The Faces of Homelessness Across BC

Michelle Patterson, PhD, RPsych

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 7-8

Homeless people have become familiar faces in BC's suburbs and cities. However, homelessness is also a problem in small, rural communities. While the most visible homeless are those living on the streets, many more people live in poor-quality housing and are at risk of homelessness.

People used to think that homelessness only affected a marginalized group of high-risk people. Since the 1980s this has changed: the homeless population has become more and more diverse. Rising inflation, rents and unemployment have caused many more people to become at risk for homelessness. Additionally, reduced eligibility for social assistance has made it harder for people to get benefits. Cutbacks in government housing programs and a reduced supply of low-cost housing meant there was less help for people living in unstable housing.

A number of subgroups are commonly found in the homeless population

  • Families are one of the fastest-growing groups showing up at shelters. The reasons for this include a rise in poverty, changing job markets and a lack of affordable housing. Pressures such as cuts to social programs and an ever-tightening rental market also put many families at risk. Family breakdown and abuse have often been named as the main reasons for youth homelessness. A rise in homeless youth with mental health and/or addiction problems has been noted in both urban and rural settings across BC.

  • Abused women and their families share many of the same risk factors as families who are homeless: poverty and lack of affordable housing. There are, however, differences between the needs of abused and non-abused families. The main differences are related to safety and the emotional impact of abuse. About 20% of women who leave abusive partnerships continue to live with violence during or after the separation.1 This abuse often becomes more severe. Custody and access present a particular safety problem for abused women. They may be assaulted when they go to pick up or drop off their children and, therefore, may require special arrangements for their own safety at these times. And the shelter system is not always a safe place for homeless women. Many 'couch surf' at the homes of friends or acquaintances. Some end up in the sex trade.

  • Immigrants and refugees also face unique challenges. Many live in poverty and cannot find suitable, affordable housing. Some have experienced trauma in their home country and have left family and support networks behind. Although they may not end up on the street, many live in unsafe housing conditions. It is not uncommon to hear of a number of families sharing an apartment to save money. Refugee claimants (about 50% of all refugees in Canada)2 do not receive any government support until they've had their first interview with the immigration office and are allowed to apply for permanent residence. Of all immigrants, refugee claimants are most at risk of becoming homeless, because they don't have access to settlement services or financial assistance. Most arrive in Canada with little or no money or possessions, and the refugee determination process can be long (a year or more), especially if there is an appeal. Refugees in Canada need language training, help getting the required documentation so they can look for work, and help obtaining housing.

  • Aboriginal peoples in BC are over-represented among the homeless. It's estimated that 41% of BC's Aboriginal peoples are at risk of homelessness and 23% are absolutely homeless.3 Aboriginal people are affected by many of the same factors that put other subgroups at risk of homelessness. However, the historical and colonial legacy that has uprooted families, communities and an Aboriginal way of life must also be considered. Many generations of Aboriginal people have experienced residential schools, wardship through the child welfare system, and economic and social exclusion from mainstream society. These have all contributed to Aboriginal homelessness.

  • People with severe addictions and/or mental illness can be found in all of the subgroups outlined above. People with severe addictions and/or mental illness make up anywhere from 33% to over 60% of the homeless population.2 About 11% of the homeless population has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.4 Approximately 136,000 adults in BC have a severe addiction and/or mental illness, and between 8,000 and 15,500 of these people are street homeless.5

Which comes first, mental illness or homelessness?

There is considerable debate about the extent to which homelessness is a consequence of mental illness, or whether homelessness helps cause mental illness. The harsh reality of living on the street - lack of food, exposure to weather, sleep deprivation, poor hygiene, victimization, etc. - can certainly trigger mental illness.

Mental illness, though, is likely a contributing risk factor. Because of the cyclical and long-term nature of severe mental illness, people often have difficulty getting and keeping employment. Without a regular income, many people depend on provincial and federal benefit programs. However, these programs do not provide enough assistance to cover basic food and shelter costs, and people with addictions and mental illness are often not able to qualify for these programs. Once people are accepted into these programs, the loss or interruption of benefits (e.g., due to relapse) may cause more episodes of homelessness.

Among people who have severe addictions and/or mental illness, there are a number of reasons for the rise in homelessness:

  • closing large institutions for people with mental illness (e.g., Riverview Hospital in BC) without increasing the supply of community-based services

  • poor discharge planning and community follow-up after people leave hospital or the criminal justice system

  • lack of affordable housing

  • changing economic factors (e.g., increasing poverty, tighter housing markets)

Homelessness harms not only the people who are homeless, but also their communities and social systems. Prevention and long-term approaches must replace the reactive, emergency-based programs that have been used to date.

About the author

Michelle is a Research Scientist and Clinical Psychologist working at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) at Simon Fraser University.

  1. Kong, R. (1997). Stalking: Criminal harassment in Canada. Canadian Social Trends, Fall (46), 31.

  2. Golden, A., Currie, W., Greaves, E. et al. (1999). Taking responsibility for homelessness: An action plan for Toronto. Toronto: Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force.

  3. United Native Nations. (2001). Aboriginal homelessness in BC. Vancouver: Author.

  4. Folsom, D. and Jeste, D. (2002). Schizophrenia in homeless persons: A systematic review of the literature. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia, 105(6), 404-413.

  5. Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction. (2007). Housing and support for adults in BC with severe addictions and/or mental illness. Report prepared for the BC Ministry of Health; publication pending.