Find permanent housing for the homeless

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – In the short term the city of Toronto must find shelter beds for the 5,000-plus people who use the system each night. But in the long term it’s up to all governments to find permanent housing for the homeless.
Dec. 8, 2017.   By

Last February Pierre Gregoire died in the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant from a suspected fentanyl overdose. He ended up there after being told there was no room for him at a downtown drop-in centre. He was only 28.

Sadly, Gregoire isn’t the only person who gets turned away from the city’s shelter system.

Despite adding 1,288 more beds to the system since this time last year, the shelters are consistently facing occupancy rates well above the 90-per-cent rate the city has determined means they are full and there is a risk of homeless people being turned away.

And if last month is any indication, the situation is only going to get worse this winter. City officials say there was a 30-per-cent increase in the number of people using the shelter system in November over the year before, partly because of an increase in refugee claimants.

In other words, in the weeks leading up to the first official day of winter, the city is once again facing a homelessness crisis. It’s got to stop. The first step is to make sure there are enough beds to shelter the 5,000-plus homeless people who sleep outdoors and in emergency shelters each night before the city’s first extreme cold weather alert hits. Then the city must work with the provincial and federal governments to end this scourge once and for all.

On the first step, Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Mihevc deserve credit for obtaining the needed support to push a $100-million proposal through city council this week to quickly add hundreds of new spaces to the existing shelter system this year and create two new shelters next year.

The plan includes adding beds to the city’s existing 62 shelters and booking more motel rooms so the spaces can be opened up within weeks, if not days. As well, the city is also hoping to find more room at existing winter drop-in centres, which provide mats and chairs but not beds.

It’s not a perfect solution. Critics say the shelters and respite centres are already over-crowded, which can lead to the spread of disease and increase the risk of violence. Indeed, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was in tears as she sided with a group of housing advocates who want the city to ask the Department of National Defence to open up two armouries to deal with the increased need. Without them, she predicted “we will see deaths this winter just as we have seen deaths in previous winters.” Her motion to do so, however, failed.

Despite that, city council is making a “major, major investment in the shelter system that has not happened in at least a decade,” Mihevc said. That is commendable progress.

Still, the answer to homelessness isn’t emergency shelters. It’s ensuring there is affordable accommodation so people don’t find themselves on the doorsteps of emergency shelters or, worse, on the street.

To do that the city needs the help of Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Both could immediately begin to ease the city’s chronic housing shortage by funding two programs that are already in the works.

To start they could help tackle an urgent repair backlog at the Toronto Community Housing Corp. The city has said it doesn’t want any units closed in 2018, but if left unattended the corporation has said it will have to close 1,000 units by the end of next year and 7,500 over the next eight years.

That is unconscionable when 181,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing in this city. Many are forced to seek a bed in the city’s emergency shelter system or sleep on the streets (almost 500 do each night) while they wait for affordable units to open up. Others who are slightly better off pay rents that are so high they can’t afford to buy enough food or take transit to job interviews.

In view of this crisis, the city developed a 10-year, $2.6-billion repair plan in 2014 which called on Ontario and Ottawa to each invest $864 million, or one-third of the cost. So far neither the federal nor provincial governments have committed the money they promised. That is shameful.

The second step would be for the Trudeau government to fast-track the Canada Housing Benefit it promised last month in its new national housing strategy. It could fight homelessness by giving an estimated 300,000 families an average of $2,500 a year for housing costs. But the program isn’t scheduled to kick in until April 2021. Needless to say, help is needed now.

More to the point, not only is funding both programs immediately the right thing to do for the homeless, it’s the responsible thing to do for taxpayers.

Consider that a 2015 study by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis found that shuttering the Toronto Community Housing units would lead to higher health-care spending, rising crime and a host of other social costs borne largely by the province. At the same time the study found investing in repairs would create thousands of jobs, spur private investment, and generate billions of extra dollars in federal and provincial taxes.

Or that a 2013 study found homelessness costs taxpayers $7 billion a year — a substantial portion of which is related to hospitalization and incarceration.

Or that the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area estimated last spring that the cost of having 5,253 people on Toronto streets added up to $420,000 a night, including the cost of shelter funding, police interactions, hospital stays and nights in jails. By contrast, it estimated the cost of putting the homeless into social housing would be just $34,000 a night.

The situation is clearly urgent. But short-term emergency and long-term permanent solutions are at hand. It should go without saying that no one in a country as rich as Canada should have to seek out an emergency shelter bed, never mind be turned away from one. Especially in winter.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/12/08/find-permanent-housing-for-the-homeless.html

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