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Emergencies in the West: Examining British Colombia's Mental Health and Cost of Living Crises

Written by Sara McQuaid. Edited by Tvisha Shah Welcome back and thank you so much for joining us on the Canadian Courage Project Blog! Although CCP is a GTA-based organization, our mission extends beyond borders, and we wish for all Canadians to have accessible, sustainable and equitable living. Today, we want to explore the Metropolis of Vancouver and the province of British Columbia regarding the challenges presented when grappling with homelessness in the province. 




Image: Victoria, British Colombia Tent City

Introduction British Columbia is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful provinces in the country. It is clear why BC has the highest life expectancies in Canada with 85 years for women and 79.4 years for men.​​ This longevity is potentially attributed to the provinces' stunning environments and vibrant cultural landscape. However, it is becoming a hotspot for homelessness in Canada due to the soaring cost of living and rising mental health crisis. BC is steadily growing into one of the most expensive places to rent or purchase a home in Canada, next to Toronto.   In 2021, the Canadian Housing Survey posed this question to individuals who have experience with homelessness: "Have you ever been homeless, that is, having to live in a homeless shelter, on the street or in parks, in a makeshift shelter or an abandoned building?" In Ontario, the number decreased from 41% to 39% but for BC, this number increased from 21% to 23%. Additionally, British Colombia is experiencing a massive upswing in extreme weather, experiencing more rain, snowier winters, and hotter summers. Those without adequate shelter survive in harsher conditions than previously endured. Understanding how to effectively address homelessness is crucial in how to promote change in communities to reduce the amount of the population affected. 

Colossal Costs of Living: Catalysts for Crisis


The rise of those experiencing homelessness in BC can be attributed to several factors, including the high cost of housing and living expenses. Housing costs have climbed well past affordability, with CBC reporting in 2023: “Overall, the average price of a two-bedroom apartment across all B.C. communities with at least 10,000 people was $1,721, up 11 percent from 2021 and the highest figure in Canada.” By 2024, Metro Vancouver has reported that the average rent for an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment is a staggering $2379. This means an individual would have to work 135 hours a month at the minimum wage of 17.60$ to afford basic housing! Outside of housing costs, gas prices continue to climb, averaging around 2.09$ per litre in some areas, hydro increases of 2.3% and food prices climbing up 2.5%. For an individual to live comfortably in Metro Vancouver, they need to make an average of $25.98: a difficult task for many without post-secondary education, graduate students, start-ups or individuals who are new to the country. These issues have compounded into a rise of persons becoming unhoused, demanding urgent attention to create a more equitable future for the province. 



Graph thanks to: Homelessness Services Association of BC (2023). 2023 Homeless Count in Greater Vancouver. Prepared for the Greater Vancouver Reaching Home Community Entity. Vancouver, BC


A Mounting Mental Health Crisis Apart from high costs of living, B.C. is currently grappling with pressing mental health and substance abuse challenges, which in turn is affecting the number of persons becoming unhoused. In BC, 17% of the population has reported experiencing a mental illness or a substance abuse problem. Youth in B.C. are especially struggling to access the resources they need to overcome these challenges, with the Canadian Mental Health Association reporting: “An estimated 68,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 24 meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, yet BC has only 24 publicly funded treatment beds to serve our youth.” These numbers are shocking as mental health and substance abuse are routinely identified as catalysts for becoming unhoused. In 2018, there were a reported 681 unhoused youth living in Metro Vancouver, and the numbers are continuing to rise according to the Homelessness Services Association of BC. 


Assisting youth with mental health issues is crucial because mental health is costly to the country and prohibits equitable growth. The government of BC estimated in 2010 that mental health problems cost over 6.6 billion dollars annually primarily through the expenses related to hospital stays or incarceration. This translates to roughly 9.1 billion in 2024, funds that could be invested in other sectors. For example, these improvements could be in job creation, cultural heritage grants, improvement of infrastructure, or childcare. Such reallocation could have far-reaching benefits, elevating the well-being of those living in British Columbia. Supporting youth and individuals with mental health challenges before they experience homelessness has extensive benefits beyond mere shelter. 





