By Amanda Burrows

For the first time since 2020, we have an idea of the prevalence of homelessness in Metro Vancouver. The 2023 Homeless Count in Greater Vancouver Report was released yesterday at the 2H Forum 2023, with dismaying results: in the region, the number of people identified as experiencing homelessness increased by 32%, and in Vancouver specifically, by 16%.

We know that point in time counts like this are always undercounts—these figures represent the bare minimum number of individuals impacted by homelessness. We know for a fact that the numbers are larger. Over 4,800 in the region, and over 2400 in Vancouver.

It is with a mix of emotions that I read the findings: despondent that rates are increasing in every single community; weightiness that 64% of Indigenous-identifying respondents have lived or generational experience with residential schools; kinship knowing that 82% of respondents have been in their community for over a year, making them our well-known neighbours; and focused determination because we’re working on fixing this.

Our Solutions

For over a year we’ve been collecting data on evictions and forced moves through our BC Eviction Mapping project. We’ve heard from 700 respondents from across the province who have been evicted and learned where they were evicted from, who they are, and about the impacts.

There are striking resemblances between our findings and the Homeless Count data. Our data showed that 27% of people who were evicted became homeless did not find a new place to live. These results came from individuals across Metro Vancouver and BC. We’re seeing these impacts everywhere. There’s often a narrative that homelessness only occurs in large metropolitan areas, or only in the Downtown Eastside. As both the Homeless Count and our Eviction Map data show, people experience homelessness in every community throughout BC.

From the BC Eviction Mapping Interim Report, May 2023

This is why a provincial solution is so critical and why it’s the approach we’re taking. Cities can enact bylaws to help mitigate impacts of homelessness, but provincial law reform targeted towards the Residential Tenancy Act will have the most impact at preventing homelessness. Later in 2023, we’ll be releasing our law reform platform with specific steps for government to take to prevent evictions, protect tenants, and prevent homelessness.

Our findings also show an overrepresentation, relative to population, of Indigenous people who become homeless after eviction. In fact, 45% of Indigenous respondents reported not finding a new place to live after eviction, compared to 27% of respondents overall. The Homeless Count data show that 33% of respondents identify as Indigenous, compared to 2% of the Census population.

From the BC Eviction Mapping Interim Report, May 2023

As part of our systems change program, we’ve engaged an Indigenous Outreach Coordinator who has been holding Indigenous Housing Justice Talking Circles. Through those talking circles, participants were given space to safely discuss their housing situations and challenges. The issues raised were wide-ranging and highlight the colonial mindset of our housing system: participants shared that they did not feel comfortable accessing services at the Residential Tenancy Branch because the term “residential” was so reminiscent of residential schools. Based on the data from the Homeless Count, this association between residential schools and homelessness is pervasive.

The next phase of this our will be to continue the Talking Circles and develop a reciprocal meeting format where we listen to concerns and needs of participants, and provide them with culturally-informed tools, resources, and education. 

Treating our neighbours with compassion

The kinship that we share with our neighbours who are homeless is the heart of why we do this work. An important distinction between our data and the Homeless Count data is around displacement. There are long-told myths that people who are homeless are “shuttled in” from “other” places. The Homeless Count data shows that an overwhelming majority of people—81%–were still in the same community they were in when they were last housed. Our data in the Eviction Mapping project shows that neighbourhood displacement specifically after eviction is high—80%. To clarify, we asked about neighbourhoods, whereas the Homeless Count data referred to the “sub-region” that the survey took place in (Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster, etc).

At the end of the day, people who are homeless are our neighbours. We share our communities. Both those who are housed and unhoused contribute to the spirit and culture of an area—equally. We must, collectively, do more to treat our unhoused and marginalized neighbours with compassion and dignity, and advocate for justice. Homelessness is rising and service providers like FIRST UNITED are working diligently to support those who are homeless and advocate for change.

At the 2H Forum 2023 where the Homeless Count in Greater Vancouver report was released yesterday, a blanket ceremony was held to honour and give strength to those working to end homelessness and support those who are unhoused in our communities. I was fortunate enough to participate in this ceremony. I feel blessed to be able to lead this incredible organization and work with a team doing important work that continues to change lives every day.

I invite you to stand with me, and with all at FIRST UNITED, as we move forward to change the systems that perpetuate inequity, and take action to help us end homelessness.

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