VANCOUVER In the 18 years Judy Villeneuve has served on Surrey City Council she has seen the homelessness problem that once used to be largely restricted to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside spill into the suburbs.
In a count of homeless last year by the Greater Vancouver Regional District, Surrey was found to have the second-highest number of people living on the street, after Vancouver.
The count also found homeless people in almost every other municipality in the district, showing that the trend outside the city core is likely to continue, as the Downtown Eastside increasingly loses its stock of cheap housing to market developments.
The GVRD count indicated 371 people were homeless in Surrey, compared with 1,291 in Vancouver. But Ms. Villeneuve, a council member who chairs the mayor's task force on homelessness and housing, said the number in Surrey is now pushing toward 500 -- and in reality is probably a lot worse than that.
"We had a homeless count last spring that came in at about 450 people . . . but I'm certain that for every homeless person that was counted there were three or four that weren't counted, that are living in the bushes, living in cars, in garages, in tents throughout the city," she said.
"A lot of them are mothers with kids. . . . It's just unbelievable."
Ms. Villeneuve said what's frightening about the situation is that Surrey is growing faster than Vancouver and could soon overtake the city in terms of total population.
At the same time, high-end condo developments are starting to move into the Downtown Eastside and low-rent hotels are increasingly being upgraded through conversions, putting them out of reach of people on welfare.
"Twenty-five years ago there was almost no condominium development within 15 blocks of Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. . . . Today there are condominium projects within two blocks . . . and there are hundreds of condominium units currently under construction or in the development process," states the City of Vancouver's housing plan for the Downtown Eastside. The report said more than 1,300 low-rent housing units could be lost over the next decade.
As low-rent housing is lost, an increasing number of people will be forced to live on the streets in the area, or move to outlying communities.
Ms. Villeneuve said most of Surrey's homeless are from Surrey, but an undetermined number have clearly drifted in from the Downtown Eastside. Regardless of where they are coming from, she said, the homeless crisis now gripping Vancouver might soon be just as bad in Surrey. Already it is a major problem that is putting an enormous strain on her community.
"People are aware of it and it's having a pretty dramatic effect on some business areas, like in Whalley and Cloverdale particularly," she said, where panhandling and the sight of people sleeping in alleys are hurting commerce, just as it has been in Vancouver where convention business and tourism have suffered.
With the homelessness problem projected to triple by 2010, many have begun to worry about what face Vancouver will show to the world during the Olympic Games.
Will it be a homeless person like Francis McAllister, the man who died sleeping on Vancouver's streets last December?
"Homelessness is going to be an Olympic issue. When people show up and see the homeless, they will be shocked," said David Eby, of Pivot Legal Society.
"My gut feeling is things are going to be really bad in 2010 when the Olympics take place.
"The remedies we need to engage in are significant and there is insignificant [political] will to solve these problems," Mr. Eby said.
Ms. Villeneuve agreed and added it makes no sense for government to spend money on the Olympics, in order to promote B.C.'s international image, without addressing the homelessness crisis.
"I support the Olympics, but not at the cost of people dying in the streets," she said.
"Long term, it's very, very damaging to have so many homeless people on our streets. It's already starting to affect the reputation of Vancouver and the outlying areas as a good place to live."
Ms. Villeneuve said political leaders also need to consider the continuing and uncounted economic impact caused by the demands the homeless place on health, police and other services.