Hot housing market putting Hamilton's homeless shelters in a crisis

Rising housing prices and a dwindling rental vacancy rate are causing a crunch in homeless shelters as demand for spaces is climbing.

Officials say rising housing prices and a dwindling vacancy rate are causing a crunch

Increasing real estate prices and decreasing vacancy rates are adding pressure to Hamilton's homeless shelters. Local housing officials say Hamilton's lack of affordable housing is at a crisis point.

Beds are full. Workers are stressed. And by the end of 2015, thousands of people will have been turned away from local homeless shelters, sending the needy out in the cold.

There's a crisis in Hamilton's emergency shelter system, says one of its biggest providers as a hot housing market and low rental vacancy rates put the squeeze on the city's most vulnerable.

And without a major investment in affordable housing, it will only get worse.

New numbers for Hamilton's homeless shelters paint a grim picture where demand is outstripping availability.

There was a period a few years ago where we thought we were seeing improvements. But we just haven't seen people able to get into affordable housing.- Alan Whittle, Good Shepherd Centres

In the first 10 months of this year, for example, Good Shepherd Mary's Place, which serves single women, turned away women more than 1,700 times.

Women's shelters are overflowing. If projections pan out, shows a new city report, demand will have increased 17 per cent over last year.

As for the Good Shepherd Family Centre, it operated at 103 per cent capacity the first nine months of this year. It doesn't send families back onto the street, but it refers them to hotels, which local taxpayers fund. The demand for hotel referrals has increased at least 30 per cent over last year.

When women's or men's shelters are full, people couch surf if they can, said Alan Whittle, spokesperson for Good Shepherd Centres.

"Some people do end up on the streets," he said. "Some people might sell themselves to have a warm place to sleep that night."

Demand on shelters is increasing every year, he said, especially since rents are increasing and vacancies are decreasing. Real estate prices are trending ever upward, and condo units outpace affordable housing. He's noticed a sharp increase in the last five years.

"It is a crisis, absolutely," he said.

City housing staff outlined the crisis in a report coming to city council's emergency and community services committee next week.

Unfortunately, we'll see more people begging on the streets, more people living on the streets and more people dying on the streets.- Alan Whittle

The report looks at shuffling money around in its homelessness prevention budget aimed at keeping families housed. It also calls on Mayor Fred Eisenberger to pressure the province for more money through the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI), and to boost funding for violence against women services.

Gillian Hendry, the city's director of housing and homelessness, echoed Whittle's assessment that the city is in dire straits.

Without more affordable housing, shelter pressure is "certainly going to be a continuing pressure, if not worse," she said.

"It's time for the city and the community to do something about it."

Rental vacancy rates have fallen to 1.8 per cent this year. Good Shepherd used to use CHPI money to help temporarily subsidize the rent of people at risk of homelessness, Whittle said.

But as the rental market tightens, landlords are cherry picking the most affluent renters, and many won't even take renters who need CHPI help, he said.  

Lack of affordable housing

"There was a period a few years ago where we thought we were seeing improvements," Whittle said. "But we just haven't seen people able to get into affordable housing."

City council has made some recent overtures lately. The social housing waiting list sits at 5,600, while 127 units sit vacant because CityHousing Hamilton (CHH) lacks the money to repair them. Councillors voted last month — at the urging of Chad Collins, Ward 5 councillor and new CHH president — to use some of their area rating money to repair units in their wards.

And next week, shortly after Hendry does her presentation, Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr will urge city councillors to put the proceeds of future West Harbour land sales into affordable housing.

The city hopes to entice developers to land at Piers 7 and 8 in particular, where it envisions stores, condo towers and entertainment that will help define the new image of Hamilton.

Part of the proceeds from those sales, Farr says, should be used for affordable housing. He says that was also Collins's idea.

'It's been a crisis for so long'

Right now, "undoubtedly shelters are turning away people," Farr said. "That's the absolute worst-case scenario."

In addition to more money for affordable housing, Whittle says the issue needs more attention.

"This is a crisis, but it's been a crisis for so long that it doesn't seem to attract the attention it needs," he said.

Without more affordable housing, "unfortunately, we'll see more people begging on the streets, more people living on the streets and more people dying on the streets."

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