Each homeless person has his or her own life circumstance that led to homelessness. It could be anything from employment loss or general economic downturn to fire, illness, physical disability, family breakdown, abuse, mental illness, or drug addiction. Homelessness can happen to anyone regardless of income, status, education, lifestyle, age, race, or gender.
Few people realize that some 80 per cent of homeless people don't even live on the street. They're known as the invisible homeless. They live in their cars, in church basements, in temporary shelters, or on the floors and couches of friends and family.
A home is more than just a roof that keeps you dry - it is a place of safety, nourishment, refuge, comfort and dignity. A safe and stable home is necessary for food security, health, self-sufficiency and positive relationships with others. Home makes a healthy and productive life possible.
I'm incredibly proud to serve as chair of the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness (RSCH), which organizes Homelessness Action Week (Oct. 13 to 19) each year, along with hundreds of volunteers, to engage our residents in homelessness and its solutions.
We believe the solution is to start with "home" - providing secure, permanent housing to persons without it. Once people are securely housed, the support services that may be required to maintain their housing become much more effective in helping them to permanently end their homelessness. We know this has proven effective in other cities in Canada.
Who needs help the most? We've found that seniors, youth, families and Aboriginal peoples are over-represented in the homeless population. In the 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, 27 per cent of the surveyed homeless population was of Aboriginal ancestry - a figure that has varied only slightly since 2005.
During that same count, 397 youth under the age of 25 were found to be homeless, a full quarter of them homeless for more than a year. And we encountered the highest ever number of homeless families: 56 in total with 54 children. Further, it was alarming to find that the number of homeless seniors (age 65 and up) tripled from 2002 to 2011.
We need to do better.
The RSCH brings together the region's leading organizations, government agencies, funders and community task forces to collaboratively investigate and plan to end homelessness. We develop and maintain a Regional Homelessness Plan and sponsor a regional count every three years.
The nature of invisible homelessness makes it tough to quantify. That is why we continue to foster collaboration among more than 100 organizations to enrich our understanding of the true extent of this issue.
We, as a community, must find permanent solutions to homelessness. This goes beyond providing people with shelter. It's about providing people with a home, a safe and permanent place to live, while supporting them with services that help break the cycle of homelessness.
To learn how you can help, visit stophomelessness.ca.
Deb Bryant is chair of the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness, and director, Community Impact and Investment, United Way of the Lower Mainland.
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