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.
"If the federal and provincial government don't get moving on this issue, we're going to see an increased number of people living on the streets everywhere," she said.
"We're going to see increased crime rates because people become desperate. . . . People in shelters say, 'When I leave the shelter I have no place to go and I will have to commit a crime so I can put a roof over my head, whether it's in a seedy hotel or someplace else.' They admit they have to do that in order to exist. So what it does is create a lot of safety and security issues in neighbourhoods in general and it increases the city's costs in funding police and fire and bylaw services."
Ms. Villeneuve said there is a constant demand on the health-care system because most homeless people have medical problems that require emergency services.
"It's putting tremendous costs on our health-care system. Our hospitals are under such strain now they have no way of dealing with the number of people accessing emergency services and needing psychiatric care. It's very difficult for them to release people when they have no place to release them to. And they are seeing people that are living on the street, with health problems getting much worse than they were, because the longer they are on the street the more intense their health problems become. So it's having a very negative effect on the health-care system and on people's lives in general."
Ms. Villeneuve, whose council has set up an $8.4-million homelessness fund and is pursuing partnerships with businesses to develop social housing, said the provincial and federal governments need to tackle the problem.
"In one of the richest provinces . . . we should be able to address this problem. . . . There's money to do other things," she said.
Others agree there is an urgent need for action.
Last October, the leaders of a dozen key business organizations in B.C. sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Gordon Campbell and Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, asking them to work together on the problem.
"Vancouver is in the grip of an urban malignancy manifested by an open drug market, rising property crime, aggressive panhandling and a visible, growing population of the homeless," said the letter, sent by the Vancouver Board of Trade, Retail B.C., the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C., and other organizations representing more than 80,000 members and employees.
Although the letter raised concerns about how the justice system was dealing with street crime, the underlying theme was the "urgent" need for government to address the root cause of the problem: homelessness.
"There is a growing consensus that our community is at a defining moment and that we need a new approach and bold leadership," the letter said.
A city's sympathy
Vancouver residents don't blame the homeless for their plight, but see the lack of housing as a relatively minor cause, a poll by The Strategic Counsel indicates. The most common reaction to the homeless, according to the poll, is one of sympathy, although close to half of respondents stay away from parts of the city in order to avoid street people. Large numbers of respondents saw substance abuse and mental health problems as the chief causes of homelessness, with the lack of affordable housing running a distant third. Even fewer respondents believed that the homeless were on the street because they were too lazy to work. The poll of 500 Vancouver residents aged 18 years or older was conducted between Nov. 24 and Nov. 29; polls of this size are considered accurate to within 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Why do individuals become homeless?*
Drug or alcohol addiction: 57%
Mental health problems: 53%
Lack of affordable housing: 27%
Lack the skills to get a job: 17%
Too lazy to work: 14%
Low welfare rates: 9%
Don't know: 3%
How do you feel when you see a homeless person in Vancouver?
Don't know: 3%
Do you avoid parts of the city because of the number of homeless people?
Don't know: 1%
*Note: Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding, or multiple responses.
SOURCE: THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL
Two degrees short of salvation: How the streets killed Francis McAllister
An unnatural disaster: Don't
blame Vancouver's climate
Suburban sprawl: The homeless outside of the East Side
There is a way: A road map out of dead-end streets
But is there a will? Victoria and city hall react
Follow the series on globeandmail.com, on CKNW radio and on CTV News.