As many as 20 people currently living on the streets of Vancouver’s west side will be moving indoors at the beginning of December. For many of them, the apartments at 17th and Dunbar will be the first home they’ve had in decades.
Homelessness and housing are among the leading topics in this year’s municipal elections, but none of the parties have made the city’s aging homeless population a priority on their housing agendas.
Advocates for homeless seniors warn that the new complex and the nearly 1,600 other supportive units to be built in the city over the next two years won’t be nearly enough to meet demand.
Numbers of homeless seniors spiking
A preliminary count of homeless in 2011 in all of metro Vancouver was virtually unchanged from 2008, at 2,623 vs. 2,660, respectively.
But the overall proportion of seniors (55+) increased to 14 per cent from 9 per cent, according to preliminary findings released by the Homelessness Secretariat.
Alice Sundberg is co-chair of the 40-member regional steering committee that allocates federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) dollars in metro Vancouver. She said that based on this spike, seniors housing has been noted as a priority to receive federal capital money through HPS as recommended in the committee’s 2011-14 community plan.
And as outlined in its Vancouver Housing & Homelessness Strategy 2012-21, 1,600 supportive housing units will be built by way of a city-province partnership by 2013, and an additional 1,300 by the end of 2021.
When it comes to the city’s aging homeless population, they can’t be built soon enough. That’s especially evident on Vancouver’s west side.
West side story
Until now, Mayor Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign promise to end homelessness by 2015 has left the men and women living on the streets and in the parks of the west side mostly untouched.
According to Judy Graves, who heads the city’s tenant assistance program and has been one of the most outspoken advocates for the city’s homeless for 35 years, the west side’s homeless population is the oldest, most dispersed and chronically unhoused, most of them for decades.
The mayor’s shelter-first and house-later approach has achieved an 82 per cent reduction in street homelessness in Vancouver.
But Graves said that as shelters and single room occupancy hotels (SROs) opened up beds in other parts of the city, most of the homeless in Kitsilano, Point Grey, Dunbar and Kerrisdale refused to move. Instead they opted to stay outside in parks and doorways rather than leave the communities where they’ve lived for years.
The solution that’s finally getting them inside: housing that’s local, and supported by mental health and addiction workers as well as by community and faith-based groups.
Dunbar Apartments is the first supportive housing site on the west side; a 62-unit site will open at West 7th and Fir in mid-2012.
The complexes are designed as low-income, low-barrier housing for those with disabilities, mental health and/or addiction issues.
In the west side and elsewhere, those that work with homeless seniors are straining under the weight of the population’s demand.
Kara-Leigh Jameson describes the waitlist for seniors as “atrocious.”
She sits on the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness (RSCH) and is the executive director of Seniors Services Society (SSS), the only agency in the Lower Mainland that specifically serves aging homeless people.
In 2008, there were 818 seniors on the list, according to B.C. Housing. As of November 2011, there were 1,162, a 42 per cent increase. Such numbers are too much for SSS. The agency recently announced that it could no longer accept new referrals.
Jameson said the bubble of aging boomers that threatens to overwhelm the medical system within a decade is hitting the homeless and marginally housed population now.
Many of these people have been dealing with hunger, cold, addictions, mental illness and violence for decades, she explained, so while they may only be in their late 40s or 50s, she says, they require the most complicated kind of support there is. Studies show the average life expectancy to be at least 10 years less than in the general population of Canada.
“The supportive housing that’s being built is not being built quick enough for what we’re going to need in the next 10 years.”