Cuts to programs that help the homeless hurt us all

The most obvious solution to problems with homelessness and vagrancy is also the cheapest, most effective and most feel-good solution: shelter those who need it. It’s called a ‘housing first‘ strategy, and it has led to New Westminster’s striking reduction in the number of homeless people living in our city.

Between 2002 and 2008, the population of homeless people in New Westminster increased 118%. Thanks to policy changes, collaboration with community members and a partnership with BC Housing, New Westminster was able to help many of those who were unsheltered to find homes. Between 2008 and 2011, the homeless population shrank by 43% and by another 17% between 2011 and 2014. Key to this success was that BC Housing partnership, which created 84 transitional and supported housing units, as well as housing referral, outreach and advocacy programs that helped prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

However this approach is in jeopardy due to funding cutbacks. According to New West Senior Social Planner John Stark, New Westminster-based homeless outreach, referral and advocacy programs are facing $382,000 in cutbacks this year. This is in addition to significant cutbacks in 2013 and 2014 to other programs serving those who were homeless or at-risk. Furthermore, changes to program eligibility requirements are making it difficult for some in need to access services.

  • The Elizabeth Fry Society‘s Maida Duncan Drop-In Centre is in jeopardy now that the coordinator position is no longer funded by the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy program. The centre provides at-risk women and children with a safe space to access a computer, laundry, dental services, peer support, meals, and community supports. While the program is still operating, the centre cannot be sustained much longer without securing a new source of funding.
  • The Senior Services Society will have to reduce program support due to staffing cutbacks, which will hurt their ability to help seniors find housing assistance. At any given time, the society works with 150 seniors who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Changes in eligibility criteria mean that seniors who are homeless for the first time or “only” at risk of homelessness will no longer be able to access help from Housing First programs.
  • Another program that lost funding was the Women In Need Gaining Strength housing outreach position. Since 2004, this outreach program helped 938 women and 734 children fleeing abuse at home, helping them to find new places to live and re-settle in new communities. Fundraising efforts were able to close the gap in funding for this program to maintain services, for now.
  • In 2014 the Hospitality Project lost $150,000 in HPS funding for their advocacy, triage and referral programs. These programs specifically targeted people at risk of becoming homeless, helping them to retain housing and locate shelter. With the new criteria focused only on those who are chronically or episodically homeless, the programs no longer qualified for funding.
  • In 2013, Lookout Emergency Aid Society lost funding from Fraser Health for a contract to provide non-clinical outreach to homeless people, resulting in over 400 people per year being unable to access services like service search and referral, case planning, and counselling.

It is penny wise and pound foolish to cut back on programs like these. When people are homeless, the public pays for it in increased policing and hospital costs.

As the New Yorker put it, homelessness is an expensive problem when you do nothing to solve it.

Homeless people are not cheap to take care of. The cost of shelters, emergency-room visits, ambulances, police, and so on quickly piles up. Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told me of one individual whose care one year cost nearly a million dollars, and said that, with the traditional approach, the average chronically homeless person used to cost Salt Lake City more than twenty thousand dollars a year. Putting someone into permanent housing costs the state just eight thousand dollars, and that’s after you include the cost of the case managers who work with the formerly homeless to help them adjust. The same is true elsewhere. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state forty-three thousand dollars a year, while housing that person would cost just seventeen thousand dollars.

It is cheaper to house the homeless than to leave them on the streets. And it is cheaper still to help prevent people at risk from losing their homes in the first place.

A January 26 report to council from the City’s Development Services Department outlined the potential impacts of these funding cuts:

This loss of funding will have a significant impact on the community, as the programs in question enable residents to maintain their existing housing, locate new housing in crisis situations and address issues which may contribute to their homelessness. They also target some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income individuals, frail seniors and women and children who are at-risk of homelessness or who are fleeing abuse … the loss of the programs in question will make it more difficult for staff to make referrals in case of eviction or homelessness, contribute to increased street and visible homelessness and place increased pressure on Bylaw Enforcement, Police and Social Planning, with its associated costs.

The report concluded with the recommendation that the City should direct staff to approach senior levels of government to explore alternative or new funding sources for housing outreach, referral and advocacy programs in New Westminster. I think that’s a great start, but I also think citizens in New Westminster who have noted and approved of the decline in visible homelessness need to remember that it was no accident.

Programs like those provided by Lookout, The Hospitality Project, Elizabeth Fry and Women In Need Gaining Strength and the Senior Services Society are our bulwarks against homelessness. Even those of us who are privileged with health, employment, and emergency funds find it a struggle at time to make ends meet in pricey Metro Vancouver. Imagine how difficult it must be for those who must also cope with addictions, chronic physical health problems, mental health issues, domestic abuse and other factors that introduce extra barriers to employment and making rent.

