New national housing strategy draws mixed reaction from Toronto social housing activists

Having been homeless for four years, social housing advocate, Elisheva Passarello says she’s thankful the federal government is doing something to tackle homelessness. But she has some reservations.

Federal government's goal of cutting homelessness in half is half-baked, some say

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces his government's 10-year National Housing Strategy at a housing development in Toronto on Wednesday. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Elisheva Passarello says a number of things happened in her life that caused her to become homeless in 2012.

"The end of a relationship, end of a job and then just money running out. And you can't get another place unless you have another job," she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "Then you end up in a system I knew nothing about."

Having been homeless for four years and now working as a photographer and social housing advocate, Passarello says she's thankful the federal government is now doing something to tackle homelessness in its National Housing Strategy. But she but has some reservations.

The strategy has the ambitious goal of ultimately reducing chronic homelessness by half within the next 10 years, and part of that involves spending $2.2-billion on a revamped federal homelessness program to launch in the spring of 2019.

Passarello, however, takes particular issue with the program only planning to cut homelessness in half.

"I don't know where they came up with that idea," she said. "You have to take care of it all."

Current model ineffective, Toronto woman says

Elisheva Passarello was homeless for four years. She is now a photographer and housing activist. (Elisheva Photography)
When she was on the verge of losing it all, Passarello says she asked for help from others, including social workers, but got nowhere.

"They said to me continuously, 'Until you're homeless, we can't help you anymore,' and I found that very upsetting and shocking," she recalled. "Why can't you keep people in a place where they're at?"

Passarello also believes the system as it stands now is ineffective and expensive.

"It costs the city more to keep people in a shelter than to keep people in their apartment," she said. "My rent was $1,500 a month at the time, and I've heard the cost to have individuals in a shelter system is anywhere from $80 to $120 a day."

Homelessness solution multifaceted: expert

York University professor Stephen Gaetz says part of the solution to solving chronic homelessness, like what Passarello went through, is a three-pronged approach that includes prevention, crisis response and helping people exit homelessness.

"In North America, we're really reluctant to talk about prevention," he said. "In other countries, they don't think twice. [With] what social issue would you not think prevention is important?"

Gaetz says prevention requires an adequate supply of affordable housing, stopping people moving from public institutions into homelessness, eviction prevention and supports to prevent people returning to homelessness.

Stephen Gaetz, York Unviersity professor and director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, says there are several ways to address homelessness. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

In addition to being the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Gaetz is also part of the panel advising the government on their housing strategy.

He believes the government's goal of cutting homelessness in half is laudable but also says the steps taken so far haven't gone far enough to help. He'd like to see the government put forward the ultimate goal of eliminating homelessness altogether.

"We haven't really been able to drive down the numbers of people who experience homelessness, haven't been able to help people adequately escape homelessness and certainly haven't done a lot to prevent it from happening," Gaetz says. "We have to have an ambitious goal. For too long, we've been doing much the same thing."

Passarello says one positive that came out of her experience with homelessness was learning about the support systems available.

"For me, I can take that and speak about it, and I can advocate for change," Passarello said. "With this housing strategy across Canada people are awakening to the reality that it is a problem. It should have been dealt with a long time ago. Let's get on it."

With files from Metro Morning