An annual report suggests Nelson has the second highest rate of homelessness among the B.C. Interior communities.
The 14th annual Report Card on Homeless released Wednesday shows a point-in-time count held by service providers found 88 people had no home on Feb. 1, 2022. Of those individuals, 16 were spending the night outdoors.
The count was limited by COVID-19 safety precautions and did not include volunteers searching for people on the streets. Instead, service providers were asked for the number of people in shelters, as well as those known to be left to the elements that evening. Environment Canada recorded an overnight low of -10.8 C, with a wind chill that made it feel like -14 C on Feb. 1.
Among communities that conducted point-in-time counts from 2020-2021, only Quesnel has a higher rate of homeless people per 1,000 residents. Even Metro Vancouver has a lower rate than Nelson.
The number of people counted is likely under reported as it doesn’t account for those in what is described as hidden homelessness, or people staying in unstable, inadequate or dangerous conditions who aren’t known to services.
Cheryl Dowden, who co-chairs the Nelson Committee on Homelessness which publishes the report, said the data shows housing in Nelson is “a significant challenge.”
“We know that if you don’t have a roof over your head, just in terms of the social determinants of health, your health outcomes are diminished. It affects mental health, it affects the use of substances, it affects everything.”
The report was published the same day BC Coroners Service announced 247 people experiencing homelessness died in the province in 2021, a 75 per cent increase over 2020. Of those, three lived in the Kootenay Boundary. The Coroners Service could not provide Nelson-specific statistics.
Sixty per cent of people counted in February had been homeless for six months or more, which is higher than the provincial average of 48 per cent.
Fifty per cent of respondents were from Nelson or elsewhere in the Kootenays. Of those who had lived in Nelson less than a year, 70 per cent said they were originally from nearby communities such as those in the Slocan Valley.
Shelter access is also more frequently not a solution.
At Stepping Stones shelter, 140 people used a total of 3,441 bed stays throughout 2021. A further 56 people used the North Shore Inn, which in May was purchased by BC Housing to be used as a permanent supportive housing site, and 86 people access the emergency winter beds program.
But the shelters remain at capacity throughout the year, and the report notes people were turned away 219 times in 2021.
“People who are turned away from the shelter here or in Trail or Castlegar for various reasons, there’s no where for people go to after that point,” said Nelson Street Outreach’s Ryall Giuliano. “For people with really complex mental health or addictions issues, they tend to be the people who are left out at night.”
Sandra Bernier runs Nelson CARES’ emergency housing services, which include Stepping Stones and the North Shore Inn. She said the report shows Nelson desperately needs an open concept shelter that is low barrier, has support services and includes an overdose prevention site.
There is also uncertainty where the emergency winter beds program will be located when the weather turns.
“I don’t know where people are going to go this winter … We don’t have beds for people who are too complex to come in. Because the shelter can’t house them, the needs are too great and it’s too unsafe for staff and for them to be in the space.”
Bernier said the North Shore Inn has several shortcomings, including the lack of adequate cooking and laundry facilities. But it’s also had successes as well.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of people moving into other affordable housing, market housing, reconnecting with their families, getting on safe supply and being consistent with their medication.”
Permanent housing also remains out of reach due to lack of inventory and rising rental costs.
Nelson is now in its eighth straight year of a zero vacancy rate for one bedroom and studio units. Only two-bedroom units were noted in the report as being available at a higher rate, albeit just 1.1 per cent.
The report surveyed the city’s advertised rental costs in April and May. Nelson has the most expensive monthly costs for one-bedroom ($1,241), three-bedroom ($2,746) and four-bedroom ($3,300) units in the West Kootenay excluding Grand Forks, which wasn’t included in the report. Two-bedroom units cost $1,861 monthly on average, which is cheaper than those found in Castlegar, Rossland and Kaslo.
Despite the rising rental costs, the competition for housing is unlikely to abate. The 2021 census data shows Nelson’s population has grown to over 11,000 residents. Common law couples without children are the fastest growing family demographic in the city.
The report also notes the provincial rental subsidy for people with disabilities of $375 per month has remained frozen since 2007 even as rents skyrocket.
Axel McGown, who works at the Coordinated Access Hub drop-in centre, said the data shows systemic housing issues are rooted in who society believes deserves access to safe shelter.
“Do we have more of a profit mindset of housing as a commodity? Or are we coming from a rights-based perspective? People in our community deserve a safe place to live, and to have that we need social housing because some people are not able to enter that rental market.”
Other details from the report include:
• 37 per cent of Nelson residents rent, more than the B.C. average of 33 per cent.
• Fifty seven per cent of point-in-time respondents were 25-to-54 years old, while 30 per cent were older than 55. Residents who identify as Indigenous made up 37 per cent of those surveyed, despite the census showing only 585 Indigenous peoples living in the city.
• 63 per cent of respondents said they had mental health issues, 57 per cent said they suffered from a substance-use disorder, 50 per cent had a learning disability, 43 per cent live with a physical disability and 30 per cent said they had an illness or medical condition.
• 37 per cent of respondents said they had lived in foster care at some point. The provincial average among point-in-time surveys is 36 per cent.
• Food bank visits were lower than pre-pandemic levels, which the report’s authors say is likely due to COVID-19 safety restrictions. In 2021 there were 17,172 visits to Nelson food banks or occasions when food was provided. Of those, there were 9,500 visits to the Nelson Community Food Centre. Our Daily Bread meanwhile provided 10,686 meals.
• The Coordinated Access Hub had over 9,000 visits in its first year of operations after opening June 15, 2021.
The report can be read in its entirety online here.