You can hear the fatigue in Paul Ellis’ voice. The lack of sleep, the pacemaker in his heart, the fact that he’s homeless and penniless is taking its toll.
His forehead furrows deeply when he talks about his attempts to navigate the welfare system he describes as a bureaucratic maze.
“I never thought I’d be here,” Ellis says, his face stoic, his eyes fighting back tears.
Six months ago, after leaving the Cythera Thrift Store in Maple Ridge, where he’s volunteered for the past 11 years, Ellis suffered a major heart attack.
The 63-year-old quite literally died at the bus stop. A quadruple bypass and pacemaker are keeping him alive.
The heart attack makes Ellis feel decades older. It has sapped his energy. A hip injury makes it difficult for him to walk.
He had hoped to spend this year recovering in a rented suite in Pitt Meadows he’s called home for the past 12 years.
Those plans vanished when his landlord handed him an eviction notice in April, giving him three months to vacate.
Ellis has spent the past three months scrambling to find accommodation. He scoured classified ads and contacted landlords, but was unable to find a room to rent within his means.
On a disability pension of $800 per month, Ellis can’t afford to spend much more than $475 on housing. He’d also like to stay close to the few friends he has and the place where he volunteers.
B.C. Housing and a local agency contracted to assist people like Ellis find a home have been unable to help.
Unable to drive or rely on a bus to go house hunting, Ellis found himself homeless a week ago. The agencies tasked with helping him have told to be patient, check into a homeless shelter and wait until an subsidized apartment becomes available – a wait that could take a few months to a year.
If it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers, the soft-spoken man with a busted hip would be sleeping on a park bench.
Ellis, who worked full-time until he fell ill a decade ago, can’t believe he’s one of those “unfortunate souls” who has fallen through the cracks.
“All I want to do is be independent,” says Ellis, who is shuffling between the home of Kristin Krimmel and another Cythera volunteer.
Krimmel seethes when she discusses his plight.
“This is a man who, despite his poor circumstances, is giving back to the community he lives in. He is not abusing the system. He’s not a bum,” says Krimmel.
“I keep feeling the absolute desperation this man, recently recovering from heart surgery, has been placed in. It makes me heartsick for him.”
Krimmel has spent the past week acting as an advocate for Ellis. She’s driven him to doctor’s appointments, is making sure he’s eating at least one full meal a day. She’s taken him to the MLA’s office and welfare office to beg for help. She’s pestered several social agencies to find him housing – all to no avail.
“An individual’s well-being should not be dependent on strangers, casual acquaintances and neighbours’ good will. He is not a charity case. He should not have to have us advocating for him in order for him to receive benefits that he is entitled to,” Krimmel says.
“I fear for him. And I don’t believe he is an isolated case.”
Krimmel’s suspicions are warranted.
Seniors in British Columbia make up the largest demographic in the “hidden homeless” category.
The Seniors Services Society, a non-profit agency funded by the United Way that helps people 55 and older throughout the Lower Mainland (excluding the Downtown Eastside), logs at least 15 calls each month.
Last year, the society helped 176 seniors at risk of homelessness and found housing for another 150 who were already on the street.
“They are not getting counted,” said executive director Kara Jameson.
“The senior population is undercounted because the seniors are often the ones living in their car, couch surfing. When we compare our numbers with the Metro Vancouver numbers, ours are way higher.”
A study commissioned by the society estimated that almost 20,000 seniors in households in the Lower Mainland were ‘at risk’ of homelessness – 8,245 aged 55 to 64, and 11,240 who were 65 or older.
In fact, Ellis fits the description of a senior who most often falls through the cracks. Those seniors are sick, on a fixed income and not yet 65 years old to qualify for an extra boost of cash that comes in the form of the government’s Guaranteed Income Supplement.
“He is really the worst off,” says Jameson.
The Seniors Services Society is unique in its focus on seniors. The agency has 16 apartments it uses as emergency shelters for homeless seniors, a database of housing and two outreach workers.
Their services are now in increasing demand.
A few years ago, Jameson says it took about a month to find a senior suitable permanent housing. These days, waits can last more than four months.
“You can’t find anything for less than $850 or $900 that’s reasonable or safe accommodation to call home – a place where you’d put your grandparents and parents,” she says. “Affordable housing is all full. There have not been any new buildings going up.”
By 2029, nearly 30 per cent of Canada’s seniors will be ages 75 to 84, and 13 per cent will be over age 85.
Those statistics have prompted the B.C. government to commit to establishing an Office of the Seniors Advocate, similar to B.C.’s representative for children and youth
Public consultations are currently taking place throughout the province so seniors, their families, service providers, and other organizations can help shape the future role of a seniors advocate.
But organizations tasked with helping seniors point out the obstacle is a lack of affordable housing.
Homeless seniors really illustrates the connection between homelessness and poverty, says Stephanie Ediger, with the Maple Ridge-based Alouette Homestart Society.
“It shows incomes aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. People on fixed incomes, people on disability and the working poor are having trouble finding housing.
The biggest problem in this town is affordable housing. If the resources aren’t there, we can’t make them magically materialize out of thin air. It’s not unique to this community. It’s the biggest challenge for seniors or anyone who is trying to find housing on a limited income.”