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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Housing Our Homeless

The 2016 housing crisis from a supportive housing perspective

Greg Richmond

Reprinted from the Supported Housing issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 12 (3), p. 7

Over the past year, one media story after another has described, in one way or another, the impact of rising housing costs on British Columbians. We have seen the costs of home ownership in Vancouver reach untenable levels, and this is now impacting costs in neighbouring communities. Ultra-low rental vacancy rates are being reported in many communities; these rates are coupled with rising rental costs.1 Homeless camps and tent cities are being established across the province with more frequency.2 Given the impact of homelessness on an individual’s health, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness recently described homelessness in Canada as a public health emergency.3

So far, we have seen a number of responses from numerous levels of government. These include Vancouver’s tax on foreign home ownership; numerous investments by BC Housing to reduce and eliminate homeless camps; and the province’s announced plan to allocate a total of $860 million for affordable housing.4 The federal government is expected to announce a National Housing Strategy in the near future.

So how does supportive housing fit into all this? Are these government responses going to help those who rely on supportive housing?

Supportive housing, at its simplest, meets two criteria:

  1. It is affordable. Affordable housing rents are typically set at the provincial shelter allowance rates or adjusted according to the person’s income.

  2. It includes service supports. In a supportive housing environment, support workers are available to assist tenants with a wide variety of needs. The presence of support workers is what distinguishes supportive housing from social housing, a type of housing that is affordable but does not include support services and staff.

Most often, supportive housing is provided in the form of apartments in a building dedicated to a specific population, such as people living with mental health challenges. Typically, such a building has on-site support staff. This type of housing is sometimes called congregate housing. Supportive housing can also be an apartment in a market apartment building, with support services provided by outreach support workers. In this scenario, rent supplements, or rent “top-ups,” are typically provided by a government-funded program to make the apartment affordable. This type of housing is often called a Supported Independent Living (SIL) program or a scattered-site program.

RainCity Housing operates congregate and scattered-site programs, though, like most agencies, the majority of the supportive housing we offer is in buildings with on-site support staff. In 2010, RainCity joined the At Home/Chez Soi research demonstration project on homelessness and mental illness, which examined Housing First as a means of ending homelessness for people living with mental illness in Canada. We had our first opportunity to operate a scattered-site supportive housing program—with a Housing First Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. The team is essentially a mobile mental health team that also provides rent supplements for clients. The rent supplements enable each ACT program participant to choose an apartment in the neighbourhood of his or her choice.

By the end of the At Home/Chez Soi project, the study had refuted many assumptions that underpin supportive housing policy in Vancouver:

  • Despite the assumption of many local housing experts that few landlords would want to rent to people who had been homeless and living with mental health issues, within 18 months, Vancouver-area landlords had offered more that 200 apartments for use in the At Home/Chez Soi project.

  • Despite the assumption that a majority of homeless people wouldn’t be “ready” for market apartments and would get evicted, at the peak of the project, 85% of the participants being served by the ACT team had successfully stabilized their lives in regular apartments.

  • Despite the assumption that a majority of homeless people would want to live in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, over 90% of participants chose to live in regular apartments in regular neighbourhoods, not in buildings designated for homeless people or people living with mental health issues. They envisioned themselves as our neighbours, not as belonging in segregated communities.

Overall, the results of the project suggested that both congregate and scattered-site housing have their pros and cons, relative to each person’s circumstances and needs. In our agency’s experience, apartments in regular apartment buildings are preferred by most clients; this was also the finding in more formal research done on client housing preferences among this group.5 At RainCity, we feel social inclusion is important; the scattered-site model represents the culmination of a decades-long progression from social exclusion to social inclusion—more specifically, the progression from institutions to group homes, to congregate supportive apartment buildings and, finally, to regular apartments.

The scattered-site model of supportive housing depends entirely on an accessible and affordable rental market, however. Current rental market conditions make it very difficult to establish this type of housing in many communities across the province. When vacancy rates are extremely low, many landlords turn away potential renters who might look like they are homeless. And when rental rates climb dramatically, it can be challenging for funding agencies to increase their rent supplements to match. This can leave many people having to pay for rent increases out of their own pockets.

Given the increasingly high costs of rental housing in the scattered-site programs, we need to ask how the recent provincial commitment of $860 million for affordable housing addresses these issues. First, it is important to note that this amount is earmarked for affordable housing, not social housing (which includes supportive housing). The rental rates for social housing buildings ensure that people living on income assistance or disability can rent an apartment for the shelter allowance rate (currently $375 per month). The designation of “affordable housing” does not guarantee rents at this rate; most affordable housing rents are at least double, even triple, this amount, making so-called affordable housing largely unaffordable for a typical supportive housing tenant, especially one who relies on income assistance.

