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COVER STORY: North Shore's 'invisible homeless' crisis
‘Invisible homelessness’ is a growing concern on the North Shore and now includes more families and seniors than ever before.
Living out of a truck was far from the life Henry and his wife* predicted.
Just a few months before Henry was diagnosed with cancer they had a “good life” and a warm, comfortable home in North Van.
But medication costs quickly topped $800 a month and, unable to work, the couple could no longer afford rent.
Entering Henry’s second batch of chemo, their lives quickly spiraled out of control.
He could no longer work and his wife, Janet, had the full-time job of providing care.
To make matters worse, the couple says they were refused income assistance because they were both self-employed and couldn’t prove they weren’t working.
The only option: To pack their truck with some clothes and belongings and sleep on the side of the road.
Both seniors, the impact of losing their apartment hit hard and being homeless came at the worst possible time; Henry was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.
The 80 per cent you don’t see
“Invisible homelessness,” like the experience of Henry and his wife, is a rising problem on the North Shore.
These people aren’t the ones curled up in sleeping bags outside doorways or in make-shift shelters under bridges. Instead they make up the 80 per cent of homeless people who live out of their cars or RVs, in temporary shelters, church basements or are even perpetually coach-surfing.
This rapid increase of invisible homelessness is widespread even in seemingly affluent communities like North and West Van.
Take the trail of RVs on the road along MacKay Creek to the west of Capilano Mall, for example. Illegally parked with their curtains tightly shut, men and women call many of these their full-time homes, a step above being exposed to the elements like those who live at a camp in the greenbelt just feet away.
“We have a picture in our mind of people that are sleeping in a
tarp [for example] on the Downtown Eastside, that really visible base. That’s a really important issue and those folks need a hand but they are only 20 per cent of the people who are experiencing homelessness,” says Deb Bryant, co-chair of Greater Vancouver’s regional steering committee on homelessness.
The other 80 per cent are the ones we don’t usually see. Like Henry and his wife, they can be mistaken for a well-off couple having a snack in their truck.
In 2011, 122 homeless people were counted on the North Shore by hundreds of volunteers who scoured emergency shelters, safe houses, parks and other locations throughout Metro Vancouver over two days in March. Of these, around half (67) were in shelters while the others were unsheltered.
On the North Shore, these rates are up 160 per cent from 2002 to 2011.
The situation, however, is likely worse. Outreach workers insist the actual number of homeless people is nearing 300.
But, as David Newberry, community liaison for North Van’s Lookout Shelter says, invisible homelessness is impossible to track.
“A big problem that North Vancouver is facing right now are people who are staying in illegally parked RVs,” Newberry gives as an example, adding that while the convoys are most notably parked in certain areas of North Van, such as along MacKay Road, they are actually in areas throughout the North Shore.
And the problem hits close to home.
“For the most part,” he says, “it’s people from the North Shore who are having trouble keeping up with the cost of living on the North Shore.”
While the number of homeless people has remained steady in Metro Vancouver, the problem has shifted from visible to invisible. There was a 52 per cent decrease in people living on the streets from 2008 and 2011, but at the same time the number of people living in their cars, coach-surfing or at other temporary shelters increased 74 per cent.
“They live month-to-month in unstable and even unsafe housing, and always with the fear of ending up on the streets,” says Bryant.
Oct. 13 to 19 marks the eighth annual Homelessness Action Week across the Lower Mainland, which this year is focusing on invisible homelessness. On the North Shore, the week began with Homeless Connect Day, which linked people in need with local services. More events are planned, including a free meal for moms in need and their kids on Oct. 17. (For a full list visit northshorehomelessness.org.)
After four months of struggling to get by, a North Van RCMP officer came across Henry and his wife living in their truck and sought help.
“We had a good life. We were living well,” says Henry, his hair gone from chemotherapy, in a video produced by United Way Lower Mainland.
“Cancer hit it, and everything went out the window [within] three months… We lost almost everything.”
The couple now has a temporary home in North Van through Hollyburn Family Services Society until Henry’s surgeries are finished and his health improves.
Cases of invisible homelessness like this are increasing on the North Shore, with seniors, youth and aboriginal people over-represented in general.
“…Homelessness continues to increase as more people each year slip into poverty and the evidence is kind of grim,” Don Peters, with the North Shore Homelessness Task Force, told City of North Vancouver council earlier this month.
Lineups for food at the Salvation Army and the Harvest Project are getting longer, Peters warned.
“Shelters are full and it’s not winter yet,” he added, evidently concerned.
Finding money for programs and low-cost housing is a main problem.
With many projects pulling for funding, the government needs to separate “conveniences” from “actual problems,” Coun. Craig Keating said at the meeting.
“The province is considering $140 million for a flyover to connect Keith Road to Mount Seymour Parkway,” he gives as an example. “I cannot think of a more useless enterprise in my life. And that is an inconvenience, for God’s sake.
“In fact, $140 million on the North Shore in terms of housing would go a hell of a lot farther to deal with [something] that is actually a problem.”
It’s the federal and provincial governments — not local municipalities — that should be taking a more active roll in providing low-barrier housing, said Mayor Darrell Mussatto,
“For me, if it were a choice between recreation for our residents and housing for our residents, I know which one I would choose,” he added, referring to funding new rec centres and opting for housing.
One small step away
The number of North Shore residents living on the brink of homelessness is increasing, and includes more families than before and around 3,000 seniors.
“You’re low-income and something can happen such as your pet is ill, you have to take new medications that aren’t covered… We have seniors that have money stolen from their account,” says Leya Eguchi, coordinator for North Shore-based Hollyburn Family Services.
“On the North Shore, we’re seeing a lot of people in their first-time housing crisis, where they’ve just got evicted and don’t know what to do.”
This speaks exactly to Henry and his wife after their comfortable life was swept away when cancer hit.
“A person’s innate strength can be so beaten down,” says Henry, looking back at the struggle of the past year. “… sometimes it takes the outside person to nurture that strength back into focus.”
*Names have been changed