An east Vancouver agency says vulnerable people sought help from its homeless outreach program nearly 6,000 times in 2021, more than double the demand in 2019 — and that massive increase in need continues into this year.
This escalation is mainly due to crises creating havoc for an already vulnerable population. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down services and exacerbated mental health challenges. The overdose epidemic continues to kill more than five British Columbians every day. And rising rents and almost-zero vacancy rates make finding affordable housing nearly impossible.
“Since COVID, we just saw this phenomenal increase in people in serious need coming in for services,” said Nancy Keough, executive director of the Kettle Society.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the provincial government provided additional funding for extra mental health support workers and homeless outreach team members at the Kettle. That money has since dried up, but the need has not abated, Keough said.
She is worried overworked staff may have to start turning vulnerable people away at the agency, which since 1976 has offered urgent services and long-term support to people with mental illness and substance abuse issues.
“My staff, they’ll be heartbroken if they can’t help people. And if you can’t help someone when they’re in distress at the door, then it’s a crisis,” Keough said.
Anne Beauchemin was at Kettle’s door in December, when she moved to Vancouver from Quebec, a single mother with a toddler and an infant, and no housing, employment or daycare.
“When you’re a full-time mom, you can’t get a job because you don’t have the child care. Then they want you to have a job to have housing,” Beauchemin said. “So it’s really just a cycle that doesn’t end.”
Six years ago, the Kettle helped Beauchemin stop using drugs when she was homeless on the streets of Vancouver. She later moved back to her native Quebec after her mother became ill, but when she returned here in December following her mother’s death, she discovered it was impossible to find affordable housing.
She lived in a friend’s studio apartment, along with her young children, Automne, 3, and one-year-old Théodore, until the Kettle helped her find subsidized housing.
“The Kettle saved my life,” said Beauchemin, who receives disability assistance from the province but is on the verge of accepting a new job if she can secure daycare.
“I live in housing that I’m actually able to afford the rent and my kids are happy … It’s just the life I’ve always hoped for.”
The Kettle operates 400 units of supported housing and runs a drop-in off Commercial Drive that offers low-barrier services, meals and a health clinic. Demand skyrocketed, Keough said, during the pandemic:
• Requests for help to the outreach program reached 5,713 in 2021, up from 2,717 in 2019.
• New clients for the homeless outreach team jumped from 271 in 2019 to 973 in 2021, and similar numbers are projected for 2022.
• Subsidized housing applications rose from 76 in 2019 to 233 in 2021, and that trend continues in 2022.
• Rent supplements provided to clients jumped from 97 to 251 over the same time period.
To meet this demand, the Kettle used emergency provincial COVID funding to hire extra staff, including three additional homeless outreach team members and a weekend mental health support worker, but that money is now gone.
“We have so many people coming into the centre in distress these days,” Keough said. “And people are coming in with much more complex issues.”
She appreciates governments are building more housing, but that takes time. In the meantime, her clients need other assistance, such as navigating subsidized housing waiting lists and finding a compassionate support worker who has time to listen and understand what solutions would improve their lives.
“We need more staffing,” Keough said. “And more resources around mental health support.”
Some private corporations, along with government, also provided emergency money during COVID. She has urged both entities to renew that spending.
Postmedia asked the Health Ministry if any consideration was being given to reinstating the Kettle’s funding for outreach and mental health services, but an official said it wasn’t able to provide a response on Tuesday.