Hundreds of people are finding shelter indoors rather than sleeping in streets or parks, according to preliminary figures from the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count 2011.
And that drop in unsheltered, or street, homelessness – most evident in Vancouver, where the number of unsheltered people fell by 82 per cent between the 2008 and 2011 surveys – shows the city and the province are making progress in tackling a chronic problem, government officials say.
Strategies such as low-barrier shelters that allow people to hang on to their pets and shopping carts are "proven to work," Alice Sundberg, co-chair of Greater Vancouver's Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness said Tuesday at a news conference to unveil the report. The low-barrier shelters opened under Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who took office in 2008 after promising to tackle the city's homelessness problem.
But despite the steep decline in street homelessness, the overall number of homeless people in the Metro Vancouver was almost unchanged, at 2,623 this year compared with 2,660 in 2008 – leading critics to suggest that little progress has been made.
"The dial has not moved at all," said NPA city council candidate Mike Klassen, adding that the homeless tally had stayed flat even though more than 1,500 units of supportive housing have come on stream in the region over the past three years.
Fellow NPA candidate Sean Bickerton echoed that refrain, saying the number of homeless people in Vancouver was about the same as three years ago, when Mr. Robertson described the city's homelessness situation as an "emergency."
The mayor's office points to city-provincial co-operation in providing new housing units and success in getting people off the street and into shelters.
Over the past three years, the province has bought and renovated rundown single-room occupancy hotels and built new social housing units, including some currently under construction on city-owned sites. About 1,500 units are scheduled to come on stream over the next two years. Housing advocates say those units are overdue and that hundreds more are needed.
In the short term, shelters can be a bridge to more stable, longer-term housing, said Judy Graves, co-ordinator of Vancouver's tenant-assistance program.
"I can go into supportive housing now and see people who have been living outside for 10 or 15 years, living inside," Ms. Graves said.
With adequate support, even people considered hardest to house – including those with concurrent mental illness and addiction problems – can thrive in stable housing, said Julian Somers, the lead researcher for the At Home/Chez Soi project in Vancouver.
That $110-million project is implementing a "housing first" approach in five cities, including Vancouver.
"In terms of asking, 'Well, what's the answer, do we know?' – well, yes we do," Dr. Somers said, adding that hundreds of people have been housed throughout the city under the program. "It's pretty clear that the answer is some sort of combination of housing and support."
Homeless counts have been conducted every three years in Metro Vancouver since 2002. The exercise, which involves hundreds of volunteers fanning out across the region, is designed to provide a snapshot that can help assess whether strategies to reduce homelessness are effective.
This year's survey was the first to include people with "no fixed address" – those in hospitals, jails, detention centres and treatment facilities – and to attempt to get a better grasp on the numbers of homeless youth, who are believed to have been undercounted in previous surveys.
The survey found that 24 per cent of the homeless people were aboriginal, compared with about 5 per cent of the general population in B.C.