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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2003

What we Don’t Know about the Homeless

Children, seniors and single parents are joining the ranks

By Hilary Thomson

They are cold, dirty, hungry men huddled under cardboard and blankets with buggies full of pop cans at their side.

That image is what most people associate with the word homeless. But the image is out of date, according to researchers at UBC’s Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) who are working to gather data that will improve the plight of B.C.’s homeless.

Jim Frankish, IHPR associate director, notes that persons with disabilities, seniors and single parents are among today’s homeless. Also, more children are homeless now; in a 24-hour Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) survey of homeless people, 71 kids were found to be living on the street.

“Homelessness is more complex and diverse than it used to be even 10 years ago,” says Frankish. “The old solutions just don’t work any more. We need to take another look at what’s happening on the street.”

Community-based research data is urgently needed to help service and housing providers, program planners and policy-makers create effective interventions, says Frankish. He and colleagues recently completed a review of research data concerning homelessness in the GVRD for Human Resources Development Canada. The work led to a provincial research resource called the Homelessness Virtual Library and laid the foundation for the creation of the B.C. Homelessness and Health Research Network.

Network partners, including IHPR members, are holding forums throughout B.C. to gain information on homelessness experienced in communities outside the GVRD, raise awareness of homelessness and build research capacity by connecting with local hospitals, colleges and others interested in reducing homelessness and improving the quality of life for homeless people.

Encampments of homeless people in Vancouver -- including a tent city camped outside Science World, one of the city’s major tourist attractions -- have sparked recent media coverage and much debate, however, the facts about today’s homelessness may be surprising.

A July 2002 report prepared for the GVRD by a local consulting firm showed that between 1991 and 1996 the number of people at risk of homelessness rose from 39,000 to 57,600. Almost half of those at risk were immigrants and refugees. Elements of risk include living in substandard or unsafe housing, spending half or more of gross household income on housing, or staying temporarily with friends or family -- a practice known as couch surfing.

Also, use of emergency shelters and housing is skyrocketing with almost 6,000 people turned away in 2002/03 from Vancouver’s Lookout shelter alone. Turnaways in the previous year were 2,200.

Reasons for homelessness are also changing, according to those interviewed for The View From the Sidewalk, a 2001 research study on homelessness conducted by homeless people.

“Social housing is not available for me because I’m a single father. It’s only for single mothers. There should be services for all single parents,” said Vince, a homeless man in Prince George.

A single, middle-aged woman said that she is “in a jam of seven jobs in five years. The bit of savings I had vanished even though I tried my hardest to go without, but finally I had nothing and had to move out of my home. The few friends I had let me sleep on their couches but I felt uncomfortable and started to become very depressed. When I finally got some social assistance they only allowed my $325 for a place to call home -- where does such a place exist?”

It is not surprising that Vancouver is a leader in homelessness research. In one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, Van-couver’s Downtown Eastside, housing and health issues are a daily reality. There are homeless people in every municipality in the GVRD and the high demand for affordable and safe housing is reflected in the region’s 13,000-person wait list for social housing.

Poor health, assaults and injuries combine with ambulance calls, trips to the emergency room and other medical attention to create an expensive revolving door of ill health among homeless people. Some researchers have called it the “$800 ham sandwich”, referring to the costly practice of addressing homelessness through emergency health facilities. A bed in a psychiatric ward costs approximately $500 per day and a jail holding cell about $125 per day.

Housing that offers counseling and other support, however, ranges from only $20 to $90 per day.

“Supportive long-term housing would reduce the burden on health services,” says Frankish. “Decent housing is cheaper in the long run than emergency room care and ambulances.”
In addition, supported housing offers opportunities to stabilize illnesses and reduce the need for more intense levels of service -- benefits not realized by construction of more shelters.

Community and government partners in the new research network include Vancouver Coastal Health; GVRD; Canada Mental Health Association; Social Planning and Research Council; Three Bridges Health Clinic; Lookout, Triage and Covenant House shelters; ShelterNet, the United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (SUCCESS); the Multilingual Orientation Services Association for Immigrant Communities (MOSAIC), and Solutions.

For more information on homelessness, visit www.hvl.ihpr.ubc.ca or www.bchhrn.ihpr.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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