Jan 31/08: Up to 15,500 in BC Homeless: Report ...
The number of homeless people in British Columbia may be triple the
estimate Housing Minister Rich Coleman provided to The Tyee last week,
according to a new report by health professors at UBC, SFU and the
University of Calgary.
In B.C. there may be as many as 15,500 adults with severe addictions
or mental illness who are homeless, says the 149-page report, Housing
and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in
British Columbia. The report is dated October, 2007, and was released
to The Tyee on Jan. 30, 2008.
The authors are SFU's Michelle Patterson and Julian Somers, Calgary's
Karen McIntosh and Alan Shiell, and UBC's Jim Frankish. The report was
prepared at the request of the health ministry's mental health and
addictions branch. Other partners and contributors to the report
include the provincial health authorities, the Employment and Income
Assistance Ministry and Coleman's own Forests and Range Ministry.
To get their estimate, the authors used data and reports from the
Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Senate, the
provincial government and academic journals. "No single authoritative
source of information is available to derive these estimates," the
report says. "However, a number of recent reports offered valuable
insights into various levels of housing need."
Many at risk
The report says some 130,000 adults in B.C. have severe addictions
and/or mental illnesses. About 39,000 are "inadequately housed,"
meaning they meet the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation's
definition of being in "core housing need." Of those, about 26,500
don't have enough support to help them stay in their home.
Somewhere between 8,000 and 15,500 are what the report calls
"absolutely homeless," meaning they are living on the streets, couch
surfing or otherwise without shelter. The report says the authors
confirmed their figures with "local stakeholders and key informants."
The report also says that despite impressions that homelessness,
mental illness and addiction are urban problems, interviews with
front-line workers found the same problems were "highly prevalent in
The report's number—which includes only people with severe addictions
and mental illness -— far exceeds the figure used by Forest, Range and
Housing Minister Rich Coleman. Last week he said there are between
4,500 and 5,500 homeless people in B.C. at any given time. He said the
figure came from BC Housing. The agency told The Tyee it based its
estimate only on the communities that have done official homelessness
NDP housing critic David Chudnovsky called Coleman's number "bogus."
His own "conservative" estimate of 10,500 homeless in the province was
made last fall based on homeless counts and numbers provided by
shelters and other aid agencies.
High cost status quo
While creating supported housing for everyone at risk of homelessness
would be expensive, the authors found the cost of doing nothing is
"If we focus on the absolutely homeless, non-housing service costs
amount to about $644.3 million per year across the province," says the
report. That includes the costs to the health care and prison systems
as well as emergency shelters. "In other words, the average street
homeless adult with SAMI [severe addictions and/or mental illness] in
B.C. costs the public system in excess of $55,000 per year."
Providing adequate housing and supports would cut those costs by
$18,000 per person each year, it says, saving about $211 million in
The authors note they did not include the amount of money that
homelessness may cause to be lost by businesses, tourism and cancelled
conference or convention bookings. The report says, "The inclusion of
these and other cost drivers would further enhance the case for
'Key actions' suggested
The report offers a dozen "key actions" that need to be taken to
provide housing and support to people with severe addictions and/or
mental illness. They include:
* Adopting a "housing first" policy providing permanent, independent
homes to people without time limits or requiring residents to get
* Creating more multidisciplinary treatment teams such as the
Assertive Community Teams set to launch Jan. 31 in Victoria. The teams
are needed to reach the "hardest to house" and get them better access
to services and treatment.
* Taking a "harm reduction" approach at housing facilities and
accepting the use of drugs and alcohol on-site.
* Creating more affordable housing and protect the affordable housing
that already exists.
* Continuing efforts to make it easier to apply for and receive
* Hospitals and prisons should set policies so they no longer
discharge people with "no fixed address" without knowing where they
will go. "No one should be discharged from an institution directly to
the street or a shelter without prior arrangement and follow-up."
Finally, the authors recommend immediately building or creating
supported housing for the 11,750 or so people with severe addictions
and/or mental illness who are already homeless. The number likely
underestimates the need, they write, and should be taken as a starting
BC Housing's current goal falls far short of the need. The agency's
most recent service plan says 1,462 new units of supported housing for
homeless people will be added by 2009-2010.
"Without adequate housing and support, people with SAMI who are
homeless often cycle through the streets, prisons and jails, and
high-cost health care settings such as emergency rooms and psychiatric
inpatient units," the Health Ministry's report says. "This is
ineffective and costly in both human and financial terms." With help,
it adds, they can stay in stable housing. "It is time to implement
these evidence-based solutions for British Columbians in need."