Wheelchair users: an unseen component of the homeless population

British Columbians who need affordable wheelchair-accessible housing often wait years to find a suitable home. Some confront the frightening prospect of homelessness. Others are stuck in care facilities or unsuitable housing, denied basic amenities like bathing, or forced to forego job opportunities in a community that has no housing vacancies.

Some Right Fit participants have never been able to shower or to use a kitchen and some have had to crawl through narrow corridors. Approximately 10 percent of the wheelchair users assisted by the Right Fit are newly disabled and seeking to exit rehab or long-term care facilities. They look to escape institutionalization by taking any lodging no matter the accessibility barriers. This population lives throughout Greater Vancouver, with the highest concentration in the City of Vancouver and Surrey. It is an important but unrecognized segment of the homeless population that requires specialized, empathetic and socially appropriate supports.

The wheelchair accessible housing crisis

A day-long Roundtable in 2014 convened by the City of Vancouver Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee brought together Housing providers, health authorities, government representatives and people with disabilities to discuss the impact of the low supply of affordable wheelchair housing. The Roundtable concluded that there was a crisis in wheelchair accessible affordable housing and recommended that working groups be established to explore and mitigate the problem.

In June 2018, Disability Alliance BC hosted a roundtable with community and government partners to further explore why housing providers and wheelchair users struggle to match supply and demand for affordable accessible housing in Metro Vancouver, and seek ways to advance solutions.

The challenges to tackle

Several challenges emerged during these roundtable events. The Right Fit program aims to address them all:

  • Limited supply and very low turnover of accessible affordable housing. The demand for affordable wheelchair-accessible homes in Metro Vancouver far outstrips the supply. The demand for wheelchair accessible units increased by 52% from 2010 to 2017 and the BC Housing Registry had a waiting list of 450 applicants for wheelchair accessible housing in 2017. Half were living in Vancouver or Surrey, and 65% had income below $20,000 per year.
  • No common standards to document and communicate specific accessibility needs such as roll-in showers or extra space to maneuver electric showers, and to describe unit features with sufficient precision to determine what’s a good fit.  The inventory of wheelchair accessible housing available in the Lower Mainland has been hampered by the fact that the major providers have been using a mixed set of standards and most of the accessible housing stock is grandfathered from earlier standards.
  • No single centralized marketplace for listing and matching wheelchair accessible housing vacancies and applicants. Because there is no facilitated, accurate or compulsory registry of wheelchair accessible units available in the Lower Mainland, it means that both providers and renters have no way of connecting with one another. There is often very limited information on the accessibility features of available accommodations, making it impossible to verify whether any unit deemed to be accessible is, in fact, able to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • The length of time to secure disability supports and special equipment for a new home is a barrier to wheelchair user access. High demand means vacancies are often gone before supports are in place. Housing providers are often unable to find wheelchair users to fill vacant accessible units at short notice. Many potential candidates need extra support to navigate various processes to secure services like home care, income supports and customized equipment before they can access housing. Applying for and maintaining a current application for social housing over a lengthy waiting period can be challenging. Housing providers may also have multiple eligibility filters that exclude some applicants. As a result, when accessible units become available, they may be used to meet urgent housing needs for other individuals or families who do not require wheelchair accessibility. These scarce units are then lost for the long term, further aggravating the housing crisis for wheelchair users.