Ranks of homeless seniors growing in Metro Vancouver
Elmer Cardinal, 71 looks at family photos on the fridge in the Burnaby apartment he obtained through the Seniors Services Society after finding himself homeless in Vancouver.
Photograph by: Ric Ernst , PROVINCE
After working hard all his life, senior Elmer Cardinal couldn’t find a home.
The 71-year-old native of Peace River, Alta., had lived and worked in both Alberta and B.C. as a heavy equipment operator, a logger and an art dealer, but when he returned to B.C. after spending time in Halifax, he found himself homeless.
“I had to sleep on (a friend’s) couch and that was the worst thing I ever slept on,” said Cardinal, who had to leave his belongings at Vancouver airport, racking up a $700 bill.
Cardinal is not alone. The number of homeless seniors in B.C. is rising, with more than 200 people aged 55 and older counted in the last Metro Vancouver homeless census in 2011.
Last month, 900 volunteers conducted another 24-hour count, with preliminary results expected in a few weeks. Several service providers told The Province they expect to see the number of seniors go up.
“Anecdotally, we are seeing an increase in seniors at shelters,” said Rebecca Bell, manager of the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy Society.
Homeless seniors — who are defined as people aged 55 and up because life on the street has an aging impact — fall into two categories: those who have “aged into” being homeless seniors, and those who find themselves homeless for the first time in their late 50s or 60s.
“We’re seeing more of both,” said Bell.
The loss of a job, lack of affordable rental housing, or the loss of a spouse can be contributing factors to senior homelessness, she said. The increase is particularly concerning because many seniors require services not offered in emergency shelters, such as physical assistance or mental health services. Some may have trouble accessing support.
“There’s quite a lot to be done in this area,” said Bell.
Cardinal’s friend saw a notice about the Seniors Services Society and called for help.
“It saved my life, to be honest with you,” Cardinal said.
The Seniors Services Society has 20 subsidized suites in a variety of buildings in Burnaby that it sublets to people like Cardinal as they look for permanent accommodation.
Cardinal spent six months in 2010 in such a suite before he was able to get into his own bachelor apartment, for which he now pays $520.
He knows of other seniors looking for housing and thinks something has to be done.
“People like myself were pioneers of B.C.,” said Cardinal, who worked on the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. “Seniors that are my age contributed so much to B.C.”
The Seniors Services Society may not be able to continue helping people like Cardinal because it’s losing $300,000 in funding from the United Way. About $200,000 of that was dedicated to the temporary housing program that Cardinal used.
Kara-Leigh Bloch, executive director of the society, said her organization turned away 200 applicants in 2012 and 263 last year.
One applicant rejected this year was a woman who didn’t want her real name revealed and asked to be called Teresa.
She got into a dispute with her landlords, and police were eventually called to remove her from what she said was a “violent situation.”
They took her to the Lookout Society’s nearby Yukon Shelter, where she has been since the second week of February.
“I have to be out of here by the 22nd of April,” she said.
As for what she will do, Teresa said “I don’t have a clue.”
She has applied for Canada Pension Plan benefits, along with Old Age Security and social assistance.
She has been too ashamed to appeal to friends, but admits that may be her last resort.
“I think there has to be a lot more attention paid to seniors because they’re falling through the cracks,” she said.