Seniors are becoming the new face of the Cowichan region’s housing crisis

With an aging population and an escalating housing crisis, more low-income seniors in the Cowichan region are facing homelessness.

This investigation is part of our series on seniors’ housing, Aging Out Of Place. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on our reporting.

Content warning: This story discusses suicide and mental health struggles. If you need help, reach out. The Vancouver Island Crisis Line is at 1‑888‑494‑3888.

It’s a rainy Thursday morning in May, and a handful of unhoused residents are huddled around a table at Lake Cowichan’s Saywell Park. They’re sheltered from the rain in a covered picnic area, but there’s no escaping the record-breaking cold. It feels more like January than May, someone complains, and cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the damp air. 

Among the group is 67-year-old Randy Thoresen, who sits silently, rubbing his knees underneath the table. He’s bundled up in a sweater with a rain jacket pulled over it, his white hair hidden under a ballcap. 

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Randy Thorensen, a white man with white hair and a beard, stands under the covered picnic area where he's been sleeping. He is wearing a raincoat over a black jacket, with a black baseball cap on.
Randy Thorensen stands under the Saywell Park structure where he’s been sleeping this month. During an especially wet spring, the picnic area provides little to no shelter. Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

I’ve been in touch with Randy for a few weeks over the phone, and I’m here now because he’s invited me to meet in person. Recently homeless, Randy is one of a handful of unhoused seniors I’m in touch with. When asked about his story, he speaks stoically, softly.

While Randy’s technically only been unhoused for a couple of months, he’s struggled to find adequate housing for three years. Before then, he says things were relatively stable — he was retired, living in an apartment in Duncan with his partner.

But two days after her death in 2019, Randy’s landlord served him an eviction notice. He says that’s when his situation changed for the worse.

Randy moved to Lake Cowichan in the wake of his eviction, hoping to find cheaper housing. The senior lives off of his government pension, with no savings to fall back on. At the time of his move, his modest budget limited his housing options, and he ended up staying in a trailer on a Lake Cowichan property.

“I was staying in a pop-up tent trailer …full of mold,” Randy says. “Then I was told I had to find another situation, but I can’t afford [to pay] $1,500 a month [in rent].”

Slim pickings

Randy is one of countless Cowichan Valley residents struggling to find housing. Over the past five years, the region’s housing market has become increasingly unaffordable, putting a financial strain on residents of all ages and incomes. 

But elderly residents like Randy are more likely to be impacted by the housing crisis. Among those who rent in the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD), low-income senior citizens have been deemed “especially vulnerable to unstable housing conditions” by the district’s January 2021 Regional Housing Needs Assessment Report.  

Seniors have more difficulty living on a limited fixed income, subsidizing their pensions and adapting to the difficulties of housing shortages. For elderly residents who are already stretched thin financially, a rent hike can mean the difference between sleeping in a bed and sleeping on the ground.

As the overall number of seniors increases across Canada due to the aging “Baby Boomer” generation, the number of low-income seniors will also grow, straining existing support systems. 

According to the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, the number of B.C. seniors living in poverty more than doubled from 33,780 affected seniors in 2000 to 70,990 in 2015. Additionally, the province’s Housing Registry noted a 60 per cent increase in seniors on the waitlist for subsidized housing between 2012 and 2017.

In the Cowichan Valley, the available housing stock is particularly unsuitable for low-income seniors. In fact, the CVRD’s 2021 Regional Housing Needs Assessment Report highlighted a lack of suitable dwelling sizes to meet aging residents’ needs, citing a serious lack of available one-bedroom units in the valley. 

According to the report, a mere 9 per cent of homes in the region are single-bedroom units, compared to an average of 16 per cent for the rest of B.C. 

Increasingly, low-income seniors in the Cowichan Valley have turned to subsidized housing, but these options are extremely limited. 

According to a statement from BC Housing, there are currently 590 provincially-funded affordable housing units in the CVRD. Each of those units is full, with 306 applicants on the waitlist.

Of these pending applications, 119 of them — or over a third — are aged 55 and older.

Randy says he first filled out an application for BC Housing four years ago. After hearing nothing from the agency for over three years, he says he reapplied in January 2022. He still has not heard back. 

