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Homelessness soars to unprecedented levels with a 65% rise in New West

2023 homeless count finds 203 people unhoused in New West – and that’s likely an undercount
New Westminster's homeless population has risen by 65 per cent since 2020.

More than 200 people are homeless in New Westminster – a number that’s grown by 65 per cent in the past three years.

Every three years, enumerators in communities across Metro Vancouver count the number of people who are homeless, including those who are unhoused and those who are sheltered in places like safe houses, shelters, transition houses, hospitals and police holding cells. This year’s point-in-time count was conducted on March 8,

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said the count is a snapshot of homelessness and is considered to be an undercount of the actual number of people who are homeless. The previous count was done in March 2020.

“With regards to the numbers in New Westminster, there were 57 unsheltered homeless persons, and that was 16 individuals more than in 2020, or a 39 per cent increase. There was 146 sheltered homeless persons, which was an increase of 64 persons or a 78 per cent increase,” he said. “Combined, there was a 65 per cent increase in homelessness in New Westminster between 2020 and 2023, and a total of 203 individuals.”

An Oct. 30 report to city council stated that 63 of the sheltered homelessness persons enumerated in New Westminster (43 per cent) were staying at the nightly shelter on Front Street. Stark said unsheltered persons are people who don't have access to a shelter on the night of the count and could be living outdoors, staying temporarily with family members or friends, or couch-surfing.

Stark said the previous count was done in March 2020, about 10 days before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a public health emergency.

“Most municipalities experienced significant increases in homelessness, not just New Westminster,” Stark said. “This is a regional and provincial issue.”

According to the 2023 Homeless Count in Greater Vancouver report, 4,821 people were identified as experiencing homelessness, which was a 32 per cent increase over 2020. On the night of this year’s count, 48 per cent of unsheltered respondents were outside, 19 per cent were at someone’s else’s place, 16 per cent were in makeshift shelters or tents and nine per cent were in vehicles.

Of the 4,821 sheltered and unsheltered individuals counted in 2023, 2,420 were in Vancouver, followed by: Surrey –  1,060;  Langley – 235; Burnaby – 209; New Westminster – 203; North Shore – 168; Richmond – 162; Tri-Cities – 160 ; Ridge Meadows – 135; Delta – 44 ; White Rock – 17; and University Endowment Lands – eight.

“With regard to our neighboring municipalities, Surrey also had a 65 per cent increase, Burnaby had a 69 per cent increase, the Tri-Cities had an 86 per cent increase and Richmond had a 91 per cent increase,” Stark said.

One of the findings of this year’s count was the “significant over-representation” of enumerated self-identifying Indigenous persons, Stark said.

“While Indigenous peoples represent 3.1 per cent of the population in New Westminster, they represent 43 per cent of the enumerated, unsheltered population and 12 per cent of the sheltered population,” he said. “And this is quite a discrepancy between unsheltered and sheltered, and I think it speaks to the fact that possibly with regards to some of our shelters and support services, they are not culturally appropriate and they're not responsive to the needs of Indigenous people.”

Some other findings from the homeless count in New Westminster:

  • 76 per cent self-identified as: adults aged 25 to 54; 22 per cent as seniors 55 or older; and two per cent as youth under 25.
  • Of those who responded to questions on health conditions, 47 per cent self-reported a mental health issue and 52 per cent self-reported an addiction (includes behavioral and substance issues, including alcohol, cannabis, gambling, opioids and stimulates).
  • The five main reasons cited for loss of housing were: not enough income (29 per cent); addiction/substance use (23 per cent); landlord/tenant conflict (22 per cent); spouse/parent conflict (20 per cent); and mental health issue (20 per cent).

Where is home?

According to the staff report, 19 per cent of people counted in New Westminster said they’d lived in the city for one to five years, 11 per cent for five to 10 years, 26 per cent for 10 years or more, and seven per cent having always lived in the community.

“When we think about homelessness, some people think of the homeless population as being quite transient. But that's not the case – 19 per cent have lived in the community for one to five years and 44 per cent have lived in the community for six-plus years. So 63 per cent have longer term ties with the community,” Stark said. “And this really speaks to the fact that these individuals have connections to both informal and formal support networks.”

Coun. Tasha Henderson said the Metro Vancouver report stated that 81 per cent of respondents across the region were counted in the same community they lived the last time they were housed.

“People who are homeless have real connections and ties and relationships to their communities, whether it's in New Westminster or somewhere else, and our solutions need to respect and honour this,” she said. “We need local solutions that keep people connected to the places where they have that community and those supports.”

While New Westminster had a “major increase” in homelessness between 2020 and 2023, Henderson said all of the neighbouring municipalities saw increases of 65 to 90 per cent.

“I think that this is also really important for people to understand that this is a regional issue,” she said. “There is an untrue and unhelpful narrative that I hear sometimes that people are from somewhere else, or that they might want to move somewhere else, and I just think every city is experiencing a huge increase in homelessness, and if it were true that people were coming from somewhere else, we wouldn't see these drastic increases in every single city.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said this year’s count shows that the response to addressing homelessness has failed. Saying the provincial and federal governments are primarily responsible for this issue, he said the count demonstrated the need for more investment in mental health beds and supports, treatment beds and housing.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said he was among several council members who took part in this year’s homeless count.

“It's a humbling experience. It isn't just the count, I don't want people to think that it’s just an exercise of counting heads; it's actually a survey. You sit down, you talk for half an hour with people and sort of get their histories, get their stories, as much as they're willing to share,” he said. “You learn about the causes of homelessness in our community, about the journeys that people have taken. It's a very pretty powerful experience to go through that and just take part in that count, and realize how challenging the current situation with housing is in our region.”

On Monday, city council approved a two-year organizational pilot project and strategy to address the overlapping crises of homelessness, mental health, and substance use. More to come.