Seventy-one-year-old Réal Bergeron worked his whole life, starting as a soldier with the Canadian Army, then as a diamond driller in mines and, for 20 years before his retirement, as a steelworker in a foundry.
But he faced some struggles, including being forced to sell his leaky condo because of skyrocketing strata fees. As he grew older, his financial difficulties worsened. In recent years, the only affordable accommodation the pensioner could find was in Downtown Eastside shelters, including one with just a mat on the floor and a nightly curfew.
It wasn’t where he thought he’d spend his retirement years.
“It was disappointing, all right,” said Bergeron, a friendly man who is reluctant to complain. “For a guy like myself, I’m a widower, they should have more (affordable) housing.”
He is not alone. Report after report, homeless count after homeless count has warned that people older than 55 are the fastest-growing homeless demographic in Metro Vancouver.
Every year, an increasing number of seniors apply for rental assistance from the provincial government, but the supplements are not keeping pace with rent increases. And the number of seniors applying for subsidized housing far outpaces how quickly it can be built, said the B.C. seniors’ advocate.
And with the large number of baby boomers who are expected to retire by 2030, the fear is that the situation will get far worse, especially when it comes to housing affordability.
“Right now, 24 per cent of Vancouver’s homeless population are seniors. I think that’s a trickle. I think we’re gonna start to see a flood,” predicted Jenny Konkin of Whole Way House , an organization that provides support to vulnerable seniors in Vancouver.
“I feel really sad and shocked that there hasn’t been a plan put in place, knowing that with this baby boomer generation we’re just scraping the surface.”
Konkin is part of a federally funded group that has been meeting for a year to try to find solutions. The diverse members include more than 50 representatives of non-profit housing, charities, landlords and building owners, city halls and government agencies, and seniors with lived experiences.
This Seniors Housing Lab group has asked the provincial government to form a seniors’ ministry or appoint a seniors minister to oversee the patchwork of housing, health and economic services currently being delivered to seniors, arguing B.C. is one of only three provinces without such a system.
Research by this group found some alarming statistics: 13.5 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s seniors live in poverty, close to 100,000 people; and between 2008 and 2020, the number of seniors experiencing homelessness increased fivefold.
The 2020 Metro Vancouver homeless count counted 550 people over age 55 , who accounted for one-quarter of all the region’s 2,200 homeless residents . And one out of every 10 of those elders said they first experienced homelessness in their senior years .
Vancouver’s 2019 count had similar results, with 23 per cent of homeless people over the age of 55.
Alison Silgardo, CEO of Seniors Services Society , is also part of the Housing Lab group. For three decades, her society has helped older people in B.C. find suitable housing. It also provides assistance with grocery shopping, medical transportation, light housekeeping and filing taxes, primarily for residents of Burnaby and New Westminster.
In a typical year, the society receives 14,000 requests for aid. But in 2020, that has increased by at least one-third, or roughly an extra 4,600 pleas for help.
“The numbers went up astronomically in the last eight months,” Silgardo said.
“Seniors that we knew, who we worked with in the community, were being overwhelmed around mental health and were requiring assessments for suicide, and sometimes as many as twice a week, which is not something we normally saw in our 30 years.”
The spike was due in part to increased isolation and some support services closing because of COVID. But Silgardo said another key reason was housing insecurity.
“The biggest crisis is around just the helplessness with the loss of a home, with the rents increasing way beyond their income,” she said.
“It is heartbreaking … They were working, they were independent, they have income — just the income no longer meets their cost of living.”
Grateful for a ‘roof over his head’
Bergeron searched for apartments he could afford on his pension, but couldn’t find anything in Vancouver’s expensive rental market.
A year ago, a shelter worker suggested he apply to live in Veterans Memorial Manor , a Downtown Eastside building that houses 133 men who have served in the military or are over the age of 55 and at risk of homelessness.
He has his own bathroom and can cook in his small, subsidized room. A grateful Bergeron can afford the $490 rent.
“This is excellent here. You feel safe because you have a roof over your head,” he said. “I’m happy to be alive every day, and healthy.”
Konkin’s Whole Way House charity is situated inside Veterans Manor. Its staff, who are funded by B.C. Housing, organize activities that have turned the modest building into a home: “family” dinners, birthday celebrations, games and special outings. The workers also provide assistance for things like medical appointments, budgeting and transportation.
“The reason seniors were becoming homeless, or slipping through the cracks, was because they weren’t receiving the support they needed to stay independently housed,” Konkin said.
“There might be resources out there in the community but, often, seniors don’t know how to access them. They don’t know how to use a computer, they don’t have a cellphone.”
