COVER STORY: Faces of homelessness
He came from money, she from what she describes as an abusive relationship. Neither expected to be homeless.
"I certainly didn't think I'd be almost 40 years old and living in a homeless shelter," says the pretty 39-year-old. He, a haggard 53, says he's never leaving.
Teresa and Andrew don't know each other but their paths have brought them to be neighbours at the North Shore Shelter.
They are among the 117 homeless counted on the North Shore this summer — though housing advocacy groups like Hollyburn Family Services, the North Shore Homelessness Task Force and the Lookout Society put the actual figure at at least 300 people.
Lookout runs this 45-bed shelter plus two floors of private single-room occupancy housing upstairs for an additional 25 beds, making 70 warm places to sleep for anyone with nowhere else to go. But there's a waiting list, and a cost. But it's a cost we're paying anyway.
According to a July study published by the Public Health Association of B.C. and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, homelessness and its associated health and legal impacts cost British Columbians between $8.1 and $9.2 billion per year, while a comprehensive housing and poverty reduction plan for the province's homeless and nearly-so would cost less than half of that, or $3 to $4 billion.
On an average month, the North Shore Shelter runs at 104 per cent of its capacity. In the fall and winter months, that includes the dozens of additional emergency weather mats that staff throw down on any available floor space when the weather outside is below -2 C. And yet, every night, the shelter turns away homeless men, women and youth for lack of beds.
Tonight, Teresa and Andrew are inside, in the shelter's single-room suites.
He grew up a hockey player in Toronto — a promising one too, he says. An all-star.
One night returning from hockey, a 15-year-old Andrew was in the back seat of the family car, his mom and dad up front.
"It was a really bad snowstorm in Ontario and we got hit by a snowplow," Andrew says, his voice catching.
After more than a week in a coma, the 10th grader awoke from the crash an orphan, his parents already buried.
And so began a relationship with drink that would take Andrew across the country and up to the logging town of Mackenzie. B.C., where first he found "only another bar to spend my money," but later, a woman he loved.
The two were married. And then they weren't. After their divorce, she moved back in with her family in West Vancouver's British Properties and he followed her home, heartbroken.
By then, Andrew's family money had run out and he took a job at the historic Horne Brothers Shingle Mill on the North Vancouver waterfront. He liked the work enough and made some fast friends. But hard times eventually fell on the factory and fell harder on the workers who were let go without warning, he says.
"From then on, I was in the unemployment line," Andrew shrugs. The former roof builder was now without a roof himself.
Around that time, Teresa was also finding her way to the North Shore Shelter from a "home" which boasted a roof and four doors.
She'd been sleeping in a car after fleeing what she described as an abusive relationship for the last time. And while in early adulthood, poverty and poor mental health conspired to keep the wolf hungry at her door, it took years before Teresa realized she'd long since invited the real animal of her undoing into her home.
She says women often stay in relationships because they have no place else to go. She added that once her family found out she had been intermittently homeless, they avoided her as if she were "contagious."
On finally leaving the relationship she describes as "toxic," Teresa lived in and out of her car while on the waiting list for North Vancouver’s Sage Transition House for women escaping violence. It was her first introduction to the North Shore, a place she now proudly calls “home” from her suite in the North Shore Shelter.
“Coming up here has given me a real community,” she says. “The roof over my head was the main thing I needed. Now I work with church groups, I volunteer at the shelter and at the Harvest [Project]. They supported me and now I can give back.”
According to North Shore housing advocates, women — especially the young — are a growing demographic among the North Shore’s homeless population, but often they are the least visible demographic; more likely to sleep in cars or on couches than in shelters or on the streets.
While youth homelessness is on the rise among both boys and girls since the last regional homeless count in 2008, advocacy groups also want to draw attention to another emerging trend on the North Shore: homeless seniors.
Advocates say adequate housing is becoming unaffordable for many North Shore seniors as older buildings are being torn down to make way for higher value properties and seniors are left to choose between paying for medications, food or housing.
“As every older rental housing project comes down and is replaced,” Don Peters of North Shore Community Resources told North Van district council this month, “costs are higher and all kinds of people are displaced and just go away. They just go away.”
Last spring, the North Shore’s Lionsview Seniors Planning Society took a summary snapshot of homelessness among North Shore seniors which found that annually there are an average of 60 people older than 55 who are known among outreach workers to be homeless. Of those, 10 to 20 are classified as chronically homeless while the others are thought to be periodically without a place to live.
More worrying is that seniors are thought to be underrepresented on such “snapshot” counts because of higher instances of mental illness and higher mortality rates, the Lionsview study found.
More worrying still is that of the 26,930 seniors over 65 who call the North Shore home, 1,675 — or 6 per cent — have incomes below the low-income line of $15,344 for singles or $18,676 for a two-person household. Of these, 1,215 North Shore seniors are thought to be in urgent housing need, spending more than half of their income on housing. This group, the study determined, are at immediate risk of becoming homeless. And still, it’s one of the North Shore’s fastest growing demographics.
In the next five years, the over-65 population is expected to grow by at least 24 per cent, according to the Lionsview study. Over the next 10 years, Lionsview staff projected the seniors population to grow by 48 per cent, jumping to 73 per cent more than the current population by 2031.
This Saturday (Oct. 15), North Shore housing services groups are hosting Lower Mainland Street Soccer exhibition games from 1 to 4 p.m. at North Vancouver’s Norseman Park as part of North Shore Connect Days. After the games, Mt. Seymour United Church at 1200 Parkgate Ave. will show two documentary films about homelessness accompanied by a discussion with Vancouver housing advocate Judy Graves. Admission is free with donations of socks for the North Shore Shelter graciously accepted.