Just before the summer started, Jon Harry was told he’d have to leave his room at a Duncan motel because the owner planned to renovate.
Harry, on provincial disability benefits, had already been struggling to pay for his small motel room, which didn’t include a kitchen: rent was $1,100 a month, leaving just $200 to pay for food and other living expenses.
But Harry was unable to find a new place to rent, and for the last five months, he’s been sleeping rough.
“I was in a tarp and blanket, and then I was in a tent for a little bit,” the 34-year-old Duncan resident told The Tyee. “And now I'm trying to go to a shelter.”
Harry is one of a new wave of developmentally disabled people who are ending up homeless in B.C.
Organizations that support developmentally disabled clients say it’s a recent phenomenon, and a new low for a province that has struggled with rising homelessness, spiking rents and rampant real estate speculation for years.
“Starting a few years ago, [support workers] all of a sudden had started to see that the people they support couldn't afford housing and were ending up on the street,” said Dominic Rockall, chief executive officer of Clements Centre, an organization that supports around 200 people with developmental disabilities in Duncan. The town of 5,000 people is located within the municipality of North Cowichan on Vancouver Island.
“Five years ago, this wasn't a thing: everybody was in apartments. It’s kind of grown over the last five years — at one point we had 12 people that were completely unhoused.”
Currently, 18 Clements Centre clients are in crisis, Rockall said. Nine of those people are homeless; two were recently incarcerated and were homeless at the time they were arrested; and seven are at risk of homelessness. Some of those who are at risk of losing their housing are currently paying 80 to 90 per cent of their income on rent.
While the Clements Centre has been speaking out about the problem in Duncan, the same pressures are happening across B.C., said Karla Verschoor, executive director of Inclusion BC, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“It's having a devastating impact on the people that I work for and with, who in B.C. are sitting right now at a roughly 78 per cent unemployment rate,” said Verschoor. “Of those 22 per cent that are working, the average income sits at around $13,000, which eliminates them from any rental market other than the deep subsidized social housing option.”
While some clients who need more help live in group homes or home-share placements, others — like Harry — are able to live on their own with a few hours of support a week.
It’s those clients who are particularly vulnerable to getting evicted. Support workers are finding it nearly impossible to find a new landlord willing to rent to a developmentally disabled person who relies on government disability benefits for their income.
Kim Doyle and Bob Day, who work at Clements Centre, have both had disappointing experiences while trying to find housing for clients.
“When we're looking for housing, one of the first questions landlords ask is ‘Are you employed?’” Day said. “They can pick and choose who they want, and if you don't have employment, it just becomes a non-starter.”
Recently, Doyle said a member of her team was trying to find housing for a man who had become homeless. That staffer received an email from a property manager that was openly discriminatory against people with developmental disabilities.
“If the person you are enabling can't email me himself and is too developmentally or mentally challenged to find his own rental, then he cannot rent here,” reads the email, the text of which Rockall shared with The Tyee. “We are not a government-funded group home for the special needs. We do not have or want the staffing to supervise your people. So in short, don't waste my time or their time by mothering them.”
According to B.C.’s rent laws, landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone “based on their race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, gender, sexual orientation, age or lawful source of income.”
Rockall said Clements Centre staff have been assisting the client in filing a human rights complaint. In an opinion piece published in the Vancouver Sun, Clements board member Leslie Welin wrote that discrimination like this is common, but “this particular landlord was just more blatant about it than most.”
Another woman Doyle’s team supports had lived on her own in a rental apartment for eight years and was paying a manageable $600 in rent. But when the property changed hands, according to Doyle, the woman and other tenants were offered compensation in exchange for ending their tenancies. Because B.C. has rent control laws that apply to the tenant, but not the rental unit, property owners have a profit motive to attempt to evict tenants when rent rates rise.
Low-income and cognitively impaired tenants are especially vulnerable to move-out offers: the compensation offered can look like a lot of money to a tenant, but the tenant often ends up paying much more in rent when they move to a new place.
“They basically came to our client and asked her to sign paperwork as an agreement to end tenancy and promising them this much money if they agreed to sign,” Doyle said.
“Anything that’s going to move you above living minute by minute is a huge draw, so she signed.”
Doyle said that even though she believes her client “cognitively... doesn’t necessarily understand what she just signed,” the landlord still enforced the eviction. The woman was able to find a new place to live but is now paying $1,150 a month for an apartment, according to Doyle.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, home prices and rent rates shot up across British Columbia. The trend happened not just in large urban areas but also in smaller towns and rural areas as people rushed to buy property in less populated areas. Recent homeless counts completed this year showed that homelessness across B.C. also increased sharply in the same period.
The last homeless count conducted for Duncan and the Cowichan Valley is from 2020 and recorded 129 people, compared with 150 in 2017.
But other nearby areas on Vancouver Island had 2023 homeless counts that showed homelessness increased compared with 2020 or 2021. In the Comox Valley, the number of homeless people doubled, from 132 in 2020 to 272 in 2023. In Campbell River, the number rose from 116 in 2021 to 197 in 2023, a 70 per cent increase. And in Parksville-Qualicum, the number of homeless people counted rose 18 per cent, from 87 in 2021 to 103 in 2023.
The percentage of homeless people who said they had a physical disability, a learning disability, an addiction or a mental health condition also increased in all of those regions.
Across the province, Verschoor said, homeless counts show the percentage of people with learning disabilities at around 20 per cent, a population that “definitely includes people with intellectual developmental disabilities that are eligible for CLBC supports.”
Community Living BC is a Crown corporation that funds supports and services for adults living with developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The people CLBC funds “have significant difficulties doing things on their own,” according to the agency.
In addition to experiencing discrimination in the tight rental market, Rockall said, people with developmental disabilities are also struggling to afford rent on their persons with disabilities, or PWD, cheques. Most of the people the Clements Centre is helping to live independently receive between $1,350 and $1,500 a month, Rockall said.
While the B.C. government recently increased the shelter rate for people on social assistance and disability to $500 from $350 a month, there’s still a huge gap between rent rates in the private market and the shelter allowance.
Rockall said he’d like to see people with developmental disabilities become eligible for rent subsidy programs that are currently available to people who are employed and have children.
“That would be one way to help remedy this situation for people — or they could just simply raise the PWD rate,” Rockall said.
In an interview with The Tyee, Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.'s minister of social development and poverty reduction, said she met with Clements Centre staff this summer. (Malcolmson is also responsible for Community Living BC.)
After Welin and Rockall spoke to media earlier this month about the growing number of homeless people they’re supporting, Community Living BC reached out to the Clements Centre to get more details about the clients who are struggling with homelessness.
“I understand BC Housing prioritizes especially vulnerable people on its list, so we now have all the people in question on BC Housing’s list,” Malcolmson said. “BC Housing wasn’t aware of them before.”
Malcolmson said that when BC Housing is building new social housing, a percentage of the units are being protected “for people with disabilities of many definitions.”
Rockall said guaranteeing a percentage of units for people with disabilities is a positive move, but “we need more of these units with rent geared to income — in other words rent at no more than $500 per month.”
Right now, Harry is focused each day on trying to get a shelter spot for the night. Sometimes he misses the cutoff time for signing in each evening, and then he has to find a place where he feels safe sleeping in his tent.
Harry said he hopes that in the future, he can find a home and a job again. Previously, Harry did overnight janitorial work at a supermarket, but the night shift interfered with his sleep too much for him to continue.
He also said there needs to be more affordable housing for people on disability benefits. “Because we don't get much,” he said. “If we have to pay more, it would use up most of our money.”
With files from Andrew MacLeod.