The number of Metro Vancouver homeless people is almost the same as three years ago, but the latest count has found the number living on the streets is down sharply thanks to the opening of new shelters and transition housing.
Volunteers who fanned out March 16 for the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count found 2,623 homeless, down slightly from 2,660 in 2008.
The shift from the street to shelter was dramatic.
Unsheltered street homeless were down 54 per cent to 731 from 1,574 three years ago, while the number in shelters rose 74 per cent from 1,086 to 1,892.
The biggest drops in street homeless were found in Vancouver (down from 815 to 145), Surrey (down from 307 to 231), the Tri-Cities (down from 76 to 27) and New Westminster (down from 72 to 39.) Maple Ridge was the only city where the number of street homeless rose – from 40 to 61.
“It looks to me like we have begun to turn the corner,” said James Pratt, spokesman for the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy. “There’s much more to be done. We have to keep our eye on the prize of eliminating homelessness.”
Vancouver added new shelters ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, three of which continue to operate with 340 year-round spaces. A new 55-bed shelter also opened in Langley since 2008 and another is opening in the Tri-Cities.
More than 1,700 new supportive housing units have been built by the province in Metro Vancouver or converted using old hotels over the last three years.
“It’s starting to have some effect,” said Housing Minister Rich Coleman. “When you can stem the tide and start to see the reversal, it’s really good.”
He said another 500 housing units are still slated to be built in the Metro Vancouver area, plus an additional 150 further east in the Fraser Valley.
The huge drop in in street homeless in Vancouver means Surrey now has the largest number of street homeless in the region.
“A lot of resources have been poured into Vancouver,” said Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, vice-chair of Metro’s housing committee.
That was understandable in the lead-up to the Olympics, but Villeneuve is looking to see more assistance spread elsewhere in the region.
She said Surrey has six outreach workers compared to 17 in Vancouver who help contact the homeless and work to get them into shelter or housing.
Despite the disparity, she said, South Fraser Community Services succeeded in finding homes for almost 700 homeless people in the three years since the 2008 count.
“This winter’s shelters were not utilized to full capacity,” Villeneuve said. “That’s a really good sign.”
Count organizers say the province’s decision to fund shelters to run 24 hours a day rather than just overnight has also made it easier for outreach workers to find clients.
Volunteers counted 695 more people in shelters in Vancouver than in 2008, 62 more in Surrey and 33 more in both Langley and New Westminster.
For the first time the count also included people with no fixed addresses found in jails, hospitals, detox centres and other transition facilities. A total of 109 people in those facilities were counted and included as sheltered homeless, almost all of them in Vancouver.
It’s the first count since 2002 that the overall number of homeless in the region did not increase.
While most cities saw drops or stability in the overall number of homeless, Maple Ridge’s homeless tally rose from 90 to 102 and Langley’s climbed from 86 to 105, according to the preliminary results.
The number of homeless youth age 25 or under rose 29 per cent to 349.
Nearly a quarter of the homeless people counted across the region were aboriginal.
The shift into shelter is encouraging, according to New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright, who chairs Metro’s housing committee.
But he said a worsening shortage of affordable rental housing in the region is putting too many people at risk of homelessness.
Metro and a coalition of other agencies are pressing for a new system of tax credits or other assistance to encourage the construction of purpose-built rental buildings.
(including street and sheltered)
– Vancouver: 1,605 (up from 1,547 in 2008)- Surrey: 388 (down from 402)- Tri-Cities: 47 (down from 94)- Burnaby: 73 (down from 86)- Langley: 60 (down from 86)- New Westminster: 124 (no change)- North Shore: 117 (down from 123)- Maple Ridge: 102 (up from 90)- Richmond: 48 (down from 56)- Delta: 5 (down from 17)