We have understanding and, with a newly released report, a plan. Now we just need someone to do it.
Homelessness in Canada was mostly an uncomplicated issue until fairly recently. It affected a small portion of the population and they were by and large very similar (mostly older, single men), which should have made it easier to find solutions to the problem. That was in the 1980s, and then things changed. Instead of putting a concerted effort into ending homelessness, the federal government dramatically reduced its investment in affordable housing, focused on other economic issues it considered more pressing, and played its part in a larger rightward shift that began to treat people experiencing homelessness, poverty, drug addiction, and other interconnected problems as if they were morally weaker than their fellow citizens.
Today, around 235,000 people spend some time homeless each year. Indigenous people, youth, veterans, and LGBTQ individuals represent disproportionate portions of that whole. Even as the use of emergency shelters has gone down, occupancy rates remain nearly at capacity, and a sort of parallel shelter system has emerged in the country’s correctional facilities due to both the criminalization of homelessness itself and the way we deal with people with mental illnesses.
All of this information can be found in a new report from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Titled “The State of Homelessness in Canada in 2016,” the paper delves into not just the current state of homelessness, but how we got here and how to move away, toward ending and preventing homelessness. The report’s blockbuster claim is that for less than $1 per week per Canadian we could end homelessness in this country.
That’s based on spending $43 billion over 10 years on a raft of measures intended to get currently homeless people into housing, and ensuring people on the brink of homelessness—who are trying to leave abusive partners or facing eviction, for instance—avoid it in the first place. COH is calling for the federal government to nearly double its investment in housing and homelessness.
“Our whole point is if we want to end homelessness in this country, we can do it,” said COH director and report co-author Gaetz. “If we want to.”
That desire is key, said Gaetz. We now have enough information about who becomes homeless and why, and how best to address both, that a government fully intent on ending homelessness should be able to.
The latest report (they released similar ones in both 2013 and 2014) provides meticulously costed approach to achieve the goal. One recommendation calls for a nationwide housing benefit that would, per the report, “provide monthly cash payments directly to low-income households when accounting for income level and cost of housing,” a housing benefit for homeless youth, and extra funding for programs helping people moving out of homelessness. That set of efforts is expected to cost $1,164 million per year and help 836,000 people.
There are examples within Canada of how to tackle homelessness. Gaetz pointed to Alberta, which made a pledge to eradicate homelessness by 2018. They’re not going to reach that goal, but have made far more headway than places like Ontario, and many of the steps laid out in the COH report are ones Alberta has already undertaken. The most notable of those is a “housing first” approach, which holds that the immediate goal should be to get homeless people into housing, and after that provide other supports (such as counselling, addictions services, and help finding work). Until the last several years the dominant approach was to expect people to improve their circumstances before helping them find a home. That has partly to do with the cost, because if you’re helping someone with no income find housing you’ll probably have to pay for it, but largely to do with the stigma attached to homelessness and then, through a cruel trick, to the people who become homeless.
The costs of both housing first and a larger preventive approach are not insignificant, as Gaetz readily acknowledged. But they’re the kinds of costs that pay off in the long term: dealing with homelessness means finding better ways to tackle mental health, helping people back into the workforce, and cutting down on incarceration. Not only does a holistic approach to homelessness mean eventually spending less on emergency services like shelters, it also means more people able to participate in the economy. Even people whose hearts are cold to the human rights case should find something to support here.
“I always think, you know, solving homelessness is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective—because nobody should be in that condition—but it also saves money, right?” said Gaetz.
“That should be our goal in a caring society, to make sure everybody’s okay. But for those who aren’t convinced on that ground, we can also appeal on the economic side, that, you know what? It’s cheaper to house somebody and to give them the supports they need than to keep them in a state of homelessness.”
The federal government recently finished consultations in its efforts to develop a cohesive national housing strategy, expected to be released on November 21. Housing advocates remain optimistic until then. If the government is indeed still committed to ending homelessness, and wanted a working document with a path toward that goal, COH has provided one.