‘Basic needs are all we ask’: Meet North Vancouver’s hidden homeless

$3.7 million in funding has been announced for rural communities in Alberta to fight homelessness. File / Global News

It’s a sunny June afternoon in North Vancouver.

Lynn is sorting through a massive mound of bottles and cans spread across three overflowing shopping carts.

She’s lived outside the bottle depot on Brooksbank for the past three months.

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“Even though I worked a good 25 years for the school board, my pension is not that great you know? And it’s hard, you can’t afford anything you can’t afford to eat, you can’t afford to live in an apartment or a house, nothing.”

Lynn and James’ set-up in front of the Bottle Depot on Brooksbank Avenue. Robyn Crawford

Lynn shares her tent with her son James, who has lived on the North Shore his entire life. Both spoke on the condition that they be identified by their first names only.

When James found himself on disability it was no longer enough to afford his apartment, he said.

“It’s become hard to live,” said James.

“Do you pay your rent or do you eat your food? It’s become one of those situations.”

He says he lives on the streets of North Vancouver because this has always been his safe place.

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“You know every time I’ve moved away from here I’ve always moved back, I like North Van this is my home, my families here.”

On the other side of town there’s Richard, who says all it took was a foreclosure to force him to sleep on the streets.

“Away it went, I was without a home, suddenly, I knew 30 days before that I was going to have to leave,” he said.

“A lot of people might think of homeless people being drug addicts, violent people maybe, but by far and large that’s not the case. I’ve met some very nice people, and they think the same thing: how did I end up being homeless?”

As for Loki, who has dealt with substance abuse in downtown Vancouver, being homeless in North Vancouver was an escape from the noise.

“It’s a bit more nature and quiet, and when its 12:00 a.m. at night here it’s peaceful, it’s quiet I’ve never been a huge city fan so it was a bit more chaotic across town,” he said.

According to a count done in 2017 by the North Shore Homelessness Task Force there were an estimated 736 homeless people living in North Vancouver.

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There is only one shelter with 47 beds, no modular homes, and no provincially-funded social housing.

Shayne Williams is the CEO of the only shelter, operated by the Lookout Society.

“We serve three communities, our turn-away [rate] is atrocious,” he said.

“One shelter among three communities in this day and age, with this sheer volume of folks that need service on the North Shore doesn’t cut it.”

“If the definition of community is how we treat our most vulnerable, if that’s our score card, we’re not doing very well on the North Shore.”

But North Vancouver resident Jeremy says the homeless population doesn’t affect his local business. In fact, he barely notices them.

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“I mean, I watch what’s going backward and forward here, there aren’t that many around.”

MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale Bowinn Ma says it’s the vast amount of space that makes the homeless so hidden.

“A lot of people think that the North Shore doesn’t have a lot of homelessness because they don’t see it on the streets quite as much as they would see it in Downtown Vancouver,” she said.

“But on the North Shore we have families living in their tents and their cars.”

Meanwhile, the province has allocated almost $20 million to build two mixed-income buildings on the North Shore.

But Ma says she’s not seeing action coming from the municipal level.

“I understand why a community like North Vancouver might be concerned about their neighborhood changing too quickly,” she said.

“But I would also be very concerned about them missing the opportunity to actually work with the provincial government who is eager, ready, and willing and has billions of dollars on the table right now to help them build that affordable housing.”

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In fact, earlier this year, the District of North Vancouver mayor and council shut down a 100-unit affordable housing project.

Mayor Mike Little said in a statement the city will be working on a partnership focusing on vulnerable women later this year.

Williams says we need to be taking advantage of government funding.

WATCH: Vancouver’s homeless numbers rise

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Vancouver’s homeless numbers rise

“If you’ve got the political will and you’ve got the need, you have to be creating housing right now, and there’s no doubt about the need,” said Williams.

MP for North Vancouver Jonathan Wilkinson agrees it’s up to the municipalities to carry out these projects.

“There certainly is not enough shelter beds in North Vancouver to address the need, it is certainly something that has been a conversation for some substantial period time, I mean as you know most of these tools with respect to zoning and enabling the opening of these kind of facilities lie at the municipal level,” he told Global News.

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Ma says she’s now pushing for the municipalities to say yes to modular homes.

“Just about a week ago or so sent a letter to all three North Shore municipalities urging them to consider modular housing for the North Shore,” she said.

Williams says he’s hoping for the same thing.

“[I’m] cautiously optimistic that the North Shore mayors can get together for the modular program because, certainly, we could easily get some folks here and some folks that we know live rough in the community, populate that very, very quickly,” he said.
“There’s been some conversations about another shelter opening locally and I think it’s more of a family-based [model], and it’s a little more different and we see, it and we welcome it with open arms, and it can’t happen fast enough.”

Wilkinson says funding will also be coming next year from the federal government.

“[It is] part of the national housing strategy which comes into play next year, which essentially gives people a top-up to help them afford rent,” he said.
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But for James, he’s just hoping for a rope to grab onto.

“We just want to live and just sustain a life, that’s it,” he said.

“We don’t want to be rich and have homes and banks and big bank accounts, we just want to make it. Basic needs are all we ask.”

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