Note: the information on homelessness in New West and the cuts to local programs came from a report to council created by the Development Services Department. I would link to it, but I was not able to find it online. This report was shared at the February meeting of the Community and Social Issues Committee, of which I am a member. The report was presented for our review and discussion, and I thought the information was worth sharing more widely. 

Observations on Sixth St. sleepers

This is a guest post from Waferboard. You can find him on Twitter @waferboard or on Friendfeed.


A makeshift windbreak at the Anglican church on Carnarvon
A makeshift windbreak at the Anglican church on Carnarvon


For the second year now I’ve noticed there are more people sleeping on Sixth Street in the winter than in the summer. The cold and the wetness of the season are probably contributing factors.

Following my commute route down Sixth Street from Sixth Avenue down to the Columbia Skytrain station, here are a few of the spots that have attracted overnight visitors. Obviously this is not exhaustive and perhaps not even representative of the city.

Shop doorways

Sixth & Sixth

In some ways I’m surprised not too see more of these types of sleepers. They’re fairly common in Gastown and Downtown Vancouver. However, a closer examination of the architectural peculiarities of New Westminster show that there are fewer recessed (and hence sheltered) doorways here. I have a suspicion that Gastown may have fewer alternatives to doorways than New Westminster as well. The disadvantage of the doorway is if someone wants to use the door, you have to move. Popularity: low

A peculiar recess by a window

Sixth & Fourth; Sixth & Blackford
If I was homeless this would be one of the first places I’d check out. I’d like to know what the original purpose of this recessed window was, with its own little privacy wall. During the summer its home to a bed of lava rock, and in winter it can hold two, or maybe three (if you’re close friends) people. The wall and the fact that it’s recessed means almost total privacy and shelter from the elements. It’s also conveniently close to the 7-11 across the street. I’ve been surpised more than once by a friendly “Good morning!” by an occupant, that’s how out-of-sight this location is. Popularity: high

The well-lit covered business entrance

(See #3 on the map above)

It’s a peculiar and counter-intuitive fact: many homeless prefer to sleep in well-lit, very public areas. It’s safer, presumably. The Re/Max building entrance has a few low walls to bed against and lots of light. The covered area is quite large and is suitable for parking shopping carts or for people with lots of stuff to lug around, or for groups of people. However, it is exposed on two sides, despite the low walls and I suspect it must get quite windy. Popularity: low

The Anglican church on Carnarvon

Anglican Church on Carnarvon

It’s not on Sixth, but it’s pretty close, and it’s also a really popular spot, both in winter and summer. It’s not hard to see why: there are two covered areas, a nice lawn, a door-step round the back with a fair view and a soup kitchen. The covered areas are large enough for several people, carts and lots of baggage, and it’s location on a steep slope facing south helps protect the otherwise open area. Popularity: high

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Tyee gives props to New West recovery centre

The Tyee’s got a great list of 50 ways to help the homeless, building on Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson’s pledge to end (!) homelessness in Vancouver by 2015.

New Westminster is mentioned twice:

8.) Lobby for treatment funding in private, and put the spotlight on alternative treatment in public. Check out Vancouver Coastal Health’s innovative DayTox program, and take a look at one of the more successful private recovery houses, such as The Last Door in New Westminster.


39.) Invite the neighbours. Include representatives from Burnaby, Richmond, New Westminster, Surrey, the Langleys and the North Shore communities in everything Vancouver does. “And every so often,” one local activist noted, “Mayor Robertson needs to lean over and say to Mayor Corrigan, ‘So, you’re going to do some of these projects too, aren’t you?'”

As everyone here knows, homelessness is also a major issue in New Westminster. One would hope that Robertson’s gang would not pronounce homelessness ‘ended’ if it simply pushed people outside of Vancouver proper and out towards New West, Burnaby, and other areas of the Lower Mainland. This is truly an issue that should be addressed at a regional level.

Lots of good ideas in this piece (Thanks Tyee!). Here are some of the ones that stood out for me:

2.) Ask property owners to help. Make an offer to the owner of every closed hotel or shuttered apartment building in the city: Lease your building for use by BC Housing and/or a non-profit housing manager for a period of at least three years, and the city will both give you a tax break and allow your development application to proceed without interruption.

13.) Dedicate more women-only buildings and programs. Women endure daily intimidation and frequent assault inside shelters and residential hotels. Besides, there are already far more men-only programs.

14.) Provide meals. At the end of a pilot project in which meals were delivered daily throughout one Downtown Eastside residential hotel, residents reported using fewer drugs — and most had gained weight. 

