Can Toronto Eradicate Homelessness?
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Can Toronto Eradicate Homelessness?

Opinions on ending homelessness vary as much as the underlying concerns.

Will homelessness ever be eradicated in Canada’s most unequal city? It depends who you ask.

Last week Ontario promised to end chronic homelessness province-wide within 10 years. Some Canadian municipalities claim to have already “ended homelessness” in their regions. But on this issue, Toronto faces the toughest challenge in Canada.

Taking inventory

Toronto has more social housing and support services than any other city in Ontario, but it is still not enough to support the city’s growing population and increasing income disparity. The city’s recently released report, TO Prosperity [PDF], recommedns making transit more accessible and affordable, creating more affordable housing, and advocates for adequate living wages from employers.

The city currently funds 56 homeless shelters that altogether provide about 4,000 beds; these shelters are at or near capacity. The city’s most recent Street Needs Assessment (2013) [PDF] counted a total of 5,253 homeless people in shelters and on the street. That number does not include Toronto’s hidden homeless, a group that makes up a large (and hard to count) chunk of the city’s population that needs longterm housing. There are about 70,000 rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units and over 90,000 social housing units. Over 90,000 more households are on the city’s social housing wait list—it can take over six years to get an available unit.

Is ending homelessness possible for Toronto?

“We’re always going to have some people who are transient. We’re always going to have some people who lose their housing,” says Dr. David Hulchanski, who is best known for his work on income polarization in Canadian cities. He says completely ending homelessness in Toronto is unrealistic.

Hulchanski’s research shows that in Toronto as well as other Canadian cities the middle class is shrinking, while The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. He suggests another 5,000 supportive housing units “as quickly as possible” for Toronto. Additionally, “cheaper formal housing,” he says, such as more rooming houses.

One shelter worker, Greg Cook, brings up the minimum wage, suggesting that in order to begin “ending homelessness” in Toronto people should be earning at least $500 more per monththan they are now in order to actually afford rent in the city.

Overall the most widely agreed upon solution to ending homelessness is, believe it or not—housing. And even that solution comes with concerns. Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, stresses that the in its long-term efforts to build more affordable units the City shouldn’t neglect funding a more immediate need: emergency shelters. “We’re not going to see housing in the ground for some years,” she says. “In the meantime we’re stuck with inadequate shelters, over crowding.”

The issue is complex. The chronically homeless (which is the type of homelessness Ontario is trying to end) only account for a small percentage of the city’s total homeless population. “I really worry when I only hear chronic homelessness [represented],” says Crowe. She points out that many women fleeing violence are often homeless for temporary periods of time, but are just as in need of shelter.

“If visible homelessness is the tip of the iceberg, then the affordable housing crisis and deep urban poverty are the huge mass below the water,” reads Michael Shapcott’s 2006 proposal to end homelessness. Ten years ago he recommended annual targets of 4,500 new affordable homes, 2,000 new supportive homes, 8,600 home renovations for homes that need major or minor repairs as well as effective emergency relief and a comprehensive strategy to end the problem. Most recently he helped put together the report that’s fuelling Ontario’s new ten-year deadline.

While opinions on how to fix or end homelessness vary almost as much as the issue itself, most experts agree that it comes down to a combination of three things—housing, income, and support services—to materially change, if not end, Toronto’s homelessness problem. “The money is there,” says Greg Cook. “The challenge is finding the political will.”