Advocates say an end to homelessness is within reach
Situation still at 'crisis' levels, but Canada is making progress through strategy, spending, report finds
Mass homelessness remains at crisis levels in Canada, but for the first time in 25 years, advocates say they have some hope the country is on course to end the plight of people living on the street.
A new report out today notes a dramatic demographic shift in who is using shelters, moving from a group of mostly older white men to a more diverse population that includes women, seniors, youth, veterans and families. While Indigenous people make up only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, they represent 27 to 33 per cent of shelter users and are 10 times more likely to use homeless emergency shelters than the average Canadian.
The report says the federal government's national housing strategy signals an opportunity to ensure all Canadians have affordable housing. It calls for an investment of $4.5 billion in the next budget. That's an increase of $1.8 billion — an amount equal to about $1 each week per Canadian — that could end homelessness, the report says.
The report recommends an overall commitment of $43.8 billion over the next decade.
Difficult choices, priorities
"We agree with the government that all Canadians deserve safe, decent and affordable housing," said Tim Richer, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, one of the organizations that released the report. While it's the right objective to try to solve all of Canada's housing problems at once, from homelessness to the rising cost of home ownership, said Richer, "the sheer scale of the challenge when set against political and fiscal realities will force, should force, the government to make some difficult choices and set priorities."
Richter called homelessness a public health emergency, and said the national housing strategy should prioritize those for whom a lack of housing is a matter of life and death.
Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the other organization behind the report, pointed to models like one adopted in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Hamilton, Ont. that have proven successful in reducing or even eradicating homelessness.
Medicine Hat adopted a Housing First strategy that changed the focus from temporary shelters to getting homeless people into places of their own without conditions such as staying sober. The policy was first tried in the United States, and later, in Britain.
"We know what to do, now is the time to do something about it," he said, noting that failing to tackle homelessness means high costs to health care and criminal justice systems down the road.
Gaetz called for greater action and leadership by the federal government and suggested there be a focus on priority populations.
"It's a national tragedy that we allow so many Indigenous people to fall into homelessness," he said. "We need to focus on veterans. People who have served the country should not be treated this way when they return home. And we need to focus on youth, because if we don't address youth homelessness now, we're actually investing in the homelessness of the future because they will become chronic homeless adults."
Some of the report's key recommendations:
- Adopt clear and measurable outcomes, milestones and criteria with strategy to end homelessness.
- Develop a new federal/provincial/territorial agreement to define local leadership on housing investment.
- Develop targeted strategies for youth, veterans and Indigenous people.
- Implement an affordable housing tax credit.