There are seniors’ housing units in Vancouver, Konkin said, but problems emerge when tenants have declining cognitive or physical health, and no family nearby to help.
Konkin is working with four other housing providers to expand her support services into their buildings. But she needs government funding, which she argues would be cheaper than these seniors ending up in hospitals or in care homes — and more humane than seeing them in shelters.
“The fact that we’re allowing seniors to become homeless in Canada is shocking to me,” she said.
Konkin introduced Postmedia to an 83-year-old retired drywaller who needs a walker to get around, and who moved into Veterans Manor last year after spending several months in homeless shelters because he couldn’t find an accessible accommodation that was affordable on his pension. He fell on hard times after a bad injury that left him with two pins in his leg, a concussion and his first brush with homelessness.
Since COVID-19 hit in March, Konkin’s organization, in conjunction with B.C. Housing and several Vancouver restaurants, has delivered more than 100,000 meals to 600 seniors and other vulnerable residents living in 19 non-profit buildings. While handing out the meals, the Whole Way House staff ask seniors how they are doing, provide information about services, and even deliver balloons on their birthdays.
“Just building this real relationship with people, letting them know that they’re not alone, we haven’t forgotten about you,” she said.
The meal-delivery program is in response to the pandemic, but it’s the type of thing Konkin would like to see offered in the future to help seniors stay in their homes.
Supporting seniors, she and other advocates argue, does not necessarily need a major investment by government, but rather a more efficient redistribution of the housing, health and transportation resources that already exist but are now run out of different ministries.
According to research done by the Seniors Housing Lab, five provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, have seniors’ ministries, and two more provinces have junior ministers responsible for seniors. An email from Premier John Horgan’s office would not comment on whether a seniors’ ministry is being considered for the new cabinet, which will be sworn in soon.
A statement from Municipal Affairs and Housing said there was a parliamentary secretary for seniors in the last government, and listed some of the commitments the NDP has made, including a $1-billion investment in care homes, expanding the information service bc211 and the Better at Home service, and more funding for rental assistance and affordable housing.
‘They’re in serious trouble’
The government deserves credit for opening 800 new subsidized units for seniors in 2019-20, the first time that has expanded in years, but housing can’t be constructed fast enough to keep up with demand, Isobel Mackenzie, the B.C. seniors’ advocate, said. In her last report , she said there was a 14-per-cent increase in demand and the average wait time was 1.5 years.
The government’s SAFER, or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters, program provided rental assistance to 25,000 seniors in 2019-20, a three-per-cent increase over the previous year — and 4,300 of those, or nearly one out of every five, were new recipients.
Nearly all of them — 94 per cent — are single with an average annual income less than $20,000.
Mackenzie expects there are other low-income seniors who haven’t applied for SAFER but would qualify, and she noted the 25,000 recipients are a small percentage of the one million seniors in B.C.
“But it’s still a lot of people. And they’re in serious trouble,” she said. “With an income of $19,632, and you’re living in Vancouver, where your average rent is $1,382 and your average SAFER grant is $207.”
She has raised alarm bells in several reports about housing instability among seniors, caused by factors such as renovictions, rising expenses and landlord issues, which all affect the 20 per cent of B.C. seniors who don’t own their own homes.
The only option for some people facing eviction is to go into the expensive, overburdened long-term care system, even though they don’t need that much support.
“There are a group of people that are being placed in long-term care because of economic reasons more than health reasons,” Mackenzie warned.
She worries about the future, as more people will retire without good pensions, fewer will own their homes mortgage-free, and an increasing number will have endured asset-splitting divorces.
Scott Morrison, 62, ticks those boxes: He does not have a good pension, does not own his home, and is divorced. He worked his whole life in the “helping profession,” as a Downtown Eastside outreach worker, a foster parent and with Saferide, which provides medical-related transportation to those with addiction issues. He also ran a moving company.
When Morrison needed a sudden heart-valve replacement, it meant he could no longer look after foster kids and he lost that income in January. That meant he couldn’t pay the $2,700 rent on his east Vancouver house with his $1,200 monthly disability cheque, and he depleted his savings while looking for somewhere else to live
From August until early November, he and his chihuahua Peanut lived in his small car, buying meals at a grocery store deli counter. “It was really hard. Thank God I have friends that would let me shower at their place,” he said. “It was very depressing, especially when it was raining.”
The Seniors Support Society offered him temporary affordable housing earlier this month in a Burnaby bachelor suite.
“It’s beautiful,” said the good-natured man. “It’s got everything you need. Nice and warm. My dog loves it.”
But it is just for three months until Morrison finds something more permanent, and that’s not an easy task in this low-availability, high-rent market.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s such a lack of affordable subsidized housing.”
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