A report card on homelessness in the Nelson area finds the availability of affordable housing didn’t improve last year, as demand continued to far outstrip supply.
The report, released this week by the Nelson Committee on Homelessness, pulled together data from agencies including Canada Mortgage and Housing, Stepping Stones shelter, and area food banks.
It says Nelson’s vacancy rate remains less than two per cent — lower than Vancouver, Victoria, and major Okanagan centres. The 2010 figure of 1.8 per cent was actually a bit higher than the previous year, but the change is not considered statistically significant. The provincial rate was 4.1 per cent.
“Other cities have expanded their secondary suite and condominium rental offerings more so than Nelson [and] added some purpose built rentals to the housing stock,” report author Celeste Le Duigou says, adding the lack of vacancies increases rental prices, putting them out of reach for low-income people.
(Canadian Mortgage and Housing defines affordability as a maximum of 30 per cent of household income spent on shelter.)
Another indicator of increased need of affordable housing, Le Duigou says, is waitlists for existing units.
The Links Housing Coop on Tower Road capped its list at 42 families in 2008 due to low turnover and the unlikelihood of people ever being offered units. Demand has also increased for the Kiwanis units in Fairview, and for 106 units at three different properties managed by the Nelson and District Housing Society. Cicada Place, which provides youth housing, has its longest waiting list ever.
Meanwhile, Stepping Stones shelter’s occupancy in its 2010-11 fiscal year was 98 per cent, the highest since it opened in 2004. About a third of the people who stay there have no income at all, and only 10 per cent have any kind of employment.
The report also included data on “hidden homeless” based on a telephone survey of 1,000 Nelson area residents by the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. It found that at any given time, 75 homeless people are staying temporarily with friends or family. About half are women, a larger percentage than the shelter population, “owing to women’s greater reliance on social networks than men.”
Le Duigou further examined traffic at local food banks, concluding that even with some overlap and accounting for multiple visits, “the number of people needing emergency food is certainly five per cent or more of the population of Nelson,” and could be as high as nine per cent.
The Nelson Food Cupboard recorded nearly 14,000 visits in 2010 and the Salvation Army over 3,700 — both all-time highs. Over 400 visits per month are by children.
“This is an indication that families with children are experiencing more poverty and are increasingly at risk of becoming homeless,” Le Duigou writes.
Our Daily Bread served hot lunch to an average of 64 people a day last year. A new policy of charging a nominal fee reduced the number of transients using the service and increased the number of long-term residents. A survey found over a third of them were homeless, including 12 per cent who slept outside. Most were unemployed.
“Many people are under the impression that people who are homeless are in that state because they lack the motivation to work,” Le Duigou writes. “The experiences and voices of people who need the food and shelter support services in Nelson speak otherwise.”
Twenty-two members of the Nelson Friendship Outreach Clubhouse, which provides a social and recreational program for people with mental health issues, were also asked about their housing situations. Nearly three quarters have experienced homelessness, some are currently homeless, and many others are experiencing “extreme issues of affordability” by spending over half their income on housing.
Nearly two-thirds said they cut back on food and seeing friends and relatives to afford housing. “In each case, it’s very sad,” Le Duigou says.
This is the second year the report card has been assembled, but it’s more thorough this time, drawing on data from several agencies not included last year.
Although the report doesn’t specifically suggest solutions, Le Duigou says government housing subsidies are wise investments.
“Give people housing they can afford and other expenditures in health and court services decline by half the first couple of years and keep going down as the person continues in a stable situation,” she says.
Lynn Adams, who sits on the Social Planning Action Network and Community First Health Coop was distressed to hear the situation didn’t get better last year.
“I feel slightly depressed by all of it because it’s ongoing and pervasive,” she says. “We keep trying to work at this, but nothing seems to ever change.”
She says the involvement of children in homelessness “breaks my heart. But you have to have more than a heart breaking. You need a really strong group of people to grab hold of this situation and somehow move forward.”
Adams isn’t sure what would make a difference, but says “it would sure feel good” to have more community members interested in helping, instead of just agencies.
Housing crunch by the numbers
Nelson’s vacancy rate in 2010: 1.8%
Nelson’s vacancy rate in 2009: 1.1%
Nelson’s vacancy rate in 2003: 5.3%
Vancouver’s vacancy rate in 2010: 2.2%
B.C.’s vacancy rate in 2010: 4.1%
Increase in demand for Kiwanis Society housing, 2008-10: 150%
Increase in demand for Nelson and District Housing Society units, 2007-10: 59%
Increase in demand for Cicada Place Youth Housing units, 2007-10: 58%
Occupancy rate at Stepping Stones shelter, 2010-11: 98%
Average monthly visits to Nelson food banks in 2010: 1,634
Increase in demand at Nelson Food Cupboard, 2004-10: 80%
Increase in demand at Salvation Army Food Bank, 2007-10: 36%
Visits by children to the Nelson Food Cupboard in 2010: 3,096
Increase in visits by children to the Nelson Food Cupboard, 2007-10: 62%
Lunches served at Our Daily Bread in 2009: 22,461
Lunches served at Our Daily Bread in 2010: 15,987 (after the introduction of a fee)
Percentage of Our Daily Bread guests who were employed in 2010: 16
Percentage of Stepping Stones clients who were employed in 2010: 10
Percentage of Stepping Stones clients who were employed in 2006: 22
Percentage of Nelson Friendship Outreach Clubhouse members who have experienced homelessness: 73
Percentage of Clubhouse members who are currently homeless: 14
Percentage who have experienced homelessness between two and five times: 45
Percentage who have experienced homelessness more than 10 times: 14
Percentage who have cut back on food to afford housing: 64
Percentage of ANKORS clients paying between 60 and 80 per cent of their income on rent: 100
Percentage using the food bank every month: 100
Source: 2010 Annual Report Card on Homelessness for Nelson and Area, prepared by Nelson Committee on Homelessness, using data from ANKORS, Canada Mortgage and Housing, Canadian Mental Health Association, Youth Employment Resource Centre, Nelson Friendship Outreach Clubhouse, Our Daily Bread, Salvation Army, Nelson Food Cupboard, and other agencies.