On Tuesday, Metro Vancouver – the regional government for B.C.’s Lower Mainland – released the results of its 2008 Homelessness Count. The news is dreadful.
The number of homeless people in Metro Vancouver has increased by 22% since 2005 and 137% since the first count in 2002. Almost half of all homeless found in 2008 had been homeless for one year or more.
Aboriginal people continue to be over-represented. Despite comprising only 2% of the region’s population, aboriginal people represented 32% of all homeless people in 2008.
Of course, these trends are not unique to the Lower Mainland. The same pattern is repeated in communities from one end of the country to the other.
There was a time, not very long ago, when Canadians shook their heads smugly at the rampant homelessness in the United States and said "At least we don’t have all those people living on the streets like the Americans do". No longer. Endemic homelessness and street level poverty are now commonplace here.
So how come this crisis is not a big issue in this federal election? It was certainly a subject of debate in earlier campaigns. Can it be that the huge and growing problem of homelessness has become just normal?
Poverty is a direct result of economic policy. Yet, even though there’s lots of talk about the economy in this election, homelessness is set aside as a "social issue". Economics are pretty directly felt every day by the thousands of Canadians who have lived on the streets for a year or longer.
The Chretien Liberal government, with Paul Martin as Finance Minister, abandoned a meaningful federal role in the provision of affordable housing back in the 1990s. Really useful federal investments in things like co-op housing were dropped in favour of corporate tax cuts and big surpluses.
The Harper government has continued those policies. Their Homelessness Partnering Strategy features lots of rhetoric about "…moving homeless individuals towards self-sufficiency and full participation in Canadian society" but makes only pathetically small funding available to actually build housing.
It is now, during this federal election turning point, that we get to ask all candidates and all parties what they propose to do to reduce the alarming levels of homelessness. Without an active federal government and meaningful federal spending, homelessness will deteriorate further.
Like the song says, the problem with normal is it only gets worse.