Lack of affordable housing driving Greater Victoria homeless increase

Shelter count up, chronic homeless numbers shrinking: Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness report

While a biennial homeless count found an increase in shelter users in Greater Victoria, the goal of reducing the number of chronically homeless in the region appears to be coming closer.

A report unveiled this week at the annual general meeting of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness held Tuesday in Langford stated many of the 1,167 individuals counted – including 116 children – on Feb. 5 of this year were only occasional users of the various temporary housing facilities.

Representatives from the various service providers and stakeholder groups that make up the coalition were told that roughly 15 per cent of the people who use the various forms of shelter for temporary accommodation take up about 55 per cent of the beds over the course of a year.

“The coalition started with the assumption of, ‘let’s look after the ones who are the greatest drain on the system, the greatest economic challenge, the most chronic,’ that’s what that 15 per cent number is,” said coalition executive director Andrew Wynn-Williams.

The total number of chronically homeless six years ago was in the neighbourhood of 1,200. Now there are around 300 in that category.

“That number has come down a lot,” Wynn-Williams said. “Now it’s time for us to expand our horizons and start acknowledging that affordability is also a critical driver of people on the street. They may not have addictions or mental health issues, they’re at risk because they can’t afford to live in our community.”

With the vacancy rate for units less than $700 in Greater Victoria is less than one per cent, and the sheer number of units falling into that category is also shrinking, some people are forced onto the street or to couch surf, he added.

The shelter allowance for people on social or disability assistance is $375, which when added to the cost of food and other expenses, can leave individuals or single-parent families in a financial hole at the end of the month, Wynn-Williams noted.

“Eighty-five per cent of shelter users are there due to an affordability issue, and with the increase in families in our facilities count, it shows that, just like the rest of Canada, we are in an affordable housing crunch.”

The figures used for the report are from 2012-13, a time frame in which less transitional or supportive housing units came on stream, he said, which may have contributed to the eight per cent overall increase in shelter users counted from the 2011 tally. With additional units being created this year, it should reduce the chronically homeless numbers, Wynn-Williams added.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, co-chair of the coalition’s leadership council, said while the area of housing families in shelters is still an area of concern – the February count found 70 families in temporary housing – he is optimistic about the long-range picture.

“The numbers are getting better and we’re seeing some good strong results, but we’re seeing some challenges out there. Poverty, mental health and addictions, all of those continue to drive the risk of homelessness,” he said.

“The good news is there’s a recognition that first and foremost we need 350 (more) supportive housing units and that is going to take care of our chronic homeless population. That’s an achievable number when you consider where we came from.”

Moving forward, the report laid out the coalition’s priorities in seven different areas: housing, communications, research, prevention, aboriginal homelessness, reintegration and operations.

Visitors to the AGM heard about a new media plan, complete with thought-provoking one-liners to be used in advertising and social media, that aims to raise awareness of the state of homelessness in the region.

The first edgy message comes from a stylized young person and states, “Do I have to the homework if I don’t have a home?”

To view details of the count or the report entitled Patterns of Homelessness, visit victoriahomelessness.ca/get-informed/coalition-reports/.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com