Vancouver mayor blames Ottawa for continued growth of homelessness in city

The figure means Vancouver has the highest per capita rate of homelessness for any major Canadian city

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says it’s “devastating” to see the homeless count rise and the city needs more investment from Ottawa if it’s going to solve the problem.

Preliminary figures released Wednesday show the homeless count rose by two per cent to more than 2,200 in the past year, the same rate that it rose in the year previous.

The figure means Vancouver has the highest per capita rate of homelessness for any major Canadian city, but Stewart says it would be worse if Vancouver and senior levels of government had not introduced aggressive measures to increase the supply of housing.

Those measures include 930 social and supportive homes built in 2018 and 606 temporary modular homes built and occupied in 2018 and early 2019.

Stewart said the fact that more than one quarter of survey respondents said they had been homeless for less than six months shows the affordability crisis remains alive and well, adding that solving the complicated problem requires co-operation across different levels of government.

But he accused Ottawa of falling short on promised investments. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed millions of dollars to increase supply in the city and only delivered about $300,000 through two announcements that Stewart attended, the mayor said.

“The big missing piece here is from the federal government. The prime minister pledged to cut homelessness in half but we still haven’t seen any real money hit the ground here,” he said.

A statement from Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos disputed Stewart’s assessment of the federal response, saying Ottawa has spent $28 million over the past two years on fighting homelessness in Vancouver.

READ MORE: B.C.’s homeless, vulnerable only receive adequate care when nearing death, study says

Stewart’s office later clarified that Ottawa has in fact delivered millions but the city still needs more to stem the crisis.

Duclos said Ottawa will spend another $83 million in Vancouver over the next four years.

“We recognize there’s still much work to do, and we are continuing to work with the city of Vancouver, other levels of government, NGOs, Indigenous partners, and communities across Canada to provide more stable housing to people living in homelessness and increasing support for vulnerable groups,” he said.

The count includes 614 people who said they were “unsheltered,” and 1,609 people who were “sheltered,” which could include various forms of unofficial housing like emergency and transitional shelters, hospitals, living in cars, abandoned buildings, or staying with friends.

The “point in time” measure was determined through voluntary surveys over a 24-hour period and the city says the numbers are likely larger than reported.

The results show some segments of the population are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

Indigenous people are “vastly ovverrepresented,” with 39 per cent of respondents identifying as Indigenous even though only 2.2 per cent of Vancouver’s overall population consists of Aboriginal Peoples.

Seniors make up an increasing proportion and people who are homeless consistently report a range of health issues.

About 38 per cent have disabilities and about 70 per cent have addictions, with cigarettes representing the most common substance, followed by opioids and methamphetamine.

Stewart said that while increasing housing supply is crucial, tackling homelessness requires a multipronged approach including improved mental health services for the 44 per cent of people in the count who said they have mental health issues.

Some good news in the statistics, like a slight drop in the number of unsheltered people, show that the city’s policy initiatives are starting to work, Stewart said. In the meantime, he said, it’s personally difficult to see how many people are experiencing homelessness as the first count was released since he became mayor last year.

“I think we’re all devastated by it. This has been an issue that has been top of mind for many councils over the last decade or so and I think we’re just starting to see it stabilize and it gives me some hope that there is a possibility to really lessen the crisis,” he said.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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