As levels of government look at ways to address homelessness, the number of people sleeping rough continues to rise.
Agencies involved with the biennial point-in-time homelessness count presented their findings to Nanaimo city council last week.
The count, paid for by the federal government and supported by various agencies and volunteers, happened in March and found that Nanaimo’s homeless population was at least 433 people, up from 335 counted in 2018.
Seventy-one per cent have lived in Nanaimo at least five years, and one-third are indigenous. Of the 433 people experiencing homelessness who were counted, 278 reported substance use, 119 said they had mental health challenges, 148 reported medical health challenges, 119 said they had physical health challenges and 82 mentioned brain injuries.
The count found that 62 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are sleeping on the streets, which Signy Madden, United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island executive director, said is higher than in many other cities.
“Other communities, 80 per cent of their homeless will be living in shelters, which is not ideal and not what we’re driving for, but it is a different circumstance than what we have here,” she said.
Andrew Thornton, count coordinator with the John Howard Society, told council that Nanaimo clearly has higher per-capita homelessness than “many, many municipalities in Canada,” though Madden added that homelessness has seen equivalent increases in the Cowichan Valley, the Comox Valley, Campbell River and Tofino.
She noted that rents are going up everywhere, so someone at risk of homelessness who loses his or her job, for example, has a very hard time. She wonders “what’s going to happen in eight months, 10 months, when a lot of the other funding and supports for individuals are gone, and whether or not they can pay their rent, and how is that going to affect the number of people homeless?”
Nanaimo’s count found that 91 per cent of respondents wanted to be in permanent housing, but 34 per cent said they were homeless because they weren’t able to make enough money to afford to rent.
“When there’s available resources, we’re able to house people and we do it in a variety of ways,” said John McCormick, John Howard Society Nanaimo region executive director. “As it currently exists, we don’t have enough resources to house all the people we could house.”
The City of Nanaimo’s health and housing task force is working to address homelessness and one of the initiatives to come out of that work is a project to co-ordinate and map social services and resources. Thornton suggested the data from the count will be considered in “co-ordinated access” planning and prioritizing.
Coun. Don Bonner said Nanaimo needs to co-ordinate services across sectors to be able to deal with the issue head-on.
“We’re probably not going to solve the problem of homelessness, but we solve it by building our capacity to deal with it when it comes up,” he said.
Thornton also suggested a re-framing of the issue.
“We’ve been working with a deficit model of ‘what’s wrong with homeless people?’ instead of saying, ‘what’s wrong with the systems that serve homeless people?’” he said. “I think we’re moving to that place now.”
In a press release last week, the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition said the point-in-time count shows a “serious need for increased investments” in affordable housing and social services.
“Hopefully, with recommendations and actions resulting from the City of Nanaimo’s health and housing task force, this fall we can start addressing the root causes of homelessness and together push for major investments at every level of government and processes and relationships will be set to make real systemic changes,” said Jason Harrison, the coalition’s co-chairperson, in the release.