Why we need to look at homelessness from a regional perspective
Nov. 30 – The Lookout Society believes people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness should be able to stay in their home communities. This is part of the strategic direction behind the society offering services and programs in various communities throughout Metro-Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Currently we serve vulnerable people in Vancouver, Surrey, the North Shore, New Westminster, Burnaby, Langley, Maple Ridge and Abbotsford.
By creating regional accessibility we can relocate people living in one city to their home community while continuing to offer them the same services. This regional approach works and we’re helping people not only move back to their original communities but also reunite with family and friends and improve their quality of life.
A regional approach to solving homelessness is clearly warranted. You can find evidence of this need in the most recent Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley homeless surveys. From Hope to the North Shore, we are identifying more than 35% of our homeless population is on the move.
In the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count, 38% of homeless individuals surveyed reported they were new to the city they now lived in, having resided there less than five years. The Fraser Valley survey was much higher with 47.9% homeless individuals saying they had lived less than five years in their recent municipality.
People are relocating for a variety of reasons, including being closer to services and supports. Not all communities provide the same level of services, prompting vulnerable individuals to move to cities with the housing and supports.
When those shelter beds and programs are absent, the homeless population is at risk - increasing victimization, the likelihood of health conditions, mental health issues, addiction and abject poverty. These poor outcomes are compounded the longer an individual stays on the street.
More and more cities are realizing the need to take action on homelessness and are taking positive steps forward. For a regional approach to homelessness to succeed, all communities must act in the best interest of their most vulnerable residents.
Clothing donations needed now that temperatures are dropping
September 28 – Talking about the weather is a Canadian pastime and a great conversation starter between strangers.
However, for those who are homeless and living in inadequate housing, weather is a serious topic. Weather, for someone living on the streets, is a survival threat, especially in the winter.
For this reason, the Lookout Society launches a public campaign in the fall where we ask people to donate warm winter clothing that we can hand out to those in need. Warm jackets, blankets, hats, boots, gloves, socks and new underwear are a few of the most needed items. Also important are rain jackets and ponchos, scarves and toques with liners.
The critical need for winter clothing should not be undermined because we experience the warmest winter in Canada. The cold, coupled with the wind and rain are as deadly as sub-zero temperatures.
I can attest to that. I made the mistake a few years ago of not wearing the right clothing while participating in the Vancouver AIDS Walk, an event we annually take part in. Throughout the walk that year there was heavy rain and I couldn’t stay warm. I was literally freezing and shaking because I was soaking wet and had no insulating clothing.
The experience made me think about the folks we serve who live through this every day, walking down our streets, sleeping in parks and on the sidewalks. It’s no wonder people are suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis and other types of bugs at this time of year.
It’s important to realize the people we serve don’t have a closet full of warm clothes to access every time the temperature dips or the rain falls. This why the Lookout Society and other organizations stockpile clothes at this time of the year, so we can hand them out when they are needed.
Donations of winter clothing are needed right now. If people have extra blankets or coats and they want to do something great for someone on the streets this winter, get those items to a local service provider like the Lookout Society.
Lookout Society donations can be dropped off at the following locations:
DTES Street Market an Opportunity for Lookout and those we serve
August 15 – The term NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard and refers to the reaction some businesses and residents have when they`re opposed to certain facilities opening in their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately homeless shelters can be among the list of facilities people oppose.
Oddly, this was the sentiment expressed by some when the Downtown Eastside Street Market (DTES) relocation was announced to move to the vacant lot in the 500-block of Powell Street, directly across from the Lookout Society`s LivingRoom Drop-in Centre.
There were concerns the market would change the politics and dynamics of the neighbourhood.
After some careful consideration, the Lookout Society adopted a different perspective of the DTES Street Market, which opened Aug. 2 in the new location. We see it as an opportunity.
The market means an influx of entrepreneurial individuals and that fits perfecting with the society’s long term strategic plan. This plan includes health, education, skill-building, vocational and empowerment programs all offered at the LivingRoom. The goal is to help the people we serve to become healthy, confident, independent and, possibly, entrepreneurs.
