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Homelessness in Canada: Its growth, policy responses and advocacy

| February 5, 2016
Photo: Wasfi Akab/flickr

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On February 1, I gave a guest presentation on homelessness to a graduate seminar class on housing policy taught by Steve Pomeroy at Carleton University's School of Public Policy and Administration. The focus of my presentation was the emergence of homelessness in Canada as a pressing public policy area in the 1980s. I discussed the growth of homelessness, policy responses and advocacy. My slides from the presentation can be downloaded here.

I first got involved in the homelessness sector in 1998 when I began working at a homeless shelter as a front-line worker. All told, I spent 10 years doing front-line work with homeless persons in Toronto; most of that time was as a mental health outreach worker at Street Health. (I also wrote a report on Toronto homelessness in 2009.)

I apologize in advance for the somewhat Toronto-centric nature of the present blog post. Since much of my early experience in the homelessness sector took place in Toronto, this blog post will no doubt omit important developments that have occurred in other parts of Canada.

With the above in mind, here are 10 things to know:

1. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of persons sleeping in Toronto homeless shelters on a nightly basis increased by 300 per cent.

This resulted in more public attention on homelessness. I also think it helped lead to more public resources being channelled to homelessness.

2. I think six main factors led to that increase in homelessness.

During the time period being considered: 1) there were two deep recessions that led to double-digit unemployment levels across Canada; 2) the percentage of unemployed Canadians who qualified for unemployment insurance benefits fell significantly; 3) many Canadian provinces reduced the generosity (I use the term loosely) of their social assistance programs; 4) for-profit developers essentially stopped building rental housing; 5) senior levels of government stopped devoting substantial amounts of funding to the creation of new affordable housing units; and 6) rental vacancy rates dipped to very low levels. I would argue that all of these factors created the "perfect storm" for rising homelessness.

3. As homelessness grew in Toronto, supportive housing became a popular program response.

By supportive housing, I mean government-subsidized, permanent housing for low-income persons, combined with "social work" support to help the tenant maintain their tenancy. (For more on supportive housing, see this report.) In many cases, the homeless person receiving the housing did not have to prove their "housing readiness" in order to receive the housing.

4. Beginning in 2005, there emerged a lot of talk in Canada about something called housing first.

For the purpose of the present blog post, I'll define housing first as the practice of providing a homeless person with immediate access to permanent housing (rather than requiring that the person prove themselves "ready for housing" before receiving it). I would argue that, at least in Toronto, housing first began in the 1980s with the introduction of supportive housing. In fact, Homes First Society, which started offering supportive housing in Toronto in the early 1980s, was named for precisely the same reason as housing first -- its founders believed that people needed homes first before they could work on other challenges (e.g. employment, health problems, etc.). That said, I think the beginning of Streets to Homes (a large housing first program in Toronto) in 2005 ultimately encouraged officials across Canada to be more forthcoming than previously in terms of providing permanent housing to homeless persons without requiring "housing readiness."

5. The use of the term housing first is confusing.

I think that's because, by definition, it refers to the method by which program administrators determine when a homeless person should receive permanent housing. Yet, because it appeals to persons on the left and right of the political spectrum, it's become a popular catchphrase. For example, the term appears 118 times in the federal government's 2014-2019 directive for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. I suspect the federal government uses the term so frequently in that directive largely because of the term's popularity.

6. The same federal department that mentions housing first 118 times in one document also administers federal funding for homelessness that today (on an annual basis) is worth just 35 per cent of what it was in 1999.

Last November, I wrote that annual federal funding for homelessness today is worth considerably less than it was in 1999. Indeed, I wrote that, in order for such funding to be restored to 1999 levels, the federal government would have to increase its annual funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy from $119 million to $343 million.

7. Beginning in approximately 2005 there was a shift in terms of who was dominating the public advocacy debate on homelessness in Canada.

I think that many of the people who'd previously been strong advocates for the homeless on a national level started to "run out of gas" (not to mention resources). Meanwhile, a new crop of advocates started to emerge. Suddenly, the most vocal advocates were more 'glass half full' than their predecessors. A key -- often implicit -- argument of the new generation of advocates was that public resources for the homeless had been mismanaged in the past and that, if they were better managed going forward, we would see major reductions in homelessness (possibly without a great deal more public spending). I've come to know key players in both the pre-2005 and post-2005 camps and have great admiration for their tenacity and integrity. I also think that each approach has its strengths.

8. I think a strength of the pre-2005 "glass half empty" approach was its brutal honesty.

Many would argue that an honest, meaningful discussion about homelessness must include a strong focus on high mortality rates among persons experiencing homelessness; and you could always count on the pre-2005 advocates to raise this topic loudly. Moreover, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee's call for senior levels of government to double annual spending on affordable housing, in my opinion, would have been good public policy.

9. I think a strength of the post-2005 "glass half full" approach is that it often presents as non-threatening to public officials.

I find that adherents of this approach like to publicly applaud announcements and long-term goals that have the potential to reduce homelessness, even when such moves aren't accompanied by new funding. Indeed, incremental moves by government are publicly applauded. The success of the aforementioned housing first approach is often offered as proof that methods of responding to homelessness have indeed improved over the years. I would argue that one key organization that embodies this "glass half full" approach is the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

10. There's no inherent reason why both approaches can't co-exist and complement each other.

I think the "glass half empty" advocates can create space for the "glass half full" advocates. A colleague of mine refers to the former as "outsiders" -- they're typically outside the offices of elected officials and senior government staff. The same colleague refers to the latter as "insiders" -- they're very often meeting inside the offices of elected officials and government staff. In short, I think there's room both inside and outside the offices of decision-makers for important conversations about homelessness.

*I've somewhat arbitrarily chosen 2005, as that's the year that the City of Toronto introduced its Streets to Homes program.

Photo: Wasfi Akab/flickr

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