When reached for comment, BC Housing said it could not estimate the average wait time for subsidized housing. 

“How quickly a household may receive an offer of accommodation depends on unit turnover and the needs of all other applicants in the database,” a spokesperson for the agency explains. 

“Priority is given to households experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness,” they add. “For this reason, it is important that people who are registered… ‘check in’ every six months to keep their file up to date.”

COVID-19 complications

Since 2021, Randy’s General Income Supplement (GIS) for low-income seniors has been cut drastically to reimburse the taxable income he received through CERB payments earlier in the pandemic. Like many seniors, this came as a surprise to Randy. 

“I only get $900 per month now… That isn’t enough for anything,” he says. “The government said they would send us more [money] in April, but I haven’t gotten anything yet.”

Because of his reduced GIS income, Randy’s options were slim after being forced to leave his mouldy trailer in March 2022.

Randy has two daughters who live in Duncan, but with four kids, he says they have no room for him in their two-bedroom apartment — although he’s been able to leave most of his belongings there for safekeeping.

Randy says he would be happy to continue camping at Gordon Bay Provincial Park, where he’s been sleeping in a tent since March. But even that situation eventually fell through. 

Randy Thorensen, a white man with white hair and a beard, stands under the covered picnic area where he's been sleeping. He is wearing a raincoat over a black jacket, with a black baseball cap on.
Even with a sweater and jacket on, sleeping outside in the rain puts 67-year-old Randy Thoresen at risk. Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

Three days before our meeting, Randy says he and a family friend he calls “nephew” were asked to leave their campsite. 

“They said our fourteen days had run out,” he remembers, referring to a BC Parks regulation preventing campers from staying in one site longer than two weeks per year.

When I ask him if he tried to pay for more nights, Randy claims park staff refused to renew their stay.

“They just said ‘we can’t do it’, that’s all they told us.” When I reached out to K2 Cowichan — the group that manages the park — to ask about the situation, they told me Randy had already reached the fourteen-day limit that applies to provincial campsite stays. 

“We gave him a grace period of four days to be able to find somewhere to go as we were working to uphold [BC Parks’] maximum stay policies while having sympathy for his situation,” the gatekeeping attendant tells me, referencing Randy’s first two-week stay that ended in early April. “Randy then returned with someone else,” the attendant added. “[They] stayed the 14 day maximum in [another site].”

After being asked to leave the park, Randy now sleeps on the concrete floor of Sayward Park’s covered picnic area, surviving off of a combination of his limited income, donations from the food bank and gift cards he receives in exchange for odd jobs. 

“On days like this,” he tells me, gesturing to the rain coming down around us, “This is the only shelter there is that isn’t a hotel.”

Council quashes potential modular solution

With subsidized housing in such high demand, the province and municipalities on Vancouver Island have begun piloting potential solutions for sheltering unhoused residents.

In December 2021, Duncan city council approved the installation of 34 modular sleeping cabins for unhoused residents on Trunk Road. The site replaced earlier tent and cabin sites that were established as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

a simple bed and armoire inside a shipping container with a window
Inside one of the temporary sleeping units at “The Village” on Trunk Road. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

In Lake Cowichan, the unhoused community’s hopes for a similar project were recently dashed when the municipal council unanimously voted against accepting the units from the province this spring. Although he has never seen the new units in Duncan, Randy says he would be glad just to have a private, indoor space to sleep in.

“It’s better than being outside,” he says.

According to Lake Cowichan Mayor Bob Day, council voted against the cabins because the province’s offer did not include funding for supportive services alongside the units.

“We didn’t have the funding in place for the services it takes to manage [cabins] … 24-7 security and some counselling,” says Day. “The model that [the cabins were] meant to go by, in the beginning, was like the one they have in the Duncan area,” Day explains.

“They got money for the services that go with it. We didn’t, and we weren’t able to fund that through municipal taxes.”

Katherine Worsley is a member of the Cowichan Lake Chamber of Commerce. She also volunteers with the Cowichan Lake Food Bank Society, working closely with Randy and other unhoused residents. Worsley says she doesn’t understand the logic behind the council’s decision. 

