Working and homeless in Vancouver
by Marion Van Driel
The stereotype of a homeless person assumes someone bundled up in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, soliciting handouts from passing pedestrians or vehicles (whose windshields they may clean, often to the dismay of the driver). They schlep a grocery cart, with the sum total of their belongings, down the street. They are dirty, and for the most part, unapproachable, other than to have a bill or a bit of change quickly tossed into their donation receptacle. They live with addiction and/or suffer from mental illness. It’s hard to know how they survive the cold concrete and dangers on the street. We shake our heads sadly, and wonder how they got there.
What we may find surprising is that a segment of the Vancouver homeless, an estimated two in ten, hold down jobs, yet have no permanent roof over their heads. They work menial jobs because it’s next to impossible to get decent work when you can’t provide an address on your application. A host of complications follow.
Stephen Milner, Case Manager at UGM’s Hastings Chaplaincy and Outreach, explains that homelessness is simply a factor of poverty. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, gender, what socioeconomic status you’re born into, your state of mental health or your relationship with substances. There are multiple reasons for poverty, but one that stands out is the present Real Estate market, which focuses on luxury condominiums and homes with price tags far beyond what the average person can afford. “It’s pushed a lot people in the Lower Mainland to being one paycheck away from being on the street,” Milner says. “It’s not even so much a lack of housing; it’s a lack of affordable housing. I’m hearing ‘I’m newly homeless’ or ‘I’ve never been homeless before’ a lot more in the last few months.”
Cars and camps
Milner sees an increasing number of people choosing to live in their cars or in camps as a result of landlords updating rental properties and increasing rent. Once people start living in their vehicle, “it’s a slippery slope.” No fixed address leads a person’s inability to apply for better jobs; their vehicle (now their home) could be towed while they’re away, incurring costs to get it – and all their belongings – back, with money they don’t have. There’s the issue of personal hygiene and appearance, which, if not maintained, could result in job loss. Inability to access proper food and get decent rest affect productivity at work and eventual job loss. The downward spiral is well on its way. Emergency shelters generally have timelines attached, although at UGM, exceptions are made for people who are actively working on specific goals.
“There’s a lot of guys making $20/hour, . . . living in tents with other people who are homeless because there’s safety in numbers,” says Milner. Those who have jobs live in community with those who don’t; each knows that their neighbour might have mental illness issues, may have a substance use issue. But the common thread that binds them together is the fact that they don’t have a place to live, and they’ve chosen to live in community and be safe together.
A roof for everyone
Milner asserts that everyone has a right to safe shelter. The last homeless count in Metro Vancouver alone was around 3,000. Transitional housing between emergency shelter beds and permanent housing is sorely lacking. SRO (Single Room Occupancy) lodging often presents third-world conditions, with neighbours involved in an addicted lifestyle, in criminal activity, and is often situated over an establishment that sells alcohol. These places present an easy re-entry into the addicted lifestyle. Milner points out that the first step into addiction is a disconnection from a person’s resources – their support network of family, friends, faith community – and is really when addiction takes a firm hold. “It’s that sense of ‘nobody cares, nobody loves; nobody will notice if I’m not here tomorrow.’” That’s where his work comes in – walking alongside men, giving them the assurance that someone does care and is there to help.
There are social enterprises offering jobs – usually for unskilled laborers – that at least provide the worker an employment history, a sense of accomplishment, and a bit of cash while they’re searching for something more suitable.
Completely lacking in Vancouver are places for families to be together. If a family can no longer afford rent and finds themselves homeless, there are only separate shelters available for women and children, and separately for men. “Families can’t be together at night, hold each other and help each other keep out the dark thoughts,” reveals Milner. It’s a recipe for relational and mental health strain.