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Visions Journal

Is Supportive Housing the New Hidden Homelessness?

Douglas King

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 35-37

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We are long overdue for a real conversation about supportive housing and whether or not it can really be counted as housing anymore. In subsidized or “social housing,” the government and non-profit societies provide below-market rent to low-income tenants without other services. Supportive housing is different—it was designed to create an environment where some people who need ongoing care can find a home, especially those experiencing chronic or episodic homelessness. 

Over time pressure has increased to maximize the number of supportive housing units in order to quickly place people off the street into housing sites. Operators, meanwhile, get minimal resources to manage these buildings. As a result, the promise of supportive housing no longer matches reality inside the buildings.   

A promising start

The first big push to create supportive housing came in the late 2000s when the provincial government announced its intention to buy up SRO (single room occupancy) hotels in Vancouver. This effort to preserve low-income housing stock handed management of the buildings over to non-profit societies like the Portland Hotel Society, Atira Women’s Resource Society and Lookout Society. 

The province guaranteed that these buildings would remain covered by the Residential Tenancy Act. Residents of supportive housing would have the same rights as they had when their SRO buildings were run by private landlords. This meant people who’d struggled in other forms of housing could move indoors quickly, either from the street or one of the many overcrowded homeless shelters.  

It seemed like a win for everyone. Private landlords could sell buildings at a premium rate. Residents would not only get security in the cost of rent, but receive on-site support to address personal health needs. Optimism in supportive housing was so strong, the province went further. It bought buildings to convert, like the former seniors’ care building on Johnson Street in Victoria, and created new supportive housing sites from the ground up for non-profits to manage. 

Faltering rights

Over the last two years we at the Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) have witnessed a disturbing trend. Slowly but surely the non-profit housing providers contracted by BC Housing to run supportive housing buildings all over the province have started to take away the rights of those living in their buildings. These providers don’t even refer to the buildings as permanent housing anymore. 

Some providers say supportive housing is not actually covered by the Residential Tenancy Act at all and it’s actually a form of transitional housing. This reverses the pledge BC Housing made 20 years ago. It also takes away tenants’ ability to get help from the Residential Tenancy Branch when they want to dispute an eviction or challenge a landlord’s policy. 

The results of this change have been significant. Residents now get “program agreements” instead of tenancy agreements to sign when they move in. Program agreements state that their housing will be completely controlled by the non-profit provider, who can remove it for smallest breach of rules. Without protection under the Residential Tenancy Act, residents of supportive housing are barred from having guests, subjected to daily room checks and ordered to sign behavioural agreements. 

In a housing market where the average rent is more than someone on income or disability assistance receives in a month, it’s no surprise that people desperate to get indoors feel they have no choice but to sign away those rights.  

Getting it wrong

Supportive housing providers have voiced legitimate concerns about how the Residential Tenancy Act applies to their buildings. We’re told blanket restrictions on guests are necessary to maintain a safe environment and that they introduced wellness checks to combat the rising tide of drug poisoning deaths inside their buildings. But giving housing providers the ability to evict tenants without any chance to challenge the reasons, and with little to no notice, is something entirely different. That change has seriously harmed the trust relationship between residents and providers. It has created the opposite of a supportive environment. 

Despite their best intentions, housing providers sometimes get it wrong, even the non-profit kind. We have seen a supportive housing provider in Victoria throw out one of their residents on the spot because they suspected them of lighting a fire in their room, only to sheepishly admit a week later they were incorrect. By then it was too late. That person, who had spent over a year in a homeless shelter waiting for a supportive housing unit, was two steps backwards, sleeping outside on Pandora Avenue. 

We’ve seen a resident summarily locked out of his unit in supportive housing and into street homelessness because, according to the housing provider, he was not using his housing enough and spending too many nights at his girlfriend’s place. The fact that his girlfriend wasn’t allowed to visit his unit due to building policy didn’t make a difference. More and more supportive housing operators are beginning to run their sites like homeless shelters, with strict rules and even stricter forms of punishment. 

Counting supportively housed people as homeless

In spring 2023 the province hired a consulting firm to hear from residents, housing providers and tenant advocates like TAPS about how supportive housing should be regulated. We made it clear that residents in supportive housing deserve basic rights, like the right to challenge an eviction or have guests in some form. This could happen under the Residential Tenancy Act or some other system that puts a reasonable check on the immense power we’ve now given their housing providers. For unknown reasons the province has decided not to release the results of that consultation and no changes have been made. 

Most troubling are the signs that many residents feel their housing is far from supportive. In a recent survey reported in the BC Medical Journal, 72% of supportive housing residents in two buildings in the Okanagan reported feeling like their health needs had gone unmet.1 Residents in these supportive housing buildings have been trying to get our attention for a long time. We owe it to them to listen.

Which begs the question: if supportive housing is now a form of transitional housing and residents can be removed without warning or challenge, is it truly any different from a homeless shelter with your own room? In Victoria’s most recent point-in-time homeless count, 10.6% of survey respondents who were living on the street said they had been discharged or evicted from a shelter or transitional housing. That number increases to 14.1% when you include people who reported being evicted or discharged from supportive housing sites.2 

For years we’ve said those staying in homeless shelters and transitional housing should still be counted as homeless. Perhaps the time has come to say the same for those staying in supportive housing. Including residents of supportive housing sites into our definition of “sheltered homeless” may more accurately describe just how many people in our communities lack permanent, stable housing and bring this form of hidden homelessness into the light.

About the author

Originally from Salt Lake City, Douglas studied law at UBC and worked as a legal advocate for the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA) before becoming a Pivot Legal Society staff lawyer. He joined Victoria’s Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) as executive director in 2017. Douglas’s work focuses on legal advocacy in administrative matters, police and private security accountability, plus housing rights

  1. Gibson, H., Evans, M., Woodmass, K., Laing, S., & Graham, J. R. (2023). Health care in supportive housing facilities. BC Medical Journal, 65(4), 116–121.

  2. Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria. (2023, July). 2023 Greater Victoria point-in-time homeless count and needs survey. Victoria, BC: Capital Regional District Reaching Home Program Community Entity.

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