“The lack of support for having somewhere to rent has been unbelievable … So I support having cabins even as a prototype to start off,” Worsley explains. “I think that definitely putting [our unhoused residents] under cover, giving them some kind of support so the community knows where they are, would help.”

Being unable to keep track of unhoused residents makes it difficult to bring support to them, she adds. “Right now we don’t know where they are. They’re either at a campground, or on a doorstep, or behind someone’s back yard … I think [cabin housing] would be safer for them.”

Secure rental units few and far between 

The Cowichan Valley has a much lower density housing composition than the rest of B.C.  Although the construction of purpose-built rental units has increased exponentially nationwide since 2014, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation says the total number of apartment-style rentals in the Cowichan Valley has actually decreased since 2006, now representing only about half of the provincial average. 

Meanwhile, detached homes continue to make up about three-quarters of the housing supply in the CVRD, just as they did over fifteen years ago. 

As a result, most rental stock in the Cowichan Valley is provided through what is known as the “secondary rental market,” made up of suites within detached homes and condos that owners rent out privately. 

Secondary rental units are especially precarious because they can easily be “flipped”: rented units become owner-occupied, or owners decide to rent out their units to family. Moreover, the risk of landlords renovating and re-listing or selling their rental units puts additional strain on tenants.

While a general housing shortage is driving prices up across the board, local experts say the specific lack of single-bedroom rental units is undermining affordability for low-income seniors.

“The [seniors] that I’m working with are super low income, and they’re looking for room rentals in the $500 to $1,100 price range,” says Theresa Darling, Housing Loss Prevention coordinator at the Cowichan Housing Association (CHA). 

“On average, the rents that I’m coming across are around $1,500 for a one-bedroom. And that’s beyond most of their incomes, which are $1,400 to $1,600 a month in total. So it just doesn’t match up.”

While most low-income seniors collect less than $2,000 per month in total income, local data puts the price of most one-bedroom units well above this amount. 

Additionally, those needing extra support as they age are faced with further barriers. According to the 2021 BC Seniors Housing Survey, the average cost for a one-bedroom unit in an “independent living space” in the Duncan/Cowichan area for 2021 was $2,371 per month, or $28,452 per year. 

These figures show a disconnect between the cost of available housing and what most single seniors living on a fixed income can afford. While BC Housing offers subsidized units to vulnerable renters, the shortage of available and affordable rental units has become so extreme that such programs are already overrun. 

More low-income seniors turning to unstable housing

The Cowichan Valley has fewer affordable purpose-built rental units suitable for single occupants than the rest of the province. However, moveable dwellings like vans and trailers make up a larger share of the housing stock here than in the rest of B.C., and this number is on the rise. 

For a growing number of low-income seniors, moving into one of these alternative-style dwellings might feel like the only option left. 

“I’ve seen a terrible impact,” Darling says. “Some of the seniors who have reached out to me are essentially homeless — they’re living in motels, they’re couchsurfing. Or they’re living in motorhomes or vans.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says Randy’s situation is part of a clear trend. Anne Brunet, associate executive director of the CMHA Cowichan Valley Branch, confirms the organization has seen a shift in the profiles of those seeking support. 

According to Brunet, over 60 per cent of the individuals taking beds in CMHA-run emergency shelters, such as Duncan’s Warmland House, are now over the age of 60. 

“Most are men, many have mobility issues … and most do not have addiction issues,” Brunet adds. 

She says this trend has become increasingly apparent in the last year and is a direct result of the lack of affordable housing available to low-income seniors. 

“It is difficult to find secure housing with a basic income, let alone on income assistance,” Brunet explains. “The competitive market creates a struggle for those unable to provide proof of employment or rental references.” 

When even camping can’t last

Randy’s no stranger to navigating the unstable housing market, and tells me he’s “tried everything.” He’s exhausted all his housing options, both online and off, from East Cowichan to East Nanaimo. In the end, he was forced to turn to camping this year.

Two green and white tents sit on a Gordon Bay Provincial Park campsite.
Randy and his nephew’s tents in Gordon Bay Provincial Park, from which he was evicted 3 days prior to our meeting at Saywell Park. Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

But even camping in a provincial park has proven unsustainable. Despite the park being mostly vacant, Randy and his nephew have recently been asked to leave their site because of the official 14-day limit on all BC Park stays. 

