StarMetro Vancouver: Revamped federal plan could dramatically cut B.C. homelessness: advocates


Jen St. Denis, StarMetro Vancouver, June 11 (with quotes from BCNPHA Acting CEO Jill Atkey)


VANCOUVER—It used to be that to access a federal funding program meant to reduce homelessness, non-profits and local government agencies had to show that the person they wanted to help had been homeless for at least six months.

That meant that instead of helping someone find housing as soon as they became homeless, some people were waiting on the streets or in shelters for months just to meet the government’s definition of “chronic” homelessness.

But on June 11, the federal housing minister announced the program had undergone a revamp. Metro Vancouver advocates say the changes will allow organizations to use the money on homelessness prevention programs, not just housing. That could include a better data-gathering system that has been proven to reduce homelessness in other Canadian cities.

Homelessness in Metro Vancouver rose 30 per cent between 2014 and 2017, to a total of 3,605 homeless people. In the Fraser Valley, homelessness rose by 75 per cent over the same period, with 606 people counted as homeless. (The federal funding changes will allow regions like the Fraser Valley, which were excluded before, to access the federal money.)

Those numbers are derived from a two-night survey called the homeless count. It’s a useful measure, but as a snapshot in time it has major drawbacks, said Jill Atkey, acting CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

“You don’t understand the flow into and out of homelessness, so you can’t get a sense over a year how that flow is happening,” she said, “and a true sense of the scale of what the numbers are because people come into and out of homelessness.”

She hopes that with the changes announced, the federal funding can now be directed to creating a different type of tracking system: an ongoing, real-time list of every person who is homeless in a region, along with an assessment of their vulnerabilities and needs.

It’s known as a “by-name” list and cities like Hamilton, Ontario have found success using the method: Hamilton saw numbers of homeless people drop by 35 per cent between 2014 and 2015, and by 32 per cent between 2016 and 2018.

The 2017 Metro Vancouver homeless count also showed that 34 per cent of homeless people in the region are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up just 2.5 per cent of the general population.

Jesse Thistle has experienced homelessness, and now advocates for Indigenous people who are homeless. He’s disappointed the revamped federal program does not include either a definition of Indigenous homelessness that he created, or a national definition developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

Thistle’s definition puts Indigenous homelessness in the context of generational trauma and the loss of land, culture and kinship that came with colonization.

He believes that if the federal government had adopted those definitions, policy-makers would take into account the wider societal break-downs that are pushing people into homelessness.

“It forces a hard look at maybe the way our society is structured in dispossessing Indigenous people of their lands, their peoples, their nationhood and it’s producing homelessness,” Thistle said. “It makes the responsibility the governments and broader settler society.”

The federal government has announced there will be a dedicated Indigenous stream within the homelessness strategy, but the details are still fuzzy, Atkey said.

And, she warned, it’s unlikely the government will meet its goal of reducing homelessness by 50 per cent over the next 10 years without more funding. Currently, the federal program provides between $8 and $9 million to Metro Vancouver, but the BCNPHA has calculated the federal and provincial governments each need to commit $14 million a year – for a total of $28 million – to make a dent in the problem. 

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