Our strategic plan also involves the use of peers to teach and counsel others in our programs, a practice endorsed by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority in its second generation health strategy for the Downtown Eastside. Partnering with the market facilitates more peer-to-peer programming.
Another opportunity the market brings is the ability for Lookout to engage with people not familiar with our services and housing. By building a rapport with merchants and customers, people will know to connect with us if they face a housing crisis.
The Lookout Society mission and mandate, which involves working with the most vulnerable individuals in our communities, encourages us to see possibilities and opportunities. The Downtown Eastside Street Market is another example of that.
Lookout Society involved in second generation health strategy discussion
April 29 – More than 15 years ago the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority declared a public health emergency on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in response to an epidemic in HIV infection rates and drug fatalities.
To deal with the emergency, the Four Pillars Drug strategy, which included the opening of InSite -- Canada’s first and only safe injection site -- was adopted three years later. The four pillars approach of harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement resulted in lower HIV/AIDS infection rates, a reduction in overdoses and increased life expectancies among DTES residents.
It was a simple but revolutionary approach, and one that has been studied and emulated by health officials around the world.
Despite these achievements, Vancouver Coast Health (VCH) acknowledges the DTES has changed and the current health system must also change. With this in mind, VCH recently released the Second Generation Health System Strategy. This discussion paper is based on consultation with VCH staff, contracted service providers such as the Lookout Society and many community groups.
The paper sets out three overarching goals: improved health outcomes for DTES residents, better collaboration amongst the health authority and its partners and operational excellence for VCH and its contracted service providers.
Of the 19 recommendations included the most topical is the expansion services provided by InSite. This includes extending the hours of operation at the facility, which currently operates daily between 10 a.m. and 4 a.m. Additionally, VCH has applied for a permit for a second supervised injection site at the Dr. Peter Centre. VCH vision is to have injection sites readily available to those in need in their local community health centres.
The federal government however, recently introduced regulations that will curtail the expansion of these harm reduction services.
There is still a great deal of community discussion ahead before the Second Generation Health System Strategy is complete. Ultimately it will map out a clear course of action that will make the DTES health system more responsive and sustainable, meeting the changing needs of residents.
As the paper states, this can be done if the health authority takes a leadership role, sets out a defined mission and goals and strengthens its collaboration with the Lookout Society and other service providers.
With so much at stake, the Lookout Society continues its involvement in this important discussion to better the lives of the people we serve in the DTES.
March 17 – The unheard voices in the discussion surrounding the transit and transportation referendum are the homeless and those living in poverty.
These voices must be heard because so much is at stake for Metro Vancouver’s most vulnerable. Simply put, a Yes vote will improve the lives of people who rely heavily on transit while a No vote would cause undue hardship.
This is why the Lookout Society, advocates for the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, supports the Yes side and is encouraging others to do the same.
These improvements will make a substantial difference to transit users. Our current transit system comes up short. Buses are overly crowded and there are long waits during off-peak hours. For a single mother pushing a stroller and carrying groceries on a rainy evening, poor transit service has real consequences.
While it is true increasing the sales tax is regressive – having a greater impact on low income earners –the end result of the transit and transportation improvements is positive. Improvements to the transit system benefit low income earners because they rely heavily on transit.
In addition, the sales tax does not apply to essential needs such as rent, groceries and child care, typically the largest expenditures for low income families.
Throughout this discussion we have heard the Yes side say the infrastructure projects and service improvements will reduce congestion on our roads and encourage more people to use transit and other green alternatives such as cycling. The No side counters that taxpayers are already overly burdened with taxation.
However, we must also consider our most vulnerable populations. For the homeless and low income earners, a yes vote means greater mobility, fewer hardships and more routes out of poverty.
Jan. 17 - This is year 9 of Seattle’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, and it’s clear this lofty goal will not be realized. In fact, the number of homeless in Seattle has increased.
