As we celebrate Sukkot this week, we’ll be thinking about many things – notably, how lucky the vast majority of us are to have a solid roof over our heads. For most of us, the sukkah is but a symbol of our wandering in the desert all those years ago, a symbol to remind us to be humble, empathetic, grateful. However, for many living in Metro Vancouver, including members of our own community, homelessness is a reality.
Last week, we ran a good news story from Tikva Housing Society – residents were moving into the recently completed Storeys complex in Richmond. The Diamond Residences at the Storeys will house six singles (five of whom are seniors) and 12 families. Tikva Housing is also working with various partners on the development of 32 townhouses in Vancouver, and they anticipate accepting residency applications by early 2018. These new projects are in addition to Tikva’s Dany Guincher House, in Vancouver – which has 11 units for people with low-income, people with disabilities who are independent and families fleeing abuse – and the Esther Dayson Rent Subsidy Program.
There is a lot of which to be proud. However, there is much more to do. Last year, Tikva Housing reported a decrease in donations to its rent subsidy program of more than $15,000. As a result, the organization had to decrease the monthly subsidy it provided to singles, couples and families.
According to Tikva, more than 16% of Jewish Vancouver residents – more than 4,200 people – are low-income and at least 450 Jewish children under the age of 15 in Vancouver are “living in households that depend on income assistance.” Its 2015 report on housing in Metro Vancouver concluded a need for 1,827 affordable housing units in the Jewish community, including for “those under 65, low-income singles, couples and families.” Calling this “an unreachable goal,” the report nonetheless suggests some solutions, most of which the Jewish community is already pursuing, such as rent subsidies and partnering with other agencies to develop new projects.
Yet, the problem remains. And, of course, it is not a problem unique to the Jewish community. On Sept. 26, the final report on Metro Vancouver’s 2017 Homeless Count was released. On the night of March 7, more than 1,200 volunteers conducted surveys throughout the region, on the streets and at shelters, “to obtain a 24-hour snapshot” of the situation. The final report confirmed the preliminary results – 3,605 were homeless in the metro area.
While there were four percent fewer homeless youth in 2017 as compared to 2014, there were five percent more homeless 55 and older. Overall, there was a 30% increase in homeless since 2014, “and the highest number since 2002, when the first metro-wide count occurred.”
According to the report, “The three most cited barriers to finding housing were the high cost of rent (50%), a lack of income (49%) and the lack of availability of housing that suits their needs (30%).” More than 80% of respondents reported having “at least one health condition, including addiction, mental illness, physical disability or a medical condition/illness. More than half of the respondents (52%) have two or more health conditions.” More than 40% of respondents received income assistance, 28% a disability benefit; 22% were employed.
Following the local Walk for Reconciliation on Sept. 24, where some 50,000 people – including an organized Jewish contingent – gathered downtown to join in a “call to action,” it is sobering to learn that 34% of the respondents of the Homeless Count self-identified as indigenous/aboriginal. “Indigenous people continue to represent about one-third of the homeless population in the region,” states the report, noting that it’s the highest proportion found to date in a regional count and “constitutes a strong over-representation compared to the total population, where two percent identify as aboriginal as per the 2011 Census.”
In a statement of the obvious, Mike Clay, chair of the Metro Vancouver Housing Committee, said, “In order to stem growing homelessness, it is clear we need more affordable housing options.”
But additional solutions are also needed, given the systematic discrimination that still exists for First Nations people and the health conditions many of the homeless are facing – and not only the homeless. Just last week, the Independent ran an article on the impact of addiction in our community. Jewish Addiction Community Service (JACS) Vancouver estimates that as many as 5,000 Jews in our community need support, “whether grappling with their own addiction issues or the addiction of a loved one.”
The Homeless Count’s findings most likely underestimate the problem. The report references the “hidden” homeless, which includes people “who do not have a regular address of their own where they have security of tenure, and who may be staying temporarily in another household – often called ‘couch surfing.’” The Tikva Housing press release about the new tenants at Storeys noted, “One 83-year-old woman cried when she was told she would be moving into a studio unit, as she has not had a place to live for years and was sleeping on someone’s couch.”
Then there are the tens of thousands of people at risk of becoming homeless. Apparently, housing shouldn’t account for more than 30% of a person’s or family’s gross income, yet the Homeless Count report notes there were 56,000 Metro Vancouver households in 2006 that spent more than 50% of their income on shelter, and the number had increased to 62,355 by 2011. (More recent data weren’t available but, based on skyrocketing housing costs, we can guess that the number of households spending 50% or more of their income on shelter has also increased.)
There is much to contemplate as we gather in our sukkot this week. And, once the holidays are over, once we celebrate Simchat Torah, thankful for the Jewish texts and traditions that have shaped the moral compass of even the most secular of us in some way, there is a lot of work to be done.