There is now data to back up the perception that the number of people without housing in Abbotsford has dramatically increased in recent years.
This month’s homeless count found 271 men, women and youth who lacked a permanent roof over their heads in the city, according to preliminary results released Wednesday. That figure is up 79 per cent from 2014, when 151 people were counted. It’s also the highest number since the counts – which are conducted every three years – began in 2004.
Mayor Henry Braun said he had expected an increase, but was still “somewhat
surprised” at the scale of the jump.
“I was pretty sure it was up,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be up quite that much.”
The count was conducted on March 8 across the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD). Abbotsford’s eastern neighbour saw an even greater jump, with 221 homeless people counted in Chilliwack, nearly triple that city’s 2014 figure.
As a whole, the FVRD recorded a 74 per cent increase in homelessness, with Mission and Agassiz-Harrison posting declines in the number of people counted, while Hope saw an increase.
Of the 271 counted in Abbotsford, 112 were sheltered through local service providers at locations such as the Salvation Army and the Lookout Society’s Riverside Road facility.
The figures count those without permanent housing who sleep outside, in shelters, and in vehicles. It also includes couch-surfers. On the day of the count, volunteers try to visit spots where homeless men and women frequent or spend the night.
The count is overseen by Ron van Wyk, of the Mennonite Central Committee, who says the process inevitably misses many people, either because they aren’t known to service providers, are missed by counters, or don’t want to participate.
The report delivered Wednesday by van Wyk, suggests the cost of housing is among the largest barriers, with one-third of respondents citing affordability as the reason they weren’t housed. Another 12 per cent cited a lack of suitable housing, while nine per cent blamed addiction, and six per cent pointed to each of discrimination and family breakdown.
Braun said he was also struck by how few respondents were receiving treatment for addiction, mental health, medical and disability issues.
Of the 68 per cent of respondents who said they were addicted to a substance, fewer than a quarter said they were receiving treatment. And only 16 per cent of those who said they had a mental illness (just under half of all respondents) said they were receiving treatment.
“Those two things tell me that we need to do more in those areas,” Braun said.
A startling 49 per cent of respondents also said they are, or were previously, in “Ministry care.”
Those participating in the count were also asked where they lived prior to coming to Abbotsford. The responses indicate that newcomers to Abbotsford come from a variety of other locations, and only a small percentage come from the Vancouver area.
One-third had lived locally in the Fraser Valley, while 35 per cent moved to Abbotsford from another area of B.C. outside of the Metro Vancouver area. Fourteen per cent of respondents came from another part of Canada, while just 13 per cent said they had moved from Metro Vancouver.
Nearly two-thirds of homeless were men, and there was a fairly equal split among age groups, with 16 per cent under 20 years old and 22 per cent of respondents between the ages of 50 and 59.
Braun said the city has been working towards helping its homeless population, and pointed to the creation of a Homelessness Action Plan, the development of a co-ordinated intake referral program and the gradual opening of the Gladys Avenue supportive housing project. Six people are now housed in the 30-unit facility, called Hearthstone Place, with another 24 homeless people set to be welcomed over what the city is calling a “gradual entry phase.”
He also said the city is working to increase the housing stock, given the record-low vacancy rate reported last fall.
A long-time advocate for the need for more housing, van Wyk said the numbers “may dishearten people, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we continue to work on this.”
Still, he said the numbers suggest agencies and governments need to speed up their work.
“We are certainly not responding fast enough, it would appear.”