photos: Photo by Ahmad Kavousian

Director's Corner: A state of emergency in Vancouver and Victoria

Sean Condon, executive director, says to prevent any more homeless deaths, a state of emergency should be declared in the two cities.

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Within hours of opening, Vancouver’s four homeless winter shelters were at capacity and turning people away. Meanwhile, the homeless camp outside of the Victoria courthouse has grown faster than the B.C. government can respond.

Both cases show that the need for affordable housing is far greater than the supply in their respective cities. And the cost of not meeting that demand is fatal. Between 2007 and 2013, the British Columbia Coroners Service reported that 250 homeless people died in B.C.—with 64 deaths in Vancouver and 33 in Victoria. Since the coroner’s office only investigates about a quarter of all deaths, the true number is much higher.

Using the coroner’s statistics, Megaphone authored a report last year, Dying on the Streets, which showed the median age of death for a homeless person in this province is between 40 and 49 years of age. When compared to the life expectancy of 82.92 years for the average British Columbian, homelessness cuts a person’s life nearly in half.

Worse, most of these deaths were preventable. Almost half, 47.7 per cent, of homeless deaths were “accidental”, which includes overdoses, drowning and motor vehicle accidents. For the general population, accidental deaths only accounted for 18.3 per cent of investigated deaths.

Sadly, none of these numbers are too surprising to many of us. But what is shocking is that the provincial and federal governments continue to drastically underfund the solutions that would prevent these deaths.

According to the City of Vancouver’s one-night homeless count earlier this year, there were 1,258 people staying in a shelter and 488 people sleeping outside. Experts agree it’s an undercount that just gives a snapshot of the problem. But there are only 740 year-round shelter spaces and 230 temporary shelter beds in the city.

Similarly, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness reported that 1,725 unique individuals used an emergency bed in one of the region’s six emergency shelters last year. It’s a problem that’s only getting worse. The occupancy rate of these shelters went from 93 per cent in 2013-2014 to an unsustainable 112 per cent in 2014-15.

Clearly, the response isn’t enough in either city.

Both Vancouver and Victoria have municipal governments that are focused on ending homelessness. While the tactics of each government are debatable, what’s indisputable is the devastating impact this crisis has on people experiencing homelessness.

Over the past few months, cities across the American west coast—from Los Angeles to Seattle—have declared a “state of emergency” around their homelessness crises. It is a country with a much starker problem, but also a more sober sense of the toll homelessness has on their communities.

We need a similar approach in Vancouver and Victoria. That the provincial and federal governments can’t fund enough shelter spaces for the city’s homeless, let alone the safe and secure housing they actually need, speaks volumes about its response to the crisis.

To prevent any more premature and unnecessary homeless deaths, a state of emergency should be declared in Vancouver and Victoria, with demands for immediate action to end homelessness. Too many lives count on it.

A version of this article appeared in Victoria’s Times Colonist.

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