Roxanne* spent most of her 30-year work life as a secretary in Vancouver, where she grew up and raised her son.
Her shiny black jacket and glossy silver hair offer no indication that her health is deteriorating and that she’s been out of a steady job for over five years. She managed to support herself before then despite having bipolar disorder — a diagnosis she received at 19.
But at 56, Roxanne is in a situation she never expected to be in. She’s homeless.
Roxanne has stayed in different shelters since moving out of her Surrey apartment, where she left all her belongings, in 2011. She has been in central Vancouver at Yukon Transitional Housing Centre, one of four Lookout Emergency Aid Society shelters, since Feb. 19.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said. Roxanne wants to get out of the shelter system and into an affordable home.
She’s not alone.
Long waiting lists
The number of homeless seniors over 55 in the Lower Mainland is creeping upward — it has doubled to 264 from 121 over the last eight years in Vancouver alone— as low-income seniors find it increasingly difficult to get apartments they can afford.
Waiting lists for seniors’ social housing are miles long as the rents in private buildings have gone up faster than their incomes — and it’s putting stress on local government, shelters, and non-profits.
“There’s this alarming trend of increasing numbers of people becoming homeless for the first time in their older years,” said James Pratt, project facilitator for the Seniors Homeless Project with the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy.
Karen O’Shannacery, executive director of Lookout, noted poverty as the number one reason for homelessness — something that rings true for Roxanne because of her poor health and unemployment.
“It’s my employment that’s changed that has screwed me,” she said. “Because I was always making good money and rent wasn’t a problem.”
She’s been struggling to find stable work for the last five to seven years. Last year, after she developed a serious lung condition, it became even more difficult to search for work.
Roxanne doesn’t receive any financial support from her friends or family and relies on the government for income.
“The only family I have is a son,” she said. “And he’s doing his darnedest to make it through his time right now.”
Not enough for the basics
Roxanne receives a monthly cheque under the province’s Persons With Disability designation because of her bipolar disorder. She’s been allocated $375 for housing and $531 for basic living expenses since 2011 when she applied for assistance.
In the next couple of months, she’ll be moving from disability payments onto the Canada Pension Plan — where the average benefit for seniors with disabilities in 2013 was $841.95. But she said it’s not enough to cover rent and basic expenses like food.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have enough to eat and everything,” she said. “It will be interesting — scary.”
Roxanne isn’t eligible for many government subsidies, like Shelter Aid for Elderly Residents, which only applies to seniors over 60.
Senior status varies depending on the individual’s circumstance. Some communities in the Downtown Eastside define seniors as anyone above 45. But for subsidized-housing applications, the B.C. government defines seniors as being 55 or older.
The province’s qualifications don’t take into account the realities of aging for the homeless population.
“It varies with each individual, of course,” Pratt explained. “But the fact is you age a lot quicker when you are living homeless.” This is due to factors like stress, poor nutrition and lack of sleep.
Over the last six years, Lookout has noted a steady increase of people age 45 to 64 in all their shelters. At Yukon, the percentage of seniors grew to 42 per cent in 2014 from 31 per cent in 2009-10. But the shelter doesn’t have the resources to support this influx.
[toggle title=”Percentage aged between 45 and 64 at the Yukon centre since 2009″]
“We’re limited in our ability here in who we can accept in the shelter in that after a point, somebody might be beyond our level of care,” said Anya Colussi, a manager’s assistant at Yukon. “Our staff aren’t able to lift people or help people bathe. So that can be a barrier to people staying here.”
Yukon aims to transition clients within three to four weeks by helping them find another shelter or directing them to listings. But people like Roxanne often can’t find housing that quickly, so they end up staying longer.
“There’s not enough housing and there’s not enough appropriate housing,” Colussi said.
A regional problem
BC Housing has also acknowledged the need for more senior housing.
“Some of the senior demographic will also have income issues, which will increase demand for social housing,” their 2012-13 annual report noted. Since 2009, the provincial and federal governments have spent $123 million to build 1,300 new housing units across the province for seniors and people with disabilities as part of an initiative to create more affordable seniors’ rental housing. The Linden Tree Place, the last housing development in Vancouver specifically designed for low-income seniors, opened in 2013.
The City of Vancouver has committed to helping the the province create more affordable housing with its 2012-2021 Housing and Homeless Strategy. The strategy includes the city’s agreement to provide land for 1,500 new supportive housing units on 14 sites. The first four provincially-funded developments opened in 2011. Nine are now complete.
O’Shannacery commends the mayor and city council for its efforts to help the province eradicate homelessness, but said it’s still not enough.
“It’s not just a municipal problem. It’s a regional problem,” she said. “We need a plan that’s strategic in a coordinated, cooperative way.”
O’Shannacery and her team are finding creative ways to accommodate people like reaching out to private landlords instead of placing people in other shelters. They’re also continually encouraging the government to increase the welfare rate.
“There are many solutions,” Pratt said. “But of course the high road is creating more affordable housing and supportive housing.”
Roxanne called BC Housing over a month ago in hopes of finding a home within her budget, but hasn’t heard back. She knows the waiting list is long, so she also submitted an intent to rent form through the welfare system.
But Roxanne is worried she won’t leave the shelter system anytime soon.
“Where do I see myself going? I really don’t know,” she said. “Because the seniors’ housing right now is just really not there.”
(*Name changed for the sake of anonymity)