Last week, the Society to End Homelessness delegation spoke at the city council meeting. Executive director Carol-Ann Flanagan gave a presentation on the current status of homelessness and the unsheltered in Burnaby. The presentation comes after BC Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon released an official statement on Oct. 10 marking Homelessness Action Week, in which he recognized volunteers and organizations working to end homelessness.
“Through our work, in collaboration with local governments, nonprofits, and Indigenous partners, 4,800 people have moved into supportive homes since we formed government. In 2022, we invested $633 million to take action against homelessness, and this year, we’re investing up to $1.5 billion through Budget 2023 in new initiatives aimed at helping prevent and reduce homelessness in the province,” Kahlon said in the statement.
As an advocate and someone who works with people experiencing homelessness, Flanagan offered some sobering statistics and observations about unsheltered and unhoused persons in the city. According to Flanagan, 1,320 people accessed extreme weather response (EWR) services in 2022-2023; 166 were women, 160 had known disabilities and used wheelchairs, walkers, or canes, 123 were seniors, and 128 were Indigenous.
The large majority of unhoused people who participated in the survey have lived in Burnaby for a year or more, about 67% of respondents. In addition, 27% of respondents identified as Indigenous, and of them, 60% stated that they had lived in or had generational residential school experience. “We know those who are unsheltered want to stay in their community. Burnaby is their community. They’re not coming from other places,” Flanagan added.
In addition to providing data and statistics, Flanagan told the stories of people struggling to find shelter in Burnaby. “There was a homeless man who was actually living on the steps of the church where my office is. He had a lot of medical problems; right now, he’s in Burnaby General, and we’re trying to get him into assisted living,” she said. ”He’s 63 years old, he's been on the streets for 18 months. He would not have survived another winter.”
The shelters are also severely lacking in necessary equipment and space. “I have witnessed an 80-year-old woman in a wheelchair being pushed by her 60-year-old son; both are homeless. And what we offer them is a mat on the ground, a mat. That’s just one example,” Flanagan said, adding that shelters desperately need extra cots for people to sleep on. Flanagan also said there were several unhoused children under 18, some of whom were counted in their high schools.
Flanagan also described a severe lack of treatment services for people with addiction. “When someone has an addiction issue, and they want to get treatment, there’s a very small window that they’ll take, when they’ll say yes, I’ll go for treatment. Except that there’s no treatment space, there’s nothing…We do need to have more treatment space here in Burnaby.”
According to Flanagan, not all unhoused individuals are unemployed or have addiction issues. “There are some people in the shelter that will get up at six in the morning and go to work,” she said, adding that by the time they try to save up money to find a place to live, rental costs have increased, and they cannot afford to rent a home.
On a local government level, The Beacon spoke with Coun. Maita Santiago, chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Unsheltered Community, on Oct. 12. One of the striking details about the numbers and statistics Santiago quoted is that the counted number of unhoused people increased by 80% from 2017 to 2020. Even more alarming is that the number of unhoused persons in Burnaby increased by an additional 69% from 2020 to 2023.
According to Santiago, “For many years, the city actually had a really limited response to homelessness. When Mayor Hurley was elected in 2018, that’s when we were able to take a number of initiatives to respond to the issue.”
The recently created task force has been researching the various pathways to homelessness and how to prevent them. Through a focus group and survey, the task force discovered that one of the main reasons people become unhoused is a loss of housing and the inability to afford new housing. Aside from Santiago, the task force also includes Coun. Daniel Tetrault as well as Mayor Mike Hurley and representatives from “Fraser Health, BC Housing, community nonprofits, and we also have members with lived experience,” Santiago said.
Santiago highlighted some of the task force’s achievements, such as creating new positions in the city; the first is for a manager of intervention services, and the second is for staff to support the manager. The new city staff members will be responsible for outreach and to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are connected to services.
Santiago said that the goal of the mayor’s task force is to make Burnaby a city where “homelessness is rare, brief and one-time.” The task force aims to complete its work in March 2024 and will focus on three key areas: gathering data to create a situation analysis, exploring ideas for action, and making recommendations.
Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon