British Columbia

North Vancouver faces affordable housing crisis

As Metro Vancouver becomes less and less affordable, the conventional profile of homelessness becomes less homogeneous and much more diverse.

'Alice' and 'Sandy' offer inside looks at the state of homelessness on the North Shore

David Newberry with the Lookout North Shore Housing Centre says there is an affordable housing crisis in the city. (Lookout North Shore Housing Centre)

So often when we think of homelessness, our minds reflexively paint a picture of mental illness and drug addiction, of deep poverty and destitution. But as Metro Vancouver becomes less and less affordable, the conventional profile of homelessness becomes less predictable and much more diverse. 

This reality holds true in North Vancouver. David Newberry, a Community Liaison with the Lookout North Shore Housing Centre, said he sees a huge diversity of people accessing his shelter's services. 

"Everybody who comes through our front door has a different story. There is a huge range of reasons for people's homelessness," he said.

"I think that the vast majority of people we deal with here at the shelter are not the kind of people that, if you passed on the street, you would even know are homeless."

Some of the less conventional reasons for homelessness range from people who have lost their job in the current economy and are having trouble keeping up with their expenses, to people whose roommates have failed to pay the rent. Many residents' pensions are simply not enough to keep up with the cost of living in an expensive community like the North Shore.

Newberry says the lack of affordable housing has become an urgent issue, especially on the North Shore. 

"Alice" and "Sandy" search for work and housing at the Lookout North Shore Housing Centre. (Lookout North Shore Housing Centre)

"We're facing a housing crisis that isn't just affecting the people who are accessing our services. It's hard for a lot of people to find housing on the North Shore right now and any time there's a crunch like that it's going to affect people who are already disadvantaged the most, who are already at risk."

The following are two profiles of people who are currently homeless and living at the Lookout North Shore Housing Centre. The CBC has agreed to protect their identities. We have named them "Alice" and "Sandy" for the purposes of this story. 

Alice: Over 60 and homeless for the first time

It was only two years ago, in her early 60s, that Alice was back at university, improving her education in the hopes of bolstering her job prospects. She put herself through school, paying for tuition and housing. But her plans went off the rails when she was diagnosed with cataracts. 

She is now legally blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. The cataracts severely hindered her ability to find work on Vancouver Island, so she came to Metro Vancouver in search of affordable housing. After a short stop at a shelter on Cordova Street in East Vancouver, Alice is now living at Lookout North Shore Housing Centre shelter in North Vancouver. She has been here since early October. 

Finding affordable housing has been a huge challenge for her.

"If you can't find affordable housing, what are your other options?" she said. 

"I was quite surprised that there wasn't any affordable housing currently available in Vancouver. I was very, very surprised."

Alice said the affordable housing buildings that do exist are full and have waiting lists that range from one to two years in length. She also discovered a seniors housing development in West Vancouver, but those units are reserved for people above the age of 65, a stipulation she does not meet. Despite working for decades, she's wound up in difficult circumstances. 

"I was working full time, I've worked all my life. I had to take CPP at age 60, so I have a small pension, that's what I live on," she said.

Alice pointed out that there is plenty of market rental housing stock available, but that she simply cannot afford it. She calls The Lookout Housing Centre "the Hilton of shelters," but is still searching feverishly for work and housing as she awaits an operation that will fix her eyes. 

"My short-term plan here is, first of all, to have the eye surgery, I'll be able to do the type of work I've done in the past and I should be back in the mainstream, so I do have a way out, thank goodness," she said.

"If I was stuck here, it would be very difficult."

Sandy: Temporarily homeless, lifelong North Van. resident

Sandy was born and raised in North Vancouver. She went to school here, owned a house and — at one point — even ran her own business. 

But back in December of last year, she lost her job and filed for employment insurance. She said she's been working hard, looking for a job over the past year, but has not been hired. 

At the end of September, she found out she had been evicted from her apartment, where she had been paying $1,000 per month. Sandy thought her EI benefits would continue for two more months, but she was wrong. With no EI and no apartment, she ended up moving into the Lookout North Shore Housing Centre where she's been since early October. 

"I look back and go 'what happened?'," she said.

"It was my fault, I could see it coming, but I was trying to be responsible. I didn't want to go bankrupt, I wanted to pay my bills and I just caught up in paying the bills."

A week before she was evicted, Sandy said she didn't have a clue of where to go. A friend sent her to a women's centre in Vancouver, which recommended she contact the Lookout Housing Centre. Sandy has used her time at the shelter to track down housing, which she has been able to find at a subsidized apartment in West Vancouver. She moves out on November 9th, after a month of shelter living. 

"Once I get a new job and good housing, I want to be an example of what can happen," she said. 

"I'm going to beat this and I'm going to come out on top. I'm going to do something about this problem too. I'm going to be part of the solution."

CBC is "In Your Neighbourhood". Join us for a live remote broadcast of CBC Radio One's 'The Early Edition' and 'On the Coast' in North Vancouver at the Bean Around the World coffee shop at Lonsdale Quay (123 Carrie Cates Court). CBC News Vancouver will also be on location and broadcasting live from around the city. 

With files from the CBC's Jesara Sinclair