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But the image is out of date, according to researchers at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

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