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The aging face of homelessness in North American cities

In Vancouver last month, more than 400 volunteers walked around, carrying clipboards and wearing bright yellow buttons that read “Homeless Count.” They were out on the streets or in shelters asking homeless people to complete brief surveys for the city’s annual Homeless Count co-ordinated by the Homelessness Services Association of B.C. (HSABC).

I spent one evening at a shelter, one block east of Main and Hastings. This intersection is at the heart of the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood in Vancouver that is home to a diverse group of people, many who struggle with socioeconomic and housing challenges and others affected by issues of mental health and substance use. To meet the significant need, a large number of social service agencies are concentrated in the Downtown Eastside.

Last year, the Vancouver Homeless Count determined that the homeless rate was the highest it had been since the count began in 2005. Although the group of people staying at the shelter on the night I visited represented many identities, there were some patterns that I noticed.

The ‘dream’ of old-age

My research team from Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre is collaborating with HSABC and Providence Health Care to explore the issues surrounding homelessness. We have heard from health-care and shelter providers throughout Metro Vancouver that it feels as though the number of older persons who are experiencing homelessness and looking for support in the shelter system is increasing. In 2017, the stark reality for older adults became apparent as 21 per cent of the people who were counted during the Homeless Count that year were aged 55 or older. This was up from 18 per cent in 2014.

Many Canadians may envision their older age as a time when they can finally relax, no longer worry about the stresses of working a regular job. They may hope to spend more time with family and friends. But for many older adults, this idyllic stereotype is unattainable.

Many older adults are at-risk for homelessness as they live pension cheque to pension cheque, with limited prospects for employment.

The 2018 B.C. Seniors Poverty Report Card showed that British Columbia has more adults over 65 living in poverty than any other province or territory in Canada.

Indigenous are overrepresented

Low income isn’t the only cause for homelessness. There are many possible reasons for the increasing numbers of homeless people. Social isolation is a significant challenge for many.

Chronic health conditions, limited affordable housing stock and a lack of employment opportunities are other culprits. In 2018, only 17 per cent of the respondents to the Vancouver Homeless Count reported no health condition.

Public attitudes towards the homeless vary. Some argue that everyone has had similar opportunities and people of limited income have only themselves to blame.

But research suggests that systemic issues significantly contribute to low income and housing insecurity. Longstanding discrimination and exclusion have prevented many people — women, people of colour and Indigenous people — from accumulating the wealth needed to live comfortably in later life.

Data on U.S. cities shows that 43 per cent of veterans experiencing homelessness are persons of colour. In Metro Vancouver, Indigenous people are overrepresented among the homeless population.

Reduce blame

In addition to reducing the blame and shame typically associated with homelessness, there is an urgent need for additional housing options for older adults.

Affordable rental units are becoming more limited and waiting lists for social housing have been steadily increasing since 2011.

Advocates have been developing housing models that coordinate support services like housekeeping, meal preparation and transportation to doctor’s appointments. Housing First — an example of an evidence-based model that views housing as a human right — is working. It is a concept which looks at housing as the necessary foundation to support chronically or episodically homeless single adults who have mental illness and substance use issues and live in urban locations, and also provides clients with in-home supports.

Similar models of housing plus support should be developed — so more older adults can age in the right place and be provided with the integral supports they need.

During the Homeless Count, a homeless older man I spoke with said the data is important: it brings vital evidence to those advocating for more affordable housing. However, as a researcher in this field I believe even one person experiencing homelessness is one too many.


Published on 11th April 2019 by on The Conversation


Add a comment
  • andyjones64
    3rd July 2020

    Hi Meera - do you have enough people yet for the pilot or are you looking for more?


    Best wishes



    VOICE Head Office
    3rd July 2020

    Hi Andy, Yes the pilot is running throughout July and August, so please do register if you are interested!

    3rd July 2020

    Hi Andy, like the VOICE Head Office said this opportunity is still open and we are looking for people to take part. Please share the details with your Newcastle based friends, family and neighbours!

  • 25th June 2020

    Hello Meera, I realise this is a pilot study, but the choice of requests for users to select is rather limited. They would seem to be appropriate for those remaining in COVID Shielding lockdown, but from 16 July and 6 August 2020 their restrictions will also be lifted to 'normality'.

    From the Overview gardening picture above, will onHand offer a similar wider choice for users at a later date (not including personal care) which would require some volunteer skills/abilities?

    26th June 2020

    Hi Bernie,


    Thanks for your comment. The list above is an indication of what volunteers can do and is by no means comprehensive. onHand's type of requests changed in response to COVID-19 and will do doubt change in response to the lifting of restrictions. As we progress with the pilot, we will be taking into account the changing restrictions and adapt the type of requests accordingly. I think to begin with we will err on the side of caution to make sure everyone is comfortable and after receiving feedback look into expanding the type of requests.


    Kind regards,



  • Ianeon
    23rd June 2020

    "You must also be aged over 55 and live in Newcastle upon Tyne."


    Could you please define the area you mean by "Newcastle Upon Tyne."



    I downloaded & installed the App - everything went smoothly - The only drawback I can see is that a "smartphone" is needed - this may exclude a fair-sized chunk of the older population.


    I went here: and I can't agree with the statement "Social care for the elderly is on the verge of collapse."


    This works in London and is going to be trialled in Newcastle - but what are your thoughts on extending this to urban/suburban & rural areas where I think there is more of a need for such a scheme?


    "emerging sharing economy and the desire of young people to give more than just money."

    If I understand this correctly then this is the "young helping the old" which will be fine during the July/August period but there will be limitations during term time and the Winter months.


    A DBS check takes about four weeks so I assume you are only looking for volunteers to be the "customers"?


    Thank you.


    25th June 2020

    Hi Ian,


    Thank you for your comments. As this is a pilot we are very much feeling our way at the moment and any feedback is appreciated.


    I hope to answer some of your questions and comments here.


    We are are looking for people in Newcastle upon Tyne within a few mile of the city centre as we are not sure where the volunteers and people needing help will be.


    Thank you for downloading the app. You can indeed interact with the onHand service through the app but we will be providing people who sign up through VOICE alternative instructions.


    In this pilot period we are trying out a more rural location and hope to have more information for you in the coming weeks.


    The young doesn't necessarily mean students and I hope that people of all ages will be willing to volunteer.


    The DBS checks are taking differing amounts of time from 2days upwards. Through VOICE we are looking for people who will use the service - "customers" as you called them.


    Kind regards,