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Homeless seniors on the rise as rents increasingly out of reach

In the past few years, Grant McKenzie has noticed more seniors coming to Our Place for meals.

In the past few years, Grant McKenzie has noticed more seniors coming to Our Place for meals.

The increase concerns McKenzie, Our Place Society’s director of communications, because it reflects the struggle for a population that is increasingly having to choose between paying rent and buying food as rents in the region rise, he said.

“Seniors are already vulnerable. It’s quite easy for them to lose their homes, and especially with the rate of high rents,” McKenzie said.

Over the weekend, Victoria police officers helped dig out a man in his 80s who was living in a tent in someone’s yard, after heavy snowfall collapsed the tent, trapping the man inside. He was unharmed, and told police he was happy with his living arrangement and had an agreement with the homeowner to live there for the past year.

While some people want to live outside, Rev. Al Tysick, who works closely with the street community as the executive director of the Dandelion Society, said the vast majority of those he encounters want to have a roof over their heads.

People ages 55 and up made up 19 per cent of the region’s homeless population last year, according to a count by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which provides a snapshot of homelessness in the community each year. That’s a seven per cent jump from 2011-2012, when seniors made up 12 per cent of the street population, and substantially up from eight per cent in 2008-2009.

The 2020 point-in-time count also showed 38 per cent of homeless seniors had their first experience with homelessness after age 55.

McKenzie said harm-reduction measures have played a role in the increasing number of seniors without housing, since people are living longer on the street.

“Up until four or five years ago, maybe an old person living on the street would be in their 40s. And usually their addiction would end their life quite early,” he said. “But now we’re starting to see a lot more people in their 60s and up.”

Harm reduction may be helping more people live longer, but there aren’t enough supports to house people as they age, McKenzie said.

Compared to other age groups, a higher proportion of seniors become homeless because they aren’t able to pay the rent, according to the point-in-time count. The combination of fixed incomes and increasing housing costs has made it more challenging to afford a place to live.

Tysick said the number of unhoused seniors he interacts with fluctuates. Most mornings, he visits about 80 to 100 people living outside, providing coffee, food, warm clothing and support. He knows four seniors living in tents or doorways at the moment, all of whom want to move indoors.

In the past, he was often able to help seniors move into affordable rooming houses in the city, but they’re full now, he said. Other people he worked with were able to afford to rent garage spaces or other informal living situations, but even those places are out of reach now.

“The cost of renting housing has gone out of sight, really. Unless you’re in some subsidized housing, you’re not going to be inside, that’s for sure,” Tysick said.