Facing homelessness is a reality in urban and rural centres across Canada. It is a reality for those experiencing it and for those who care deeply about ending it. Even if we don’t think homelessness is a concern, it affects our lives and points to the thinness of the fabric that holds us together as a society. We often confuse personal circumstances in which people find themselves homeless with the broader conditions in society in which anyone can become homeless. For example, many people often hold the view that substance use and mental illness are the root causes of homelessness but this kind of thinking doesn’t recognize the conditions in which many people become homeless.
Listening to the voices of people who are experiencing homelessness is a significant and important aspect of understanding homelessness. This year, while preparing the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homeless 2012/2013 report for Greater Victoria, we talked with people who had experienced homelessness to get their perspectives on the conditions that contribute to homelessness. Even before seeing the current year’s data, their observations clearly pointed to the drivers of homelessness that are beyond an individuals’ control but directly impact personal situations and experiences of homelessness.
There are many good programs aimed at alleviating homelessness but no single program can end homelessness. Ending homelessness requires systemic changes. In our report, we focus on the structural conditions in order to evaluate systemic progress towards ending homelessness. These structural drivers include the supply of housing and the adequacy of incomes needed for a decent quality of life. There are also systemic failures that drive homelessness such as stigma of drug use and racism as well as systemic gaps when people are discharged from hospitals, prisons and foster care into homelessness. However, availability of adequate housing and income are fundamental starting points for addressing what is a national disaster and a national disgrace in a country as wealthy as Canada.
Ending homelessness is both simple and complex. It is simple in that we need an adequate supply of affordable housing that is accessible to people on very, very low incomes. In our most recent report we analyzed the availability of low end market suites, those that cost less than $700/month, and found there was a shrinking supply of bachelor and one bedroom suites in this rent range even though the overall number of suites has remained constant. Vacancy rates for bachelor and one bedroom suites that cost less than $700/month were approximately 1% even though overall vacancy rates were 2.8% for Victoria CMA. This highlights that it is not simply overall vacancy but vacancy rates for specific types of market housing that matter. It is complex in that it requires action by municipal, provincial and federal governments.
This year, no new subsidized housing units or rental supplements available for people experiencing homelessness were added in the Greater Victoria region. There are still 1,477 households on the waiting list for subsidized housing and the unique number of individuals using emergency shelter has remained approximately the same at 1,659 people, with shelters running at 112% occupancy due to additional mats being added on the floor.
One important learning this year has been that a comprehensive systems evaluation of progress in addressing homelessness must include the voices of individuals who have experience of homelessness. We urge you to read their views and hope to see this type of inclusive reporting take root in other areas of the country.
Bernie Pauly RN, Ph. D Associate Professor, School of Nursing and Scientist, Centre for Addictions Research of BC
Geoff Cross, MA candidate, Center for Addictions Research of BC