COVID-19 has made the gaps in the systems that serve people experiencing homelessness more visible. It has also resulted in an increased number of people sheltering-in-place in parks and other public places. In B.C.’s capital, the provincial government responded by making investments that expanded resources which spurred a new level of cooperation between BC Housing and the regional health authority.
Now, the province of B.C. is developing a new homelessness strategy. The City of Victoria commissioned a report, COVID 19: The Beginning of the End of Homelessness, that provides a detailed account of how the homelessness-serving system is working.
The report is grounded in seven, first-person accounts produced in collaboration with people experiencing homelessness. Collaborations began while people were unsheltered and continued as they made their transition to temporary housing. Each story describes their experiences interacting with or avoiding, elements of the homeless-serving system. These stories are found on pages 22 – 40 of the report.
The study also interviewed frontline workers and senior managers, collected administrative data from BC Housing and the regional health authority, and reviewed reports to add depth to the analysis.
The report includes 28 recommendations organized under the following calls to action:
- Resolve the housing crisis by re-aligning policies and programs to realize the human right to housing.
- Lead a full-scale transformation of the homeless-serving system.
- Improve standards and introduce accountability mechanisms.
- Engage people experiencing homelessness as equal partners.
CALL TO ACTION 1: Resolve the housing crisis by re-aligning policies and programs to realize the human right to housing.
A lack of affordable housing for the lowest income group results in many people experiencing homelessness and prevents individuals from exiting homelessness.
There are more than 10,000 households in the Capital Region spending more than 50% of their income on rent, with annual incomes below $23,536. The median available rent in May 2021 for a one-bedroom apartment is 117% of disability income assistance.
By not paying particular attention to the dire housing shortage faced by the lowest income group, we take away the ability for individuals and families to proactively address their current or pending homelessness independently. By ignoring how the housing crisis impacts the lowest income group, we have – to some degree – institutionalized homelessness.
This report estimates that several hundred people will remain homeless, many in temporary facilities, in the Capital Region after all planned supportive and subsidized homes are completed in 2022 and 2023.
Even with 280 new permanent homes set to open in 2022, - one of the largest investments in housing for people to exit homelessness in the past decade - demand will continue to outstrip supply.
Homelessness is a daily emergency for those experiencing it. As such, the report recommends an immediate expansion in rent supplement programs to provide rapid access to permanent housing for everyone experiencing homelessness.
CALL TO ACTION 2: Lead a full-scale transformation of the homeless-serving system.
The stories of people who are currently residing in Greater Victoria's homelessness response system emphasize the urgency to transform the system to focus on person-centred care, in greater alignment with Housing First principles. The stories portray an overarching lack of communication, disempowerment, inappropriate placements, and unmet needs.
Housing First is not well-understood and often combined with low barrier shelters and transitional housing.
Service fragmentation often acts as a barrier to exiting homelessness for this reason the report revealed a need to prioritize the integration of the homeless-serving system. For example, agencies have widely varying approaches to evictions and as a result, many individuals jump between shelters, absolute homelessness and transitional programs.
Integrated homeless-serving systems have dedicated authorities and staffing to ensure services and programs are modified to work in a unified way to end homelessness.
The report makes several recommendations for the provincial government to work collaboratively with local stakeholders to integrate trauma-informed practices, Housing First practices and Indigenous cultural safety throughout the homeless-serving system - including decision-making - to ensure homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.
CALL TO ACTION 3: Improve standards and introduce accountability mechanisms
The practices of non-profit housing operators are not consistently in alignment with provincial legislation, performance standards, and guidelines.
For example, the study found evidence that significant numbers of people are living in shelters long-term, while the BC Housing framework for the Emergency Shelter suggests clients should be housed within 60 or 100 days (if experiencing chronic homelessness).
The report recommended that the government of BC define the intended length of time for emergency and transitional programs in the Residential Tenancy Policy Guideline 46: Emergency Shelters, Transitional Housing, Supportive Housing.
The report also found instances where residents of supportive housing should be protected by the Residential Tenancy Act but were not. Non-profit operators of buildings that are considered supportive housing by BC Housing have entered into program agreements with residents, while the B.C. Government guideline states that the Residential Tenancy Act applies to supportive housing.
Furthermore, program agreements do not offer tenancy rights and responsibilities - a core principle of Housing First.
The report recommended that BC Housing ensure that all its funded programs are operating in alignment with the Residential Tenancy Act.
CALL TO ACTION 4: Engage People Experiencing Homelessness as Equal Partners.
Self-determination is the idea that you have a say in what happens in your life. It is the ultimate expression of human dignity and an essential principle of human rights.
There is considerable confusion and frustration among people experiencing homelessness regarding their rights and responsibilities in shelters and transitional supportive housing.
People experiencing homelessness have a unique vantage point of the systems that they avoid or interact with. These viewpoints can identify procedures that need to change.
“Make it easier for people to take an active role in improving their circumstance and well-being.”
Individuals and families want to know that there is something positive on the other side of homelessness, want help for untreated trauma, and want to be inspired by stories of those who have recovered from homelessness. Those who participated in this study overwhelmingly requested that the system make it easier for them to take an active role in improving their circumstance and well-being.
The system is not designed to support this.
By not making room for the experiences, analysis, and desires of those struggling to exit from homelessness, we lengthen experiences of homelessness and facilitate returns to homelessness.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred significant new investments and facilitated a new level of cooperation, but programs are not integrated and are not oriented towards ending homelessness. The report is a call to action for the B.C. government to lead a full-scale transformation of the homeless-serving system.
If the recommendations in this report are implemented, COVID-19 will mark the beginning of the end of homelessness.
Nicole Chaland is a housing and homelessness researcher and advocate based in Victoria, B.C.