Homelessness was not an issue in Vancouver until after the 1980s. Prior to then, there had generally been enough affordable housing provided by surpluses from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which had been initiated in 1946 by the federal government. However, national affordable housing programs received funding cuts from the government during the 1980s. Total housing stock increased after the federal funding cuts, but it was from private sector development of market housing rather than affordable housing. Between the affordable housing cuts, and increase in market housing, real estate grew to be out of the price range of some lower-income groups.
Since 2000, rates of homelessness have continued to accelerate in Vancouver. The effects of homelessness have been felt most heavily in the Downtown Eastside, an area of Vancouver that has gained notoriety for crime and poverty. The outset of homelessness is not rigidly defined, except that it emerged as an issue of the city around the 1980s and 1990s, with the homeless count in 1999 being under 600 people. By 2002, the homelessness situation in Vancouver had grown to about 1,121 persons. From 2002 to 2005, the number of homeless in the Vancouver region went from 1,121 to 2,174 individuals, almost doubling across three years. Finally, 2,592 people were counted during an official 2008 one-day count. The rapid growth of homelessness in under ten years is an indicator as to why homelessness is considered a crisis in Vancouver, as it has continually grown despite many attempts to address the issue.
The ethnic spread of homeless people in Vancouver is unequal, with Aboriginal people and those of European descent making up a large portion of the homeless. Aboriginal people make up about 30% of Vancouver's homeless population while only comprising 2% of the total population of Greater Vancouver, and only 8% of the total homeless population identify themselves as not being Aboriginal, European, or otherwise born in Canada. In Vancouver, the issue of homeless youth on the street has become apparent; however, it is difficult to get a number on the number of youth on the street as they tend to avoid shelters. The number of homeless senior citizens had nearly tripled between 2002 and 2005 in Greater Vancouver. As a result, numbers of homeless youth in Vancouver are underestimated. Homeless youth are defined as those who left home at the age of 16 and are up to 24 years old; however, most of Vancouver's street homeless are between 35 and 44. Adult homeless men usually fall between the ages of 25 to 44, and homeless women tend to be older. Figures for Canada say that about one-third of Canada's homeless population is defined as homeless youth. By 2008, half of Vancouver's homeless population had been homeless for over one year, and 90% of them were homeless by themselves without a partner, child, dog, or companion of any kind. Homeless youth in Vancouver tend to have lower rates of being alone, and the number of homeless youth for each gender is evenly split.
It was found in the 2011 Homeless Count by Metro Vancouver that the total number of homeless remained unchanged; on the other hand, street homelessness had decreased and shelter homelessness had increased, as well as family, women and youth homelessness.
In December 2016 the City of Vancouver decided to open community centres for overnight stays by homeless people. The centres were named warming centres for homeless people. The decision was criticized by families and staff and the program was discontinued in most centres. The complaint was that regular staff are not trained to deal with homeless people and are scared. Special boxes for discarded needles were not made available in warming centres.