Despite the city's best intentions, the supply of social housing and shelter beds has not kept up to the demand, created by an economic downturn and job loss.
Homeless camps have become an alternative for those without a shelter bed or housing, with many occupied by youth and families. At first the city dismantled the tents as quickly as they went up. Today there is an acceptance of the camps, as long as they are organized and safe.
In Vancouver we saw our own tent city spring up in Oppenheimer Park last summer. It was opposed by many and eventually dismantled. However, it provided an opportunity for our outreach workers to work with individual campers and find housing and needed services.
The Oppenheimer camp also drew attention to the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver and its surrounding municipalities. It created awareness about how homeless camps are a last resort for many without housing.
The sad reality is that throughout Metro Vancouver people camp far out of the public’s view, making it difficult for our outreach workers to locate them and provide services. Surrey, for example, has close to 400 parks and 5,000 acres of parkland homeless people camp in. These people live highly marginalized lives without any safety net, supports or anyone looking out for them.
Is it time to create regulated homeless camps like Seattle so we can create these vital connections and provides services?
My fear with regulated camps is they will become permanent housing. Potentially governments would be let off the hook from investing in affordable housing and services for people in need.
Food banks serve as an example of an emergency solution becoming a permanent one. They started 40 years ago as a temporary answer to food security issues. Today they are relied on by 850,000 Canadians each month and 800 food banks across the country that serve them.
Homeless camps are a conundrum: On the one hand they are an unacceptable standard of living and a risk they may become permanent housing. The other side of the argument is camps can be a launching pad so we can quickly connect people with services and housing – a challenge given the shortage across the province.
I beleive the Seattle situation is a worst-case scenario and not one that Metro Vancouver should ever follow. We know that senior levels of government have the ability to build the housing needed. They just need to make it a priority.
However, if we choose to do nothing we will certainly follow the path Seattle has taken. Faced with no options, people will continue to camp in greater numbers.
Jan. 28 – In order to meet the needs and circumstances of the homeless individuals we serve, the Lookout Society is exploring ways to expand its spectrum of housing and care.
We know that one size does not fit all.
Consider the 2014 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count. The survey of nearly 2,800 homeless individuals illustrates the diverse nature of those needing our help. Poverty, high rents, addiction, mental illness, medical conditions, abusive households and discrimination were some reasons given by survey participants to explain their homeless situation.
This diverse list of factors leading to homelessness tells us there is a critical demand for a continuum of housing and support services. These programs will then meet the basic requirements of people accessing Lookout shelters.
Our clients and tenants are also saying they need choices. In a recent survey conducted at our sites, 167 people told us they prefer to live in a sober facility, as opposed to a harm reduction building.
For this reason, offering sober-living facilities is a priority for the Lookout Society.
A harm reduction approach works effectively for people living with an alcohol and/or drug-misuse history. Unfortunately, it is not always helpful for folks making a transition towards a clean and sober lifestyle. Many Lookout Society frontline workers are keenly aware of this.
Sadly, we see clients and tenants enter detox and other treatment facilities not continue along this path once they return to their harm reduction housing. Being around others misusing alcohol and drugs undermines the healthy lifestyle choices they made.
Lookout Society must help these individuals who have made the hard choice to change their lives. Once they decide they are done with their old life, we need to provide ways to support them so they can sustain their choice.
Not only would a wider spectrum of housing help clients and tenants move forward, it would allow us to care for more people. For example, our North Shore Shelter has the longest stays amongst the Lookout Society’s five shelters. This is because of the lack of affordable housing on the North Shore, but also because there is less opportunity for shelter guests to take the next step in their lives.
Having a clean and sober facility would increase the “flow” in our shelter, opening more beds in our shelter and transitional housing on the North Shore.
The Lookout Society has a history of innovation and finding solutions to homelessness. Offering a greater continuum of housing and services continues this tradition and better meets the needs of those we serve.