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Homelessness in Burnaby increased by 69% in three years

A homeless senior is seen at a bus stop in Burnaby, B.C., in December 2023. A homeless senior is seen at a bus stop in Burnaby, B.C., in December 2023.
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Every year, more people in Burnaby find themselves struggling with housing insecurity, with more people losing their housing, living in vehicles, couch surfing with relatives or friends, or, for some, completely unsheltered. According to the report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Unsheltered Community Members, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Burnaby has increased by 69% between 2020 and 2023.

“In Burnaby, the number of people experiencing homelessness rose from 124 in 2020 to 209 in 2023, resulting in a 69% increase. Of this total, 77 people were unsheltered which was a notable surge from the recorded 19 people who were unsheltered in 2020,” the report said.

The 27-page report, submitted to council on June 24, is the result of a year’s work by the task force whose mandate was to examine the causes of homelessness in Burnaby, engage with people with lived experience and front-line workers, and provide recommendations to ensure homelessness in Burnaby is “rare, brief, and one-time.”

Coun. Maita Santiago chaired the task force, and in an interview with the Beacon in October 2023, she spoke about the pathways to homelessness in Burnaby and council’s approach to finding solutions.

The task force held seven meetings between June 2023 and April 2024 and included members of the government, non-profit organizations, front-line workers, and RCMP. It gathered information from various sources, explored ideas for action, and made recommendations.

Santiago said that through the task force’s research, it became apparent that many people struggle with homelessness due to rising living and housing costs in Burnaby.

“It’s such a complex issue, and people have different paths into homelessness. So, on the task force, we have representatives on it from Fraser Health, BC Housing, community non-profits, and we also have members with lived experience,” Santiago told the Beacon. “It’s going to take a holistic and comprehensive approach.”

According to the task force’s report, “The fastest growing homeless demographic in Metro Vancouver is seniors, so accessibility for this population, which may have chronic physical health issues as well as limited mobility, needs to be addressed.”

This information was echoed by an extensive report on homelessness among seniors released by United Way BC in November 2023.

“An increasing number of seniors, who have worked all their lives, are finding themselves on the verge of homelessness or experiencing homelessness for the first time in their 60s and 70s,” the United Way report said.

Homelessness discussed in council

Lee-Ann Garnett, deputy general manager for planning and development, introduced the report at council’s June 24 meeting.

“There are two main big-picture lessons that all of us took from this, and that is for a number of years, we’ve been approaching homelessness in a more reactive way, and this strategy we’re about to present tonight will help put us in the position of being more strategic and proactive,” she said. “Second, we can’t do any of this work alone, and the key feature of the task force was a broad representation that we have, and so that will have to continue to be able to implement the work.”

Task force facilitator Diana Bulley presented the recommendations to council. Bulley said an interagency working group has already been created to help implement the recommendations, and it includes the city’s intervention support workers, Fraser Health’s Integrated Homelessness Action Response Teams (IHART), and Progressive Housing Society’s outreach workers. 

“If these recommendations are approved, a progress report would come forward no later than September 30 and the plan would be supported by a robust communication and community engagement strategy to ensure people are aware of the work that’s taking place,” Bulley said.

During the meeting, Santiago said, “As we move forward, I hope that we continue to prioritize empathy as we consider the actions that we undertake and so that our goal is always at the forefront, and that’s to have a city where homelessness is something that’s rare, brief and one-time.”

Coun. Pietro Calendino supported the report and said that other orders of government have not been fulfilling their responsibilities regarding housing affordability for the past four or five decades. He said federal and provincial governments need to take on part of the responsibility for reducing homelessness.

Coun. Sav Dhaliwal also expressed support for the task force’s work but commented on housing affordability.

“Even one unsheltered person is one too many,” Dhaliwal said. “At one time, we all thought this was perhaps due to mental illness or due to some kind of substance use, but that’s not true. We know many people are homeless because they cannot afford it. They are living in their vehicles, they’re going from place to place, being moved, and some of them are working people too. They have a job but can’t afford to live here.”

Dhaliwal added that people’s incomes need to keep pace with rising costs, and everyone should have a minimum income. Focusing on increasing the housing supply will not solve the affordability crisis.

“We can build everywhere from here to Hope; if people can’t afford to live in the buildings, it’s not going to do us any good,” Dhaliwal said.

Lived experiences

The task force report is revealing. It includes various quotes from people with lived experience of homelessness who spoke about the challenges and barriers they face when trying to find housing. The report, which included quotes from unnamed people with lived experiences of being unsheltered or unhoused, showed some obstacles unique to people with this experience.

Some individuals struggling with homelessness said one obstacle they face is the bureaucratic nature of the system, which fails to consider the unique circumstances of unhoused people, who often do not have an address, access to phones, or email. Another obstacle is the short-term nature of some programs, which become discontinued once funding runs out.

“If you’re not part of the system or on the list for help, ‘normies’ don’t accept you, but the government doesn’t help you either—we are falling through the cracks,” one person said.

People experiencing homelessness also face discrimination when trying to find a place to rent. Landlords often require background checks, references, and other requirements to protect their property. Unhoused people frequently cannot meet those requirements.

“We have the money to pay rent and just want to be safe. But when my partner and I go to look at homes together, they take one look at me and say no straight away,” the report quoted one person with lived experience with homelessness.

 Front-line staff who work with people struggling with homelessness also had a lot to say about the current situation. The city held two consultation sessions with staff who work with unsheltered community members, including members of the RCMP, Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Progressive Housing Society, City of Burnaby: Bylaw Services, Parks Operations, Intervention Support, and front-line shelter staff.

Front-line workers identified several issues that need to be addressed, including the lack of shelter space, overreliance on enforcement, unrealistic expectations, and bureaucracy.

“It is unrealistic that we expect unhoused people to call for services as they often do not have phones, and if they miss a call, they are dropped [out of the process],” one unnamed front-line worker was quoted in the report.

Front-line workers also said there is a lack of healthcare or support for people with specific health problems, such as substance use disorders or seniors with age-related diseases.

“1/3 of people in shelters are seniors and have complex needs (heart disease, liver failure),” one front-line worker was quoted in the report.

“There are only 3 or 4 detox centres in the Lower Mainland. How is there not more support?” another front-line worker said.

In addition, current shelter spaces fail to meet the needs of specific demographics, who may find the existing arrangements unsafe or inaccessible.

“Shelters are not a safe space for women or transgender people, so people are reluctant to go there,” one front-line worker said.

The task force’s recommendations

The report concluded with recommendations for actions that would either start immediately or, at the latest, at the end of October 2024. The recommendations are in four key focus areas: creating shelter spaces, developing a more comprehensive range of housing types to meet needs, coordinating an interagency response, and providing support services to unsheltered community members.

Some of the areas covered by the recommendations include developing a shelter strategy for the city that would meet the needs of the various unhoused people, including seniors, women, transgender individuals, and others with special needs while providing dignified, secure spaces for people struggling with homelessness.

The recommendations also included increasing supportive housing, complex care, and dedicated affordable housing. The report also recommends creating a by-name list of unsheltered people in Burnaby to provide accurate data and keep track of progress.

As the city starts to address the issue and take action based on the recommendations, whether this will solve the problem remains to be seen. Hundreds of people in Burnaby continue to struggle to survive or keep a roof over their heads as living costs continue to rise. 

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