A plan to solve homelessness in the Cowichan region is realistic and achievable, says Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples, but only if the provincial and federal government will step up to fund community-led solutions.
“We can actually address this, we can actually solve this,” Staples said at a news conference last month. “There has to be a willingness and a commitment from higher levels of government that are responsible for the support dollars that are required to take care of people.”
At the same event, the Cowichan Housing Association released data from its latest Point In Time Count, which seeks to identify as many people experiencing homelessness as possible in a 24-hour period. The survey counted 223 people without housing, and certainly missed many others.
The survey confirmed what frontline workers in the Cowichan Valley have been noticing in recent years: a population of people without housing that is growing and becoming more diverse. More seniors, youth and families are losing their housing, primarily because they can’t find an affordable place to live.
The Cowichan region is not alone. The affordable housing crisis is a trend across B.C. and Canada.
“We’re seeing a new wave of homelessness across the country,” said Julie Rushton, a manager with United Way B.C., at a news conference in Duncan last month.
That new wave includes people with jobs they go to every day, she said. “They get up, they go to work, but they’re stopping at the shelter for a shower in the morning before they go to work.”
“People who are teetering on the edge have fallen into homelessness,” said Shelley Cook, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association. Increasing unaffordability has “accelerated and escalated some of the things that we were already seeing.”
How did we get here?
Since the early 1990s, governments across the country have failed to invest in affordable housing, said Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in a recent interview with The Discourse.
Now, we are seeing the result of that chronic underinvestment. Recent efforts to fill the gap have come in “dribs and drabs,” and not at a pace that can address the housing crisis in the near future, Lee said.
The long-term solution will require substantial government investment in non-market housing, Lee said. In Canada, and in B.C., around 95 per cent of housing is considered market housing. This includes purpose-built rentals, condos, detached housing and homes that are largely driven by the market and built for the purpose of making profit. Those providing non-market housing would only need to break even and cover the operating costs of the buildings.
“You’re just building an asset that’s providing housing as opposed to building an asset that’s providing you an income stream,” Lee says.
The alternative is to pay the economic and social costs of rising homelessness in our communities. And the costs come from more than just a lack of housing.
Lee acknowledges that homelessness intersects with many prevalent issues like affordability, substance use and a lack of mental health and health supports for people — something confirmed by data in the Point in Time Count. He says putting a roof above someone’s head first and foremost could help combat the other issues as well.
“I think to some extent, in order to stabilize people’s health situations, you need housing. And then once you do that, you can then start to maybe deal with some of the addictions or mental health pieces, and then connect them to work,” Lee says.
Getting to zero
Solving homelessness in the Cowichan region is not some impossible dream, said Staples. “I actually believe that that can happen very quickly.”
The pandemic helped unblock funding and other barriers to establish The Village, a temporary housing site that is now broadly considered a success and a model for other communities.
The region had previously submitted a plan to the province to address specific housing needs in the community. But in 2019 it was rejected. After the pandemic hit, emergency funding and a sense of urgency created space for faster, cheaper interventions to shelter those in need.
Higher-level governments need to respond to what communities actually need, instead of offering pre-determined types of funding and programs, Staples said. That’s what happened during the pandemic, and that’s what’s going to work.
Looking ahead, community groups are collaborating to identify exactly what type of housing and support is needed for every individual experiencing homelessness in this region, Staples said.
“We have the ability to say what we need,” she said. “Now we need to advocate and push to other levels of government to fund what we need.”
Some of the numbers
- The 2023 Point in Time Count identified 223 people experiencing homelessness, up from 129 in 2020. The 2023 count surveyed a broader geographic area, but is still considered an undercount of the true number, since many people without housing will not self-identify or seek services.
- Also not counted were those who live in transitional or supportive housing, including 35 people at The Village site, 51 people at the new complex on Paddle Road, and 35 people in transitional housing at Warmland House.
- Insufficient income was the top reason that people lost their housing, at 37 per cent. People also lost their housing due to substance use issues, conflict with a landlord, conflict with a spouse and experiencing abuse.
- The vast majority, 83 per cent, report having at least two health issues.
- Nearly half of those surveyed identify as Indigenous. In the Cowichan region broadly, just 13 per cent of people identify as Indigenous.
- Four in ten people said they’ve always lived in this region, and the vast majority have lived here for at least five years.