Frequently Asked Questions

How many people are homeless in Metro Vancouver?

On March 11, 2008 there where at least 2,660 people considered homeless. (Metro Vancouver Homelessness Count)   1,576 people were in the City of Vancouver (up from 628 people in 2002).

This does not include 402 people who were “perceived” to be homeless but not included in the total count because they either refused to be interviewed for the purposes of the enumeration, or were asleep and couldn’t be woken up.

In total then there are AT LEAST 3,062 people homeless in Metro Vancouver.

Since counts began in 2002 there has been a shocking 137% increase in overall homelessness and a 373% increase in the number of people sleeping outside.

Thousands more couch surf or live with friends or family and many families and singles are but one pay cheque away from loosing becoming homeless.

Why has there been an increase in homelessness?

When governments in the last decades balanced budgets they stopped building non-market housing.  Recent efforts to “catch-up” and build new housing are insufficient for the demand and will not be completed for years.  In Metro Vancouver no municipal, provincial or federal government has stepped forward with a specific plan to end homelessness with targeted goals of building units tied to the need.  Homelessness will continue to increase until there is a plan tied directly to the need and diligent work to implement the plan with the goal of ending homelessness in a specific timeframe.    

Why are people homeless?

People are homeless because they have no home.

Many are unable to work because of mental illness, addiction, lack of employment skills, lack of social supports and/or social or cognitive impairments. 
Even people with income, from working or government subsidies, cannot find affordable housing in Vancouver as they do not earn enough or do not have enough social assistance income to get housing.

Others lack the social skills and daily living skills to live in suitable accommodation and have been evicted from private, government or non-profit housing.
Broader social factors include greater barriers for Federal Employment Insurance and Provincial Social Assistance. In the employment market there has been a decrease in higher-paying lower-skilled manufacturing opportunities and an increase in low-paying service jobs.

Even two-income families cannot afford to purchase housing in Vancouver and the availability of rental housing has increased in price and not kept up with demand. Tens of thousands of individuals in Vancouver are at risk of homelessness and are literally one pay cheque away from losing their housing.

Don’t people choose to be homeless?

Do people choose cancer?  Decades ago people thought that you got cancer because you were a bad person.  And it may be that you get cancer because you smoke cigarettes.  You could also get cancer if you worked in a high risk area that exposed you to asbestos.  Or you could get cancer because your have a genetic disposition to it.

For homelessness the same three factors can be applicable: choices and behaviour, environment and/or genetic predisposition (such as schizophrenia).

In any case, if you have cancer you need medical treatment.  If you are homeless, you need a home.

And just as it is the law in Canada and our societal values that you get medical treatment for cancer there should be homes for the homeless.

Why don’t homeless people just get a job?

The next time you walk or drive past someone who is homeless, ask yourself, would you hire them?  And if they showed up at work with delusions or paranoia from schizophrenia would you keep them on the payroll?  What about if they did not show up for work because they were clinically depressed?  What if they showed up at work drunk or high?  What if they showed up at work with bruises from being beaten by a spouse or a parent?

Most people who are homeless cannot either get work or keep a job.  Even for an interview few homeless people have appropriate clothes, a place to shower, shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste and of course they may need to de-lice and get rid of bed-bugs.

Once provided housing many people with support can begin to get treatment and/or develop the life-skills necessary to volunteer, work part-time or full-time.  Few people go from sleeping in an alley or a shelter to finding a job.

If you think that a homeless person should work right away, hire them.  They can perhaps clean your house, baby-sit your kids and stay at your house until you have paid them enough until they have a month’s rent and the damage deposit, money for furniture and money for clothes.

Like most people you probably realize that you are not going to hire a stranger who has been homeless, has no address, no skills and life challenges that you do not have the capacity to deal with.

Why don’t homeless people with addiction issues just stop using?

