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Homeless youth on the increase

Count shows overall numbers remain constant

The number of homeless people on the North Shore has levelled off since the last official count three years ago.

But in a disturbing trend, the figures point to more youth under the age of 25 as homeless.

Preliminary figures from the region-wide 2011 homeless count point to a 38 per cent increase in homeless youth on the North Shore compared to figures from 2008.

Results were similar across the rest of the Lower Mainland where numbers of homeless youth counted were up 29 per cent.

Part of those statistics may be due to a special effort this year to make sure homeless youth were included in the count. Two teams - including one made up of volunteer youth - were given the specific task of counting homeless youth on the North Shore this year.

But the increase in numbers is a concern, said Sandra Edelman, chairwoman of the North Shore Homelessness Task Force.

The results aren't surprising to Paul Butler, youth services coordinator for Hollyburn Family Services, which runs the North Shore's Youth Safe House. "Last month our occupancy rate was 98 per cent," he said.

Butler said there are many reasons for youth homelessness including family breakdown, often made worse by both drug and alcohol problems, and mental illness.

"We're seeing it more at a younger age," he said. One two-bed transitional housing apartment is currently available on the North Shore for youth who need a longer stay in a supported environment. Eight more transitional housing beds for youth 18-24 are expected to open next month.

In the past, said Butler, most of the focus on the homeless has been on the adult population. Now "they're finally recognizing that there is a homeless youth population out there."

Overall, numbers of homeless on the North Shore remained

steady in this year's count, with 117 people counted as homeless on the North Shore this year compared with 123 in 2008, the last time the count was conducted.

Edelman warns, however, that those numbers are considered minimums rather than definitive, due to the snapshot nature of the count, in which it's easy to miss people.

"If you talk to outreach workers they'll say it's at least double that," she said.

Most services that work with the homeless put the figures at between 200 and 300 people on the North Shore.

On March 16, teams of trained volunteers fanned out across the Lower Mainland to conduct the count at locations frequented by the homeless. Those included shelters, food banks, and camps in the bushes and under bridges.

To determine if people were homeless, they were asked if they paid rent for a place to stay and where they slept at night.

"A lot of people who are couch surfing we're not going to find," said Edelman. "But they are as vulnerable in many respects as the person who is on the street or in a shelter. They have no place they can say is their home."

Community agencies are also concerned about anecdotal reports indicating increases in both seniors and families who are homeless.

"It's a bit shocking when you hear about single dads with children living in a car," said Edelman. "We've seen some of that. We had never seen it before."

There was some good news in the numbers. For the first time since the homeless count was first conducted in 2002, numbers of homeless did not rise significantly since the last count in 2008.

When Metro Vancouver's Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness first counted the homeless in 2002, there were 44 people on the North Shore living in a shelter or on the street. By 2008, the official number had risen to about 125.

Other good news is that more of the homeless are seeking shelter. Fifty-two people were counted without shelter on the North Shore this time, compared to just over 63 last time.

The change was even more pronounced in Vancouver, where new emergency shelters resulted in a more than 80 per cent reduction in the number of homeless who are sleeping rough outside. Being inside a shelter gives people better access to community services, as well as a safe, warm place to stay, the task force noted.

In 2009/2010, the Lookout shelter on West Second Street at Bewicke Avenue provided more than 15,300 "bed nights" to roughly 900 people, who come from across the Lower Mainland as well as the North Shore. Average stays at the shelter last year were around 18 days, according to the society's annual report.

Across the Lower Mainland in general, there has been an increase in affordable housing, partly due to projects involving conversion of single room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

But on the North Shore, "we haven't been as successful," said Edelman.

"So often if you can help people find housing, it's finding it off the North Shore."

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