Several hundred ‘hidden homeless’ surfing Nanaimo couches

Hidden homeless report estimates nearly 800 people needed housing in past year.

Nearly 300 people are part of the ‘hidden homeless’ population in Nanaimo.

A recent report from the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. estimates there are 299 individuals currently without permanent homes in Nanaimo and an estimated 796 hidden homeless who were temporarily housed or ‘couch surfing’ over the past year. Households were randomly surveyed in January.

The report studied Nanaimo, Prince George, Kamloops, Nelson and Kelowna and recommended three major strategies to end homelessness: adequate income; appropriate, affordable and/or supportive housing; and client-centred services.

The majority of people surveyed identified three key areas for being homeless: lack of income/employment, lack of available housing, and low income or inability to afford available housing. About 10 per cent of respondents were homeless because of being in school and 29 per cent were in transition or stranded.

Nanaimo is roughly on par with Prince George, which has a projected homeless count of 228 and a projected count over the past year of 718. Kelowna has an estimated 93 people currently homeless and 1,489 projected over the past year.

Gord Fuller, chairman of the 7-10 Club Society, said he believes the numbers are even higher.

“One of the things they don’t take into account through the report is a lot more kids are staying with family a lot longer than they used to,” he said, adding that because of the high cost of living and low wages, many youth don’t have the means to live independently.

The report is a good tool to open people’s eyes about the different types of homelessness in their communities, he said, adding most people think of absolute homelessness, sometimes referred to as ‘street homeless’.

Jim Spinelli, Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society executive director, said the report raises awareness about the issue, but doesn’t add new information to the conversation. However, it highlights the need for affordable housing.

“Clearly we need a lot more affordable housing stock than exists,” said Spinelli, adding that “in some ways the government creates their own problems” by keeping income assistance payments for individuals or people with disabilities to $375 a month for rent.

“We’ve created a whole underclass of people that are poorly housed,” said Spinelli.

Chris Peter, 26, who receives disability payments of about $886 a month, said the allocation of $375 for rent is inadequate. The cheapest rate he’s found in Nanaimo is around $650 and that doesn’t include utilities.

“There is absolutely nothing you can find in town for that,” he said.

To cover the remaining rent, he dips into the rest of his money, which doesn’t leave much for food and other necessities.

Currently he’s moving out of his home because he can’t afford the costs. He’s moving into a backpack and will camp or couch surf.

It’s the same situation he was in six months ago and the situation is frustrating.

“Something has got to be done about it,” said Peter.

Peter injured his spine when he was 15 years old. He’s looking for work, but is limited because of his disability.

John Horn, social planner for the City of Nanaimo, said the report highlights that the hidden homeless segment of the population moves out of that state faster than street homeless, so they are harder to track. He said those people wouldn’t typically access services at the Salvation Army or 7-10 Club.

The report found that on average the hidden homeless spent six to 12 weeks with their host.

He said there is more mobility in this segment of the population and it is more “robust” and has plans to move forward. As such, they most likely don’t need the same assistance programs as street homeless and might only require short-term help.

But the segment is also especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy and housing market.

“Almost 53 per cent cited financial aspects of affordability and that group would be quite vulnerable if there was a leap in costs of housing in Nanaimo,” Horn said. “There is a vulnerability there that is worth paying attention to.”

Spinelli said he doesn’t like the term hidden homeless used in the report.

“We’ve invented a term for people that aren’t housed properly,” he said. “We don’t see these people because they have some sort of extended social network to support them.”

Governments invest in housing

The federal and provincial government is partnering to provide $180 million for affordable housing for B.C. residents.

The governments are each providing $90 million over the next three years to support housing programs for low-income individuals, families and seniors. The objective is to improve access to affordable, safe housing that is suitable and sustainable.

The money will go toward new construction, renovations, homeowner assistance, rent supplements, shelter allowances and accommodation for victims of family violence.

The goal of the investment is to promote healthier people and stronger neighbourhoods. The program aims to respond to different needs of individuals and households.

Over the last two decades, the province has invested $2.8 billion to provide housing in communities across the province.