People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco face very powerful physical, social, and psychological challenges whether they are homeless or not. Everyone knows the challenges people have quitting smoking even though smokers are aware of the dangers of cancer, emphysema, having a heart attack or stroke and enormous social pressures to quit.  For people with an untreated mental illness drugs and alcohol addiction is often a form of “self-medication”. Using drugs and alcohol can seem to get rid of symptoms of depression, hearing voices, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, delusions or mania. The reality is that people need treatment and support to stop using drugs and alcohol and often these services cannot be accessed by someone who is homeless. With housing and support a person is more likely to engage in treatment and seek help.

Forget about all these things; can you eat just one potato chip?  What do you think is more powerful – a potato chip or heroin?

How many people who are homeless have a mental illness?

The most common estimate is that 30 to 50% of people who are homeless have a mental illness. If you include addiction with mental illness the figure rises to 80%. Others estimate that the number of people with a mental illness and homeless is much higher as when single day counts of the homeless population are conducted a person may not appear to be mentally ill.

Others indicate that a person may not have a mental illness before they become homeless but are bound to become depressed once they have slept in shelters or in an alley.

What is mental illness?

It is thoughts, emotions, or behaviour that impair a person’s ability to think, feel or act and can result in social isolation, job loss, suicide, loss of family and friends and homelessness. Mental illness is not a developmental disability - it does not limit intelligence. Each mental illness affects the brain in different ways and is clearly identified as a medical illness. It is a real disease like cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Many people still believe that people only get mentally ill because they are weak or bad. They are wrong – if you have a mental illness you are sick.

The most common mental illnesses are schizophrenia, major clinical depression, bipolar (manic-depressive), anxiety disorders and personality disorders. All of these illnesses and others can be treated with up to 80% realizing some sort of recovery and function. Unfortunately, some 75% of people with a mental illness never seek help because of a lack of knowledge, prejudice about mental illness or shame.

Isn’t homelessness just a Downtown Eastside problem?

No. Almost every neighbourhood in Vancouver experiences homelessness. While many services are concentrated in the Downtown Eastside homelessness counts have identified many people sleeping in parks in the West End, along retail corridors like Mt. Pleasant, Commercial Drive, South Granville or Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue as well as places Pacific Spirit Park or Queen Elizabeth’s garden. And Vancouver is not alone in having a homelessness crisis as mentioned earlier there are over 3,000 people who are homeless in the Lower Mainland.

What is supported housing?

Supported housing is the solution to homelessness. People are given decent housing and provided with a support worker or team of people to assist people achieve self-identified goals.  People placed in housing with supports cost the tax payer $37,000 in direct costs; while homeless a person costs the tax payer $55,000.

What is housing first?

Housing first is an approach to house people who are difficult to house.  It is called low-barrier housing as it does not require people to pre-qualify or agree to treatment or adopt a particular philosophy.  It is counter-intuitive to the “earn your way to housing” philosophy but housing first works for people who have many health, social and personal issues to work out before they can assemble a decent quality of life.

What about shelters, food-banks and soup kitchens?

A person who is homeless needs a home.  Shelters are not places for people to assemble a decent quality of life.  Shelters are usually mats on a floor or bunks in a ward or very small rooms in a congregate setting.  They are more expensive then providing housing.  If you are in a shelter you are still homeless.  You cannot stay for more than 30 days in most cases and they are a band aid.  People are not shelter-less – they are HOMEless.

Many people are turn away from shelters because of behaviours resulting from addiction or mental illness.  Others do not want to go as they do not have the ability to be around people and prefer to stay outside even in the worst of weather conditions.

What can I do to help?

Write, call, fax your municipal, provincial and federal representatives and let them know that you want to see supported housing units built for people that are homeless. Sign up tonight for the End Homelessness Now action group and you will be kept apprised of volunteer opportunities and other actions that you can take. Educate yourself about the issue and involve your friends, families, co-workers, your faith community, your online friends or in any other group.

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