23.) Seize grow-ops. Just as some law enforcement agencies seize vehicles, explore the possibility of seizing grow-ops and drug houses, renovating them, and converting them to rooming houses. Let the former owners sue for the value of the (usually trashed) property seized. 

25.) Detox on demand. No matter what shape a new treatment landscape assumes, detox for everyone who wants it will play a part. The city needs to partner with agencies and NGOs to create more spaces immediately. 

32.) Provide housing after treatment. Perhaps the most shameful gap in the housing safety net is the one many addicts fall through after they get clean, as they are returned to the same sort of social housing in which they used.

33.) Replace Riverview: 275 beds were slated to be replaced by recovery units throughout the city. In the years we’ve spent waiting, the need has grown to the point more may be required. Ideally, these would be built as small supportive facilities scattered throughout the city 

New Westminster needs to prioritize homelessness just as Vancouver has. We have a homelessness coalition and strategy, but there are still far too many people living on the streets or in substandard conditions here. I am hopeful that our lone new councillor Jaimie McEvoy will bring his passion for this issue to city hall and continue to advocate on behalf of the marginalized there, just as he has as project coordinator at Shiloh’s Hospitality Project .

While we’re on the topic of homelessness and poverty, I wanted to remind everyone to take some time to donate to organizations that help alleviate this suffering while we celebrate during the holidays. New Westminster’s Food Bank is administered at Shiloh, and you can donate there or online. The Food Bank says it can stretch $1 into $3 through bulk buying and supplier relationships, so it’s worthwhile donating even small amounts of cash instead of cans. Or, support Union Gospel Mission’s annual Christmas dinner: $32.90 will feed and care for 10 people in our community this Christmas.

Homelessness in New West

Council candidate Lynda Fletcher-Gordon has provided a link to a PDF file with some stats on homelessness in New Westminster. She and Jaimie McEvoy have been the candidates who have, in my opinion, placed the most emphasis on the issue in our city so far. 

Both candidates have a track record in this area. Fletcher-Gordon is the Executive Director of the Purpose Society and she and McEvoy are involved in the Homelessness Society, which produced the report I’ve linked to above.

Some interesting facts from the report: 
  • Homelessness has increased by about 35% in New West compared to the 2005 count (it has increased throughout the GVRD)
  • 58% of the homeless who were counted in 2008 were living on the streets
  • 74% are men (slightly above the regional average of 72%)
  • 27% identify as aboriginal (slightly below the regional average of 32%)
Vancouver-wide stats: 
  • 48% of the people counted were homeless for a year or longer;
  • 80% lived in the municipality where they were counted for one year or more;
  • 71% considered their ‘home’ to be in Metro Vancouver;
  • 61% reported an addiction problem;1
  • 33% reported a mental illness.
Top three reasons for being homeless (as identified by the homeless in the GVRD):
  • Lack of income (25%)
  • High cost of housing (19%) 
  • Addiction problems (17%) – interesting note:  68% of the street homeless reported an addiction problem compared to 48% of the sheltered homeless.
  • Establish a homelessness resource centre with programs and facilities focused on addiction recovery, employment assistance, medical services and life skills training
  • Create additional spaces in transition housing for women and children fleeing abuse (estimated demand is 3-4 times available space)
  • Create social housing spaces for single adults (the majority of social housing projects currently focus on families, people with disabilities and seniors)
  • Improve access to addiction and mental health services

A case study of hope

Like many other places in the Lower Mainland, New Westminster has a homelessness problem. The problem isn’t just a lack of money for shelter, of course. Many, if not most, of the people huddled in doorways on Carnarvon and shuffling along Columbia are also struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

These people can be very scary. The worst of them are so full of rage that it boils around them.

This is the story of one such angry woman, called “Crow.” She took out her pain on both friends and foes until the day she turned her life around, calmed down and got clean.

She didn’t do it alone. New West Union Gospel Mission volunteers persisted through her black moods and their efforts were not wasted.

When she came for a free meal at the UGM, she was offered more than soup and sandwiches by her angels.

Eventually they helped her realize her spirit was starving. Drugs and alcohol were her way of numbing the pain she secretly felt.

“Most alcoholic-addicts are spiritually starving because of the trauma they suffered in their lives. Most of us escape that trauma through alcohol and drugs so we don’t have to feel, we don’t have to remember, we don’t have to do anything,” she said, surveying the crowded New Westminster mission following a pancake breakfast.

As she speaks, there’s a violent outburst from a man who’s come to eat, perhaps because he’s missed the meal.

“That used to be me,” said Lagarde, who describes herself as an animal when she lived on the streets.

It’s reassuring to hear of examples like this, of people who seemed hopeless and yet came through on the other side. And it’s a good reminder that those of us who are lucky enough to have opportunities others lacked need to overcome apathy and give back.