Finally, good news on homelessness
TheStar.com – opinion/editorial – Canada’s first national report card on homelessness shows a surprising drop in the number people sleeping on urban streets.
Jun 22 2013. Editorial
The first national report card on homelessness contains good news. There is progress amid the pain. There are solutions that work.
The State of Homeless in Canada 2013, released this week by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, showed a 51-per-cent drop in the number of people living on the streets of Toronto between 2006 and 2011. Vancouver did better, with a 66-per-cent decrease over the same period. Across Alberta, municipalities were turning the tide. Edmonton topped the list with a 30-per-cent reduction in overall homelessness since 2008.
Because no coast-to-coast head count of the homeless had ever been done before, the authors were unable to say whether the number of Canadians sleeping on the streets, staying in emergency shelters, couch-surfing or spending the night in a hospital or jail has gone up or down countrywide. Now there is a benchmark from which to measure.
Here is how things stand. On any given night 30,000 people are homeless. Over the course of last year at least 200,000 Canadians experienced homelessness.
The cost of homelessness — which includes overnight shelters, social services, health care and incarceration — was roughly $7 billion. Few Canadians (about 3 per cent of shelter users) were chronically homeless. Most users stayed less than a month.
The profile is not as statistically precise as the authors would have liked. They had to do a lot of patching together, estimating and filling in gaps. They called the result a compilation of “what we know,” and urged policy-makers to do a better job of tracking homelessness and evaluating the effectiveness of their responses.
The best thing about the 49-page report was that it was balanced. It did not underplay the severe shortage of affordable housing in Canada, but it told the other side of the story, the one the public seldom hears.
The federal government, usually vilified by homeless activists, was given credit for its National Homelessness Initiative, launched in 1999 and renewed this past March (it’s been renamed the Homelessness Partnering Strategy). It puts approximately $25 million a year into the hands of municipalities to “find local solutions for homeless people and those at risk.”
The Mental Health Commission of Canada, funded by Ottawa, was also praised for its At Home/Chez Soi program, which provides mentally ill homeless people in five cities with a place to live so they can stabilize their lives and get into treatment programs.
The authors saved their highest accolades for municipalities. They hailed cities and towns across the country for their creativity, willingness to experiment and determination to prevent, not just manage, homelessness. Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, its 10-year affordable housing planand willingness to integrate harm reduction strategies into programs won particular praise.
The provinces — with the sole exception of Alberta — fared badly in the report. A few have long-term plans to end homelessness, but lack the political will to implement them. Ontario falls into this category. It is promising a more “strategic and co-ordinated response” to homelessness, but failing to back it up with funding.
The authors did not include economic factors or real estate trends in their analysis. But it’s reasonable to assume that the condo boom in Vancouver and Toronto accounted for part of the improvement. When the vacancy rate goes up, governments can use rental subsidies to get homeless people into apartments.
This does not obviate the urgent need for more rent-geared-to-income housing, the report stressed. The current waiting list in Toronto is close to 87,000 households. Nor does it address the needs of urban aboriginal people, who face both cultural and financial barriers in the housing market. These priorities must be addressed.
“Canada has a long way to go in order to end the homeless crisis, but it has also made some definite steps in the right direction,” the authors concluded. It’s a refreshingly positive message.
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