While homelessness is often thought of as a downtown phenomenon, experts warn of "hidden homelessness" in the suburbs.
As the cost of housing skyrockets across the GTA, academics and support workers worry that inadequate housing and “hidden homelessness” are increasing issues in the inner suburbs and York region.
The rise in suburban homelessness is partly caused by several factors that have defined the last 10 years in Toronto, such as rising real estate prices, changing demographics, and growing disparities between different parts of the city. But with the impact of inadequate housing increasingly felt in the suburbs, it can be harder to spot and support those most affected.
“When I started 13 years ago, I would find rooms for our youth for around $300,” says Laura Gallora, coordinator of the housing program at Youth Without Shelter. “Now, the cheapest I have seen is $425 with rooms going for upwards of $500.”
Youth Without Shelter is a North Etobicoke organization that serves people between the ages of 15 and 24 in need of a home. While YWS has 30 emergency beds, Gallora’s job is to find long-term housing for young people. She says that while the financial assistance provided to her clients through Ontario Works has increased in recent years, it isn’t enough to keep up with rising housing prices, both ownership and rental.
“When after paying rent you only have $150 left for the rest of the month, it can be very challenging,” Gallora says.
Rising suburban homelessness is a byproduct of the greater phenomenon of the city’s poverty shifting away from the increasingly unaffordable and gentrifying city core and toward the inner suburbs and surrounding GTA municipalities. The growing concentration of Toronto’s low-income population in the suburban outskirts can be traced as back as far as the late 1970s, according to a landmark 2010 study, Three Cities, by David Hulchanski [PDF].
While this trend has affected people from all walks of life, Emily Paradis, a researcher at the University of Toronto and member of the Neighbourhood Change Partnership, says that newcomer and single-mother-headed families are more likely to be pushed underground and out of sight.
“They are overcrowding apartments and doubling up with other families,” Paradis says.
Paradis worked on a study that found most families that lose their homes do not end up at shelters, and overcrowded units become safety nets for newcomers and their families [PDF].
“Particularly in the suburbs and rural areas, families are staying in places not suited for human habitation,” Paradis notes. “People living in their vehicles, people living in garages. The streets don’t have as much to offer in a suburban and rural environment.”
Paradis spoke with 3,200 people between 2009 and 2010 who live in rental apartment buildings built between 1950 and 1980 in seven priority neighbourhoods. The survey’s findings align with Hulchanski’s research, as well as the United Way’s 2011 Vertical Poverty report [PDF].
Single-parent families were almost twice as likely to be at risk of homelessness as the general population. Eighty per cent of people at risk of homelessness in her survey are racialized residents, and another 80 per cent are immigrants.
Paradis’s research found that one third of the respondents surveyed in seven communities (mid-Scarborough, Dorset-Kennedy, Weston-Mount Dennis, Jane-Finch, Rexdale, Thorncliffe-Flemingdon, and Parkdale) were at a severe or critical risk of homelessness. The most prevalent indicators for inadequate housing included overcrowded housing, bad building conditions, and unaffordable housing.
Gallora, the coordinator of YWS, explains why some demographics are at disproportionate risk of inadequate housing.
“[The] immigration process can take quite a long time—during that time, where are they supposed to find housing?” asks Gallora.
“People who are new to the country don’t usually have a credit history or co-signers, making it harder to be approved by landlords.”
“The quality of life isn’t all that different from someone who is homeless and living out on the street, which is why we call it hidden homelessness.”
Alternate housing solutions are difficult to come by, forcing people in precarious living situations to make difficult choices, and live in units that are overcrowded and often unsafe. Typical support systems aren’t always available. There’s a lack of shelter services in suburban communities, with only 90 beds in Etobicoke—a far cry from the more than 1,000 available in Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale. And the waiting list for social housing at TCHC can make people hang in limbo for more than seven years, depending on the unit.
“The quality of life isn’t all that different from someone who is homeless and living out on the street, which is why we call it hidden homelessness,” says Gopi Krishna of the Scarborough Housing Help Centre.
Along with a lack of privacy, Krishna adds there are long-term adverse effects of living in overcrowded homes and the kinds of communities where this exists.
“When you have a group of children that live in this situation, they don’t make decisions that lead to economic success,” says Krishna. “The sad fact of that matter is that the children’s chances of economic success is impeded by lack of access to resources. Not only are you condemning the first generation, the second generation too.”
Based on what he has seen, Krishna says that overcrowding in the inner suburbs manifests itself mostly in high-rise apartment buildings, while farther out in York Region, it happens in detached or semi-detached houses and their basements.
Kam Lau, co-chair of the West Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, helps stabilize the homeless or former homeless in the Weston-Mount Dennis area. He says that despite the potential benefits, new transit projects in the inner suburbs are making the search for affordable housing even harder.
“With the building of light-rail transit along Eglinton and near the Weston-Eglinton corridor, there’s a lot more housing opportunity in the area and more building, but landlords want to lock up the area and raise the rent,” Lau says. “Same with the Union to Pearson line.”
Shelters sometimes serve as an interim solution, but curbing the complicated cycle of poverty take more, says Paradis.
“The increase in homelessness directly relates to precarious employment, jobs that don’t pay the bills, and cuts to social assistance programs—programs that help people maintain their housing during times of unemployment as well as helping people excluded from the work environment,” the U of T academic says.
Paradis admits that it can often take several years for social programs to catch up, if they do at all. In the meantime, Krishna says more needs to be done to help those currently living in overcrowded and uninhabitable homes.