The Sunday Magazine

Can Canada find a housing solution for its homeless? These advocates think so

From Toronto to Vancouver, thousands of people are living rough on the streets every day in Canada’s cities. The Sunday Edition spoke with three housing advocates committed to finding a solution for Canada's homelessness.
The Homes For Heroes Foundation was developed in response to the growing number of military veterans who are facing a crisis as they return to civilian life and find themselves on the path to homelessness. (Homes for Heroes)

Every day in Canada, thousands of people are living on the streets. And the situation is only getting worse.

Since 2006, Toronto's homeless population has nearly doubled to more than 9,000. There are more than 2,200 people without homes in Vancouver, while Calgary's homeless population sits at 3,000. National estimates put the number of Canadians who are inadequately housed at 35,000. 

For one of the richest countries in the world, these statistics are staggering. The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright spoke to three housing advocates who are determined to find solutions.

Abi Bond is the executive director of the City of Toronto's Housing Secretariat. (City of Toronto)

"It's a really urgent, difficult situation for people who are homeless right now," said Abi Bond, the newly appointed executive director of Toronto's Housing Secretariat. She has been charged with implementing Toronto's new housing action plan, which city council passed in December. She has more than 20 years of experience in government and the community housing sector, most recently in Vancouver.

"That challenge to find housing and keep it is actually facing many more people in our community, not just those who are homeless," Bond told Enright. She explained that Toronto hasn't managed to keep up with rental housing needs and there hasn't been alignment on the issue between all levels of government.

Jennifer Breakspear is the executive director of SARA for Women, a non-profit society in B.C.'s Fraser Valley. (Submitted by Jennifer Breakspear)

Jennifer Breakspear is the executive director of SARA for Women, a non-profit society in B.C.'s Fraser Valley that provides housing and other services to women and children fleeing violence. She spoke of similar concerns in Vancouver.

"The pressure on the affordable housing or the pressure on rental housing that is here is huge," she said.

Breakspear has also led a number of B.C. non-profit organizations, including the PHS Community Services Society, which provides housing and health care in Victoria and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

While Bond and Breakspear are focusing on citywide efforts to find a solution, Dave Howard, president and co-founder of the Homes for Heroes Foundation, is turning his attention to veterans.

Dave Howard is president and co-founder of the Homes for Heroes Foundation in Calgary. (Homes for Heroes)

"We created the Homes for Heroes Foundation to focus on assisting our vets that are having a difficult time transitioning and are experiencing homelessness," Howard told Enright. In November, the organization opened 15 self-contained tiny homes for vets in southeast Calgary.

Modular housing

A common thread between Bond, Breakspear and Howard's work is the concept of temporary modular housing. 

"Temporary modular housing is housing that is erected quickly but not meant to be 'permanent,'" explained Breakspear. "The idea there is that we can get someone off the streets quite quickly and they have a place they can call a home while [hopefully] other permanent supportive housing is being built further upstream."

Bond and Breakspear both worked with the City of Vancouver to build 600 modular housing units in under two years.

Bond explained that these modular units were high-quality, up-to-code housing that could be moved to another site.

"So it's a great opportunity that has provided flexibility for us in Vancouver and something that we're keen to explore in Toronto as well," she added.

The houses built by Howard's foundation can also go up quickly and come down easily. 

"We can have the site prepped and housing onsite between three and four months," he explained. His foundation currently has a 25-year lease on a site in Edmonton.

"At the end of that term, we can pick these homes up and take them off," he added.

Housing followed by support

Once housed, providing support to residents is important. Breakspear said that when she was working at PHS, mental health workers offered around-the-clock support. She says SARA for Women is looking to provide similar support, as well as legal assistance.

Homes for Heroes also has a resource centre onsite at its Calgary location. Howard said some veterans at that location have made quick and significant progress. 

"We have three [veterans] who were unemployed and living on the street. They're now working," he said. "In three months they have gone from living on the streets to a home to working and to working on themselves. That's incredible."

Varying support

Support from local and provincial governments has varied when it comes to these housing initiatives. 

Breakspear said some of the municipal governments have been active and supportive partners.

"I'm enjoying some really productive conversations with the folks in the district of Mission in the Fraser Valley as well," she added. "But in some of the communities, there hasn't been the same leadership. Non-profits and the provincial government trying to set up this housing are not getting the type of support that we enjoyed here in Vancouver."

Howard says that when it comes to veterans, many cities believe housing is a federal issue. 

"It's individuals that have made our program successful," he explained. "Veterans Affairs does help out with some of the funding for social servicing and our onsite counselor. But outside of that, this was 95 per cent private money."

The problem of NIMBY-ism

One of the common challenges when devising solutions to homelessness is NIMBY-ism: not in my backyard. 

Howard recalled one open house where some people expressed concerns about veterans endangering the neighbourhood children. Bond heard similar complaints from community members in Vancouver. She says research done by BC Housing shows there's nothing for residents to worry about. 

"But the research won't necessarily change all hearts and minds," she noted.

Bond stresses the importance of providing information to community members and talking about who's joining their communities and what support they're getting. 

Breakspear said that one of the issues she ran into was people saying they didn't want to bring the homeless into their community. 

"What we tried to help them understand was we're not bringing anyone anywhere. We're actually housing your neighbours," she said.

"Once we turn the light on, we provide housing and shelter, they're able to come out of the dark in their own neighbourhood and be safely housed and become much more productive members of that neighbourhood."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.