Keith Light, 77, says he spent New Year’s Eve trying to get the engine of his recreational vehicle — outside a Walmart in East Vancouver — running to stay warm, while trying to imagine better times ahead.
“I just laid here and visualized B.C. Housing calling me and saying: ‘We have a place for you,'” said the former construction worker.
Light has been on B.C. Housing’s waiting list for subsidized housing for two years, and every time he contacts the agency, staff ask him to check back in another six months.
He is among a large population of elderly people living in poverty or are on its brink in B.C., where perennially high housing costs exacerbate countrywide cost-of-living woes.
Statistics show people 65 or older in the province are twice as likely as younger adults to be classified as having low income in 2021. But 20 years earlier, it was the other way around.
Low-income rates among B.C. seniors have almost doubled since 2001, and are almost seven times higher than in 1996, according to government data.
Light once had a home on Pender Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.
After selling it, relocating to Metro Vancouver and paying off debts, Light didn’t have much left, so he bought the RV for $19,000 while living on a monthly pension of $1,900.
Adding to his financial woes are parking tickets, each costing $70. Light has paid some of them and said he’s saving to pay the rest.
Advocates for B.C. seniors say rising costs of living coupled with stagnant government retirement incomes are pushing more elders into poverty and homelessness.
The monthly old age pension for people over 75 is up to $784.67, while the guaranteed income supplement for a single person is up to $1,065.47, for a total of $22,201.68 a year.
A 66-page report titled Aging in Uncertainty: The Growing Housing Crisis for B.C. Seniors, published late November by United Way B.C., cited Statistics Canada data showing more than one in six B.C. seniors in 2021 had after-tax low incomes, defined as 50 per cent or less than the median adjusted after‑tax income of private households.
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That was a “dramatic reversal” from three decades ago when seniors had the lowest low-income rates of any age group, United Way said.
The report says in 2001, only 8.6 per cent of people aged more than 65 in the province were in the low-income category, compared with 16 per cent of younger adults. By 2021, 15.2 per cent of seniors were in the low-income group, compared with 8.1 per cent of younger adults.
In 1996, only 2.2 per cent of seniors were in the low-income group.
The United Way report also said one in four seniors in B.C. had an after-tax income below $21,800 in 2020.
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‘Absolutely disrespectful how seniors are treated’
Carole Fawcett, a 75-year-old retired counsellor and freelance writer from Vernon, B.C., says it is “bizarre” she gets less than someone working 40 hours a week on minimum wage.
Fawcett has an $1,800 monthly income from old-age security and the Canada pension plan. She also has lymphocytic leukemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“It’s absolutely disrespectful how seniors are treated by the government in that we don’t really have enough to live with any dignity or respect,” said Fawcett.
Laura Kadowaki, program and operations co-ordinator with United Way B.C., said the study was inspired by frontline service providers who described seniors in dire situations.
“One of the troubling things about the situation is that in the past, we actually saw that the income benefits often did a pretty good job of keeping seniors out of the low-income situation, keeping them housed, and meeting their needs,” said Kadowaki.
But in recent years, there has been a “very significant shift,” she said, with income benefits failing to keep pace with the needs of older people.
Seniors interviewed for the report described living unsheltered or in unsafe housing situations, for example, staying with abusive family members, living in cars or storage lockers, camping in the woods and living without heat or electricity.
Kadowaki said one frontline agency worker told her about half of her clients are so distressed they say they aren’t sure if they want to live.
“That was something that really impacted me and it’s something that you never want to hear … [it] illustrates the impact that this crisis has on older adults across B.C.”
Vancouver resident Sharon Elliott, 75, worked as a server until last October, when she had spinal surgery that prevented her from going back.
She gets a pension of about $1,770 per month, but after expenses for physiotherapy, rent, and medicine “there was nothing left over for food.”
She said the pension isn’t an income to “live on,” but to “die on.”
Elliott started an advocacy group for seniors called the Tin Cup Movement and held a rally outside Vancouver City Hall in September, calling for seniors to receive a “livable income” that reflects the cost of living.
The group’s name came from an encounter with another senior, whom Elliott said she saw collecting cans out of the garbage.
‘Have faith and hold on’
Back outside Walmart, Light said he was thinking of borrowing money from his sister to buy a camper to downsize from his RV. The smaller vehicle would make it easier to get around and avoid parking tickets, he hoped.
He also plans to print out business cards advertising his services as a handyman and repairman to drop in mailboxes.
Still, Light said he considered himself lucky with a roof over his head.
He sympathized with the “hundreds and hundreds” of people who have been waiting for proper housing longer than him.
“You’ve just got to have faith and hold on and … just keep going.”