“There’s only 60 sites open out of 124,” Randy tells me, referring to the fact that the campground is only partially operating until the long weekend at the end of May when the summer season begins. “They should have campsites open for the homeless.” He says he would be happy to keep camping there if he could.

When I first meet with Randy in person, he tells me their tents are still at Gordon Bay. Neither he nor his nephew has access to a vehicle, and the walk from the campground to the bus stop along the highway is about two kilometres long.

Randy’s nephew says it usually takes them the better part of an hour to get to the stop on foot, and once there, they may have to wait another hour or two for the bus to actually arrive. 

Hearing this, I offer the pair a ride to the campsite, and Randy sends his nephew with me to find their gear while he stays in town. Along the way, Randy’s nephew — who tells me his name is also Randy, cementing the nickname ‘nephew’ in my mind — asks if he can turn on the radio. He soon finds the classic rock station and starts enthusiastically singing along. 

“I used to be in a band,” he says proudly. “I played drums.” 

Randy’s nephew points out Western Equipment LTD near Mesachie Lake when we drive past it, telling me he used to work for the company before losing his job due to a hand injury. Between his hand and his Crohn’s disease, he says he was forced to stop working and enroll in government disability assistance instead.

A sign welcoming visitors to Gordon Bay Provincial Park reads, "Welcome to BC Parks. You belong here. BC Parks are inclusive, diverse, and respectful places where everyone is welcome."
The entrance to Gordon Bay Provincial Campground, where Randy Thoresen and his nephew were camping until recently. Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

As we drive into the park, Randy’s nephew turns the music down to point out the welcome sign, which reads ‘You belong here.’ “Pretty ironic, don’t you think?” he mutters. 

The campsite where Randy and his nephew stayed until early May is sparse — two basic tents pitched side-by-side next to a few bags filled with recycling. The pair appear to have kept fewer things at their long-term home than I’d bring for myself on a weekend camping trip. 

I look inside Randy’s tent, spotting only a single air mattress, a tarp, a beach towel and an old paperback book. Randy seemed happy enough with this living situation, but now he’s been cut off from that, too.

Inside Randy's green tent, where a bare blow-up mattress, a tarp, a paperback book and some blankets remain.
Randy Thorensen’s tent, which was still pitched at Gordon Bay Provincial Park 3 after he and his nephew left the site. Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

As we pack the blankets and towels into my van, Randy’s nephew vents to me about having to vacate their site. 

“You know, it’s not like we’re bothering anyone or leaving [garbage] everywhere,” he says. “No needles or nothing like that … this is abuse of a senior.”

The mental health impacts of housing insecurity

Moving around a lot, scrounging for meals, sleeping outside — for low-income seniors struggling to find a home in a competitive market, uncertainty around housing and the realities of homelessness can have a serious impact on mental health.   

“These are our senior citizens, and they deserve safe and healthy living environments to live out their senior years,” Darling says. “But instead, they’re living in precarious housing situations that are having an impact on their overall wellbeing.”

The director of the CHA, Shelley Cook, says relocation can be overwhelming for seniors, especially if they’re not sure where they’re going to go.

“Say you’ve lived somewhere for 30 years … And now you’re faced with homelessness,” explains Cook. “And so asking, ‘where do you even begin’ … that’s extremely difficult.”

Cook says the impacts she is observing through outreach have become so severe the CHA is worried about low-income seniors being driven to suicide. 

“Something that I’m concerned about is seniors killing themselves, because they didn’t know what to do,” she explains. Before working in the Valley, Cook worked with unhoused residents in the Okanagan, where she says she witnessed dispossessed seniors commit suicide instead of continuing to struggle.

“While I have not witnessed any of our clients [in Duncan] being suicidal,” adds Darling, “the lack of available and affordable housing is causing a great deal of emotional despair.”  

In 2019 and 2020, those aged 50 to 59 years old committed the most suicides in B.C., with 117 and 108 deaths reported respectively. Moreover, the data collected for the first two months of 2021 suggests a possible increase, with 25 suicides reported in the same age category.