The $860 million also does not address the continuing need for support services, the second of the two basic components of supportive housing. Support services can include medication supports, mental health services and even prepared meals. Most support services programs also offer opportunities and support for leisure activities. At the core of most support programs is help with problem-solving in a variety of areas: housing, mental health, substance use, financial, interpersonal and so on. One of the primary responsibilities of the support worker is to know when someone is struggling with a mental health challenge or a substance use problem and to find a way to help the individual address the situation proactively. And at all times, support workers try to identify factors that may put a tenant’s housing at risk and work to prevent housing loss.

Because supportive housing plays such a critical role in so many individuals’ lives, its absence can have a catastrophic impact—on individuals, families and the wider community. The extreme poverty endured by many people living with mental health or substance use challenges means that they are disproportionately forced into homelessness when housing becomes unaffordable. For example, in two recent surveys of the Metro Vancouver and City of Vancouver regions, 34-40% of the respondents self-identified as having a mental health issue and 49-53% self-identified as substance users.6

Furthermore, the rates at which homeless people are willing to self-report their health issues is thought to be low, a suggestion supported by a (2007) provincial study that estimates that 75% of the “absolutely homeless” people have “problems related to mental illness and/or addiction.”7 Thus, when we read media reports about homelessness and homeless camps on Vancouver Island, in the Lower Mainland and throughout the province, we can probably assume that up to 75% of people who are living on the streets or in makeshift, temporary shelters have mental health and/or substance use issues. Supportive housing is what they need to be able to move indoors and begin rebuilding their lives.

At this point, however, while the provincial government has introduced a foreign ownership tax and made commitments about affordable housing, we have not seen any announcements about supportive housing focused specifically on the housing needs of people living with mental health or substance use challenges—the group that is most at risk of homelessness. While attempts to address housing affordability across the housing spectrum are both necessary and appropriate, a lack of supportive housing results in homelessness all around the province, and a high number of citizens with mental health and substance use issues are forced onto the streets.

As we move towards the provincial election in May 2017, we need to bring this issue forward in our communities and to our MLAs. Not only is supportive housing key to improving the situation of those currently homeless, but the rental market conditions across the province are resulting in increased housing costs for many of the people living on income assistance or disability and who are currently housed. There is a very real risk that such pressures will result in some of this population becoming homeless in the near future. A significant investment in supportive housing would not only provide housing stability for people living with mental health and substance use issues but over the long term would reduce homelessness generally in our province.

About the author

Greg is Co-Executive Director at RainCity Housing and Support Society in Vancouver. Over the past 20 years, Greg has developed and implemented numerous outreach and supportive housing programs for homeless people with complex health concerns. He has also worked with municipal, provincial and federal authorities to develop and evaluate responses to homelessness. Recently, he was the project lead for the Vancouver Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi research demonstration project

  1. In October 2015, the major Canadian centres with the lowest rental vacancy rates were all in British Columbia: Victoria (0.6%), Kelowna (0.7%), Vancouver and Abbotsford-Mission (both at 0.8%). Increases in rental rates in BC for one-bedroom apartments were comparable to rental increases across the country, but increases for two-bedroom units in Vancouver and Kelowna were the highest in the country. See

  2. Homelessness is present in communities throughout the province, sometimes in tent cities or homeless camps. To read more, try Googling “homeless” along with such British Columbia city names as Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Maple Ridge, Surrey, Langley, Victoria, Campbell River, Nanaimo, Sunshine Coast, Vernon, Kamloops, Kelowna, Terrace, Vanderhoof, Smithers, Terrace, Nelson, Prince George or Vancouver.

  3. Richter, T. & Meili, R. (2016, September 25). Canada’s housing crisis is a public health emergency. CBC News.

  4. See See also

  5. Tsai , J., Bond, G.R., Salyers, M.P., Godfrey, J.L. & Davis, K.E. (2010). Housing preferences and choices among adults with mental illness and substance use disorders: A qualitative study. Community Mental Health Journal, 46(4): 381-388.

  6. For the results of these surveys, see, p. 25; and, p. 26. 

  7. Patterson, M. & Somers, J. (2007). Housing and support for adults with severe addictions and/or mental illness in British Columbia (p. 42). Vancouver, BC: CARMHA. This also reflects RainCity’s experience working in communities in the Lower Mainland, where we found that 48% of the people accessing our shelter were living with mental health challenges and 98% were living with substance use.

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