evaluate how this council has performed on homelessness, so that we can make informed decisions about who to vote for. However, when comparing this council with the previous one, and projecting what an NPA-majority council under Mayor Anton might be like, let’s try to be objective.

    Criticizing the cut in social housing at the Olympic Village seems a bit disingenuous – would you have supported retaining all of that social housing? What was Suzanne Anton’s position? Vision has been repeatedly criticized for keeping any social housing at the OV.

    Does the 2000 units created by the previous council include the original allocation of social housing at the Olympic Village?

    Are the 2000 units all new housing, i.e., in addition to what was present at the beginning of the previous council’s term? My impression is that many of these units were to replace existing low-cost housing (e.g., aging SROs, maybe Little Mountain as well?). Monte Paulsen at The Tyee has done some excellent accounting of the creation of social housing during the last administration:

    http://thetyee.ca/News/2008/10/31/HousingNumbers/

    I’m not saying that Vision hasn’t come up short, but I’m not sure the “2000 vs. less than 100” comparison is comparing apples with apples.

  • It would be interesting to get to the bottom of the ending “street homelessness” versus “homelessness” debate. What did Gregor really promise to end by 2015?

    Going through the archives, before the 2008 election I see Gregor/Vision references to both. So Gregor may have very well meant that he would end “street homelessness” by 2015, but it seems he was purposely vague on the subject and let people believe he meant homelessness in general (sometimes omitting the word street when talking about the subject).

    So when you go around saying you’re going to end homelessness, people naturally assume you mean you’re going to end homelessness (not just getting people into shelters). So whatever his initial intentions, his legacy will be tied to the overall homeless numbers.

    That said, I agree with Frances, the fact that the overall numbers stayed the same is a major accomplishment. For a lot of different reasons, homeless numbers across North America, and many parts of the world, continue to increase every year – so a levelling off is a big deal and hopefully signals that the tide is beginning to turn.

    (Oregon just released numbers that showed homelessness had increased by 29% since 2009:

    http://streetroots.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/homelessness-increases-dramatically-throughout-state-of-oregon/)

    But we need to remember that this levelling off is a credit to the tireless and relentless work of so many housing advocates who fought both the provincial and municipal government and embarrassed them into action. None of this would have done without them.

    However, clearly a lot more has to be done to actually begin to bring the numbers down.

    1. The HEAT shelters need to be reopened. Closing them is a tremendous mistake.

    2. We have to find a way to bring the federal government to the table. And while this now looks more difficult than ever, this can’t happen without them.

    3. Keep building more social housing. We know how tragic it is for the individuals, for their families, and for our communities to keep people homeless. We know it’s more expensive to keep people homeless, then to build the housing and house them. So build the damn housing.

    4. Gregor/Vision need to step it up. We need a Monte Paulsen to go through the numbers, but it’s beginning to look like Sullivan/NPA will have done more in their term on this issue than them. That was a big promise Gregor made (whatever he meant by it), and that requires big action.

    Lastly, it’s unfortunate that we just jump all over whoever the mayor is at the time when these numbers get released. Homelessness can’t just be viewed in the municipal political bubble – we have to start assigning equal blame and responsibility to all levels of government.

  • Also:

    It’s not a very smart idea for the NPA to go around criticizing Vision for cutting the Olympic Village social housing.

    As disappointing as Vision’s decision was, people still remember the massive housing cuts the Sullivan council did to the Village just a few years earlier.

  • Max

    @ Megaphone #5

    The CBC interview with Jang by Quinn last week more or less cleared up Vision’s homeless vs. street homeless.

    Jang fessed up they changed their strategy after the fact.

  • A few quick observations.

    The Mayor did not cut the number of social housing units at Olympic Village in half. He sort of implied that at a press conference, saying he did it in the interest of fiscal realities and because the project had been mismanaged by the previous administration; but in fact it was always planned that only 126 of the 252 units would be rent-geared-to-income social housing. The other 126 were always intended to be rented at market rents, or just below market rents.

    While I don’t like to be negative, especially on Frances’ blog, I must point out that over 100 of these 126 rental units are still vacant and costing us in the order of $200,000 a month. Housing experts, brought in by the city in November 2009 warned staff that this would happen, given the building and suite designs, features and pricing of these rental units.

    As I have said repeatedly, once it was realized how much these units were over budget and how much the city was going to lose on the OV…these units should have been sold…. to offset the city’s overall losses on the project. In fact, I am told that the Mayor supported the sale of these units in order to have more money to address homelessness, but he was convinced otherwise by those around him.

    Now as to Megaphone’s suggestions…while I agree there is a place for shelters, they are very expensive to operate, given the standard of accommodation offered. In my opinion, they are not value for money and should only be a last resort.

    There is a need for new housing, but it too is very expensive and takes a long time to put in place.

    However, there are other options…for instance, house people in existing apartments with support services which is how Toronto’s Street to Home program operates. This is more cost effective, and timely than building new projects. Why haven’t we done it in Vancouver? Coast Foundation has done this…why hasn’t the city?