Peer support fills the gaps

Randy says he’s aware some of his fellow low-income seniors might have already turned to suicide. 

“I’ve heard talk about it around town,” he says. 

He credits his family network for helping him persevere through the tough times. “I won’t do that because I got my children, my grandchildren to think of,” he explains. 

Randy’s familial ties also appear to extend beyond his blood relatives, including his fellow unhoused residents, who have affectionately nicknamed him “Uncle.” 

When the topic of suicide comes up, the group quiets under the gazebo. There’s a lingering moment of grief, but it’s quickly dispelled by Randy’s nephew.

“We all take care of eachother,” he affirms. “I take care of Uncle. We sleep here next to each other, head to the wall.” 

Randy’s become an elder and mentor to the others in his circle. He’s spoken to with respect and concern, and others check in with him regularly to see how he is holding up.  

“He’s almost seventy years old. This is no way to treat a senior citizen,” his nephew laments repeatedly. “Poor guy ain’t done nothing wrong. Look at where he sleeps!”

And just like a responsible elder, Randy doesn’t hesitate to lay down the law when he sees fit. When his nephew jokes around a little too crudely for his taste during our interview, Randy chastises him. 

Randy Thorensen and his nephew, Randy O, sit together at a picnic bench. Randy's nephew is a white man with facial hair wearing a navy blue coat and jeans. He looks directly at the camera and holds a hand up in a gang sign.
Randy Thorensen (right) and his nephew Randy O. sit under a structure in Lake Cowichan’s Saywell Park, where both men are currently sleeping. Randy’s nephew throws up a gang sign for one photo, before Randy pushes his hand down and tells him to “behave.” Photo by Joe Paris/The Discourse

“Stop it, that’s enough,” he hisses. “He doesn’t want to hear that.” When it comes time for pictures, Randy pulls his nephew’s arm down when he tries to throw up a gang sign. 

Eventually, when his nephew is out of earshot, Randy leans in and tells me gently, “you know, I also take care of him.” 

Restoring affordability is a ‘mammoth undertaking’

As affordability continues to plummet and a growing number of low-income seniors struggle to keep up, experts say governments will need to innovate to meet this challenge head-on. 

“The horse is really far out of the barn,” says Eric Swanson of ThirdSpace planning, a housing policy consultancy based in Victoria. “We’ve allowed, at all levels of government, for the problem to get really, really bad… to work to achieve some level of affordability for all is just a mammoth undertaking.” 

Research tracking poverty rates among seniors in B.C. shows worrying trends and points towards worsening conditions in the future if current conditions are left unchecked.

According to the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, B.C. had the highest poverty rate for seniors in Canada in 2018. Their report showed 8 per cent of BC seniors living in poverty, compared to a national average of 6 per cent. This number doubled among single seniors, with 16 per cent of single elderly British Columbians living below the poverty line in 2018.

The Cowichan Valley is home to an aging population, meaning more low-income seniors may be forced into similar positions soon unless action is taken.

According to the district’s own long-range projections, the number of seniors between the ages of 75 and 84 is expected to climb by 101 per cent by the year 2050, and the population above 85 years old is projected to grow by 221 per cent. The next largest projected increase is in the 24 to 35 age group, which is expected to expand only by 32 per cent. 

Referring to what she sees as a growing fear within the community that increased support might attract more unhoused people to Lake Cowichan, Worsley explained existing residents are the ones at risk.

“There’s renovictions that have happened… we’ve had more in our community,” she explains. “It’s not about that [unhoused people] will come here … more people [from the community] are going to be affected.”

Despite his situation, Randy says he’s managed to stay positive throughout his experience with homelessness. “My physical and mental health, I haven’t had any problems with that,” he says. “I haven’t given up.” 

Still, Randy’s exasperated. He says the answer to the region’s housing issues is strikingly clear. 

“If you come up to Lake Cowichan, you can see all the empty houses here,” he says. “There’s so many of them… get the owners to rent them out or sell them.” 

When I ask what he would say to politicians making policy decisions around housing, his answer is straightforward and steadfast.

“Tell them to come here and live like us for the week, then see how they feel.” [end]

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