Michelle Patterson

Clarifying B.C.’s real homeless count

March 20, 2008

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By Scott Byers

Researchers in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences have released a comprehensive new report indicating the number of homeless people in B.C. is far greater than previous government figures suggest.

The 148-page report, Housing and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia, commissioned by the B.C. health ministry, estimates 8,000 to 15,500 adults in the province with severe addictions or mental illness are homeless and almost 40,000 are inadequately housed. The old government figures pegged the number of B.C. homeless at 4,500-5,000 people.

Psychologists Julian Somers and Michelle Patterson in the faculty’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA), who produced the report with UBC and University of Calgary colleagues, say the disparity lies in how the differing estimates were compiled.

"A lot of the information previously relied on by the government was based on homeless counts, which only provide a 24-hour snapshot of the homeless population," says Patterson, who was one of about 400 volunteers who scoured the streets of Vancouver searching for homeless people during the city of Vancouver’s 2008 Metro-wide Homeless Count.

Patterson identified five homeless people in her assigned area of the West End but says, "traditional homeless counts miss many people who are absolutely homeless but couch-surf with friends, double up with other families, live in vehicles and learn to hide from public view." What’s more, she adds, "The 24-hour counts and our study don’t capture the numbers of people who move in and out of homelessness because of episodic mental illness or changing economic circumstances."

Patterson says CARMHA’s estimates are based on current epidemiological models coupled with data provided by community groups, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and a variety of other expert sources. The figures were also verified against data from traditional homeless counts, resulting in an estimate that reflects "the best available evidence."

The report contains numerous recommendations for addressing the overlapping problems of homelessness, addiction and mental illness. Foremost among them is a proposal that policy makers adopt a successful U.S. "housing first" harm-reduction strategy, which would provide housing options not contingent on individuals agreeing to seek addictions treatment.

The report also suggests creating multidisciplinary treatment teams to reach the “hardest to house,” more affordable “low barrier” housing options and an end to the practice of discharging homeless people from hospitals and prisons directly onto the street.

The authors say adopting their recommendations could reduce the amount each homeless person costs the system from $59,000 to $56,000 per year, resulting in $32 million in annual savings for the province. And that’s “a conservative estimate,” Patterson says.

“Homelessness, addiction and mental illness have always been with us,” says Somers. “That said, there is still a lot more that governments and other agencies can do to mitigate these problems.”
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