    Also, Kerry Jang has repeatedly spoken about the potential to use modular housing as a quick and cost effective solution, both for the homeless and also for affordable housing for a broader population. However, despite repeated promises of a proposal call, nothing has happened. Why?

    Finally Megaphone. Having witnessed all the problems related to the Olympic Village and the social housing…no one wanted to operate it; it was very, very expensive; it has taken a long time to lease up; and the city is losing in excess of $200 million on the project….how can you possibly criticize Sullivan for cutting back on the number of social housing units?

  • @Michael Geller

    New Fountain at $2,250 a bed per month is still cheaper than street homeless ($55,000 a person per year – according to province).

    And I think its positives far outweigh the costs. The fact that it’s a low-barrier shelter means it reaches a different clientele that will not go to regular shelters (there’s also the matter of how much shelter space is now available with these closures).

    Yes, I realize the ultimate OV costs made the whole project a mess. My point is that the NPA (and Vision for that matter) can’t have it both ways – they both criticize each other for bundling the project and for cutting social housing.

  • Max

    @Megaphone:

    The problem is, the shelters are only open 5 – 6 months of the year.

    Currently, 1 out of 5 are still operating, which means all those people counted as ‘housed’ in a form, are back out on the streets.

    And they are low barrier, which means people come and go as they please and in whatever state they choose – drugged, or not.

    Say on an average, a shelter houses 30 persons, that is $67,500/month/shelter or $337,500 + per month total. (Some shelters operate at a higher number of persons)

    For those dollars, there has to be a better, long term option.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    This is the Log in the Eye of Vancouverism—Homelessness.

    In a recent CBC interview an official cited the cost of federal incarceration as $80,000 per person per year; provincial lock-up as $70,000 per year; and housing with supports at $45,000 per year.

    It will cost our society a great deal to house every homeless person, yet it is costing even more not to do it. Never mind the senseless human suffering inflicted.

    A zero-sum game is a VERY good sign.

    Everything else is spiralling out of control as the economy slows and government revenues shrink (the HST problem). However, holding the line on homelessness may be the best news we can hope for ahead of dealing with the problem outright.

    Zero sum is the first step. No more homelessness is the step after that.

    This is “success” Frances. The next step is “reality”. We can do better than now without spending more than we are already.

  • Two days ago after an end of day swim at 2nd beach pool during pouring rain, I had noticed a young homeless fellow and his dog making camp for the night under the concession stand overhang.

    Occasionally also now seeing homeless making camp around the Davie Safeway parking entrance.

    Yes indeed, the shelters are closed now. Also find I’m being asked by more, and am handing out, spare change more frequently.

  • From Megaphone….New Fountain at $2,250 a bed per month is still cheaper than street homeless ($55,000 a person per year – according to province).

    Firstly, the $55,000 a person a year number, which is often repeated, was generated by an SFU researcher, not the Province. I have been through the study and would urge others who care about the matter to do the same. While I agree that many homeless individuals can be very costly to the health care and judicial system, I do not accept that number. Nor should you.

    But more importantly, you should be comparing the $2,250 to the cost of putting that person into a $900 a month apartment, and providing support services on an as required basis. This is the approach Toronto and other jurisdictions have taken, with considerable success. No, it doesn’t work for everyone…but it does for many…in the case of Toronto over 2200 people over the past 5 to 6 years….and they get permanent housing.

    How can you possibly support putting people in shelters that are likely to close down, rather than into their own apartments at a similar, or even lower cost in some instances?

  • @Michael Geller

    Of course a room is better than a shelter (for costs and standard of living). But if the rooms aren’t there, there’s not much of an argument, is there?

    And, as you say, it takes a while to build social housing, so let’s keep these shelters open until the rooms are available. Because the shelters are better (and cheaper) than keeping people out on the streets.

    My apologies for the mistake on the source of the cost of homeless report. Thanks for correcting. But what problems do you have with it? And if anything, that figure could be on the low end. According to this report done on the cost of homelessness in Calgary, the average homeless person costs $94,202 a year:

    http://www.calgaryhomeless.com/users/folderdata/%7B0AB0E6A0-E12C-46D9-9518-E09324EAD190%7D/Report_on_Cost_of_Homelessness-v1-_RSMRichter_2007.pdf

    And what problems do you have

  • Megaphone…the ‘rooms’ are there! Every month, hundreds of apartments are available for rent in Vancouver. What I am suggesting is that some of these apartments be used to accommodate people who might otherwise be put in shelters. This is how the Toronto Street to Home program operates. You might want to check it out.

    As for the costs of the homeless, I think we need much more independent research on the matter. We cannot rely on one Vancouver study, loaded with asssumptions. I’ll leave it at that for now.

  • Jeff Brooks

    How do you evaluate a 29% increase in Youth Homelessness.
    The numbers are: 349 youth were counted as homeless. This is a 29% increase since 2008. Of these, 54% of youth were found to be unsheltered compared to 28% of the total homeless population. Many are aboriginal youth. What is the plan to address this specific population?

  • Frances Bula

    @Jeff. That is startling. I hadn’t noticed that. I’ll be checking to see if anyone comes up with a specific strategy for that.