A Range of Solutions for a Brighter Future


The government of BC is currently working to find numerous solutions to relieve the province of the pressures of affordability and mental health. The province has been working with a coalition consisting of BC Housing, the Ministry of Housing and the Homelessness Services Association of BC to create an accurate homeless count. Having accurate numbers is crucial when solving the problems of homelessness as data helps the government in creating services that can accurately cover the number of people in need. These studies go beyond the number of people in shelters but also ask questions about racial identity and physical health, which help to further determine the causes of homelessness and what gaps may exist in the current system. At the time of this blog in April 2024, CCP could not find a program in Ontario that matched the detailed counting practices of British Columbia. The government of BC has also put in place a 10-year service plan, which aims to make housing more affordable through BC builds, ensure new housing is equitable and inclusive with a focus on marginalized groups through reconciliation. 


One stand-out program to aid those at risk of becoming unhoused is the Homeless Prevention Program. This program aims to help Indigenous individuals, youth transitioning out of foster care, women experiencing domestic violence, and those leaving the correctional or hospital systems. After joining, there are numerous ways the program can help such as assistance with rent, deposits, storage for belongings, moving expenses or transit to a housing opportunity. There are special options for youth under 18, a service not many provinces offer at this time. Numerous associations in the province offer holistic approaches, such as Covenant House Vancouver who provide housing, meal services and substance abuse counselling. Organizations like RainCity Housing are using new methods such as peer witnessing, which aims to reduce the harm caused by overdose and better understand the human element cycle of substance abuse. By using data and a human connection, these initiatives are essential to combatting homelessness and providing long-term solutions for a stronger future of the province. 




Conclusion


In conclusion, addressing the interrelated challenges of mental health and the cost of living is not only a moral obligation but an economic necessity. By investing in proactive programs, the province can emerge from this crisis stronger for its individuals and those interested in moving to the province to enjoy its natural environments. The province of Ontario can learn from the unhoused individual population counting practices of British Columbia to improve awareness regarding who requires services and intervention from becoming unhoused. When we prevent individuals from becoming unhoused, we create more space in the economy and can use those funds to better the lives of all Canadians.  By deepening our understanding of the challenges faced throughout the country, we can collaborate as changemakers to create a more resilient future.


Thank you so much for joining us on the CCP blog! Please remember to subscribe to our mailing list for change-making opportunities and events in the future. We hope to see you at our May 25th Pilates with Purpose class, you can register and find out more information here! Works Cited "A review of Canadian homelessness data, 2023": by Marc‐Antoine Dionne, Christine Laporte, Jonathan Loeppky and Alexander Miller. Release date: June 16, 2023. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/75f0002m/75f0002m2023004-eng.pdf?st=STRZ7Dk2 "BC Housing 2024/25 – 2026/27 Service Plan", February 2024. https://www.bchousing.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/service-plan-2024-2027.pdf "Life Expectancy in Canada, 2023" Canadian Protection Plan, : https://www.cpp.ca/blog/what-is-the-life-expectancy-in-canada/# "Facts and Figures", Canadian Mental Health Association. https://bc.cmha.ca/impact/facts-and-figures/#:~:text=About%2017%25%20of%20British%20Columbians,are%20receiving%20mental%20health%20services. "February 2024 Metro Vancouver Rent Report", Greg Park, Published on February 13, 2024. Last updated on February 16th, 2024. https://liv.rent/blog/rent-reports/february-2024-metro-vancouver-rent-report/


"How extreme weather affects us", City of Vancouver: https://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/extreme-weather.aspx



"Rents in B.C. continue to be highest in the country, says yearly federal report:" Justin McElroy. CBC News. Posted: Jan 26, 2023. Last Updated: January 26, 2023. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-rents-cmhc-report-1.6726828



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