Homelessness in Canada: An Exponentially Growing Problem

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Homelessness in Canada: An Exponentially Growing Problem

As increasing property prices and unemployment brought about by Covid increase the number of homeless, advocates are demanding a stronger response to Canada's ever growing problem of homelessness and the treatment of the homeless. The article below discusses the brutal treatment of the homeless in Toronto and one possible but limited solution occurring in Kitchener.  Clearly our shelter system not only does provide enough housing; it is also unsafe and disrespectful of the homeless. 

Aliya Pabani is just one of many people who think there has to be a better way to handle Toronto's homeless encampments than the mayhem that broke out at Lamport Stadium park on Wednesday. That's partly because Pabani, a volunteer with a group called Encampment Support Network Toronto, was right in the middle of it — she was pepper sprayed while several other demonstrators were hurt as police and the city forcibly cleared the site. "People got massive injuries," Pabani said. "They were punching people … putting knees on people's necks. It was brutal."

Toronto police arrested 26 people Wednesday while enforcing a notice of trespass the city issued to several large encampments last month, including one at Trinity Bellwoods and another at Alexandra Park. As those notices were not heeded, the city said it asked police to enforce them. ...

The city said there were 11 unhoused people at the park, two of which accepted referrals to a shelter or hotel program, five already had a space in the shelter system, three left on their own accord, and one person turned down an offer for permanent housing.

But advocates are wondering if there is a better solution to house and help those experiencing homelessness. Benjamin Ries, a supervising lawyer for housing law at the University of Toronto's Downtown Legal Services clinic, is one of them.  "Anytime you see that kind of violence and show of force inflicted on people who really are just fighting for their lives and the lives of their friends and fellow community members, it's really shocking," he said.

But he's not surprised, given that police and the city used the same tactics at Trinity-Bellwoods and Alexandra Park. "Every time an encampment pops up ... with enough bodies, enough cops, enough riot gear, enough weaponry, and enough just physical grabbing of people — the city gets its way," Ries said, adding the city's recent actions amount to a "child-like, I wanna kick my jammies off and get this over with right now" approach. It's immature to me," he said. "I think it's disappointing not only for law enforcement but also for our political leaders, that when they see the scale of a problem like affordable housing, the solution is to just sweep it somewhere else." ...

A solution might be available. In Kitchener, Jeff Willmer has co-founded and volunteers at A Better Tent City, a social development centre for unhoused people who either cannot or will not use the traditional shelter system.

"A Better Tent City is a solution to a problem that reoccurs in cities all across Canada," Willmer said. "Our idea was, 'Let's create a space where each of those people can have their own house.'"For the past 15 months, volunteers have provided an eight-foot-by-10-foot cabin with two windows, a door, electricity, and a bed, with 50 people living in 39 cabins on a plot of industrial land owned by co-founder Ron Doyle. "We didn't ask for the city's permission, we just went ahead and did it," Willmer said.

They sought city support as the cabins became more popular. The City of Kitchener responded by waiving enforcement of zoning bylaws. Doyle died in March and the lot is being sold. Kitchener has temporarily made a piece of land available, and the organization will use it for a few months while looking for another site. ...

The initiative is financed by community donations and a shelter allowance. It has a staff of three.  "It's not just housing, it's a community," Willmer said.

Regarding the encampments in Toronto, Willmer's not surprised, since he saw the same thing in Kitchener. "Encampments would pop up … and police and bylaw enforcement would be called in to move them along," he said.  "I think the challenge is the people who live at A Better Tent City, they are hard to house," Willmer said. "They do live with mental illness, many of them, and/or drug addiction, most of them. If they were given a place of their own, they would not survive long there. They're likely to be evicted and back on the street."

But as the tent city's been active for more than a year, Willmer believes that it's a sign that something about it is working. ... 

When asked about initiatives like the one in Kitchener, city spokesperson Brad Ross said Toronto already has safe indoor accommodations for unhoused people. "A home, inside, with supports is the city's priority for those experiencing homelessness," he said in an email to CBC News. He said there are 6,000 spaces in Toronto's shelter system, and that the city does everything it can to persuade unhoused people to leave the encampments because the risk of contracting COVID-19 there is high, and there's also the risk of fires. "When engagement is not effective at encouraging occupants to come inside over a prolonged period of time, the city will enforce park encampment trespass notices as a last resort."



Here's more on Kitchener's Better Tent City, whose name suggests both better accomodations and a temporary solution at best. The temporary nature of this kind of solution is that the owner of the property who donated the land for this project died in March, a month after this article was written.

On a former industrial site in Kitchener, Ont., there are approximately two dozen brightly coloured cabins. At less than 100 square feet each, they are so small they don't require a building permit.  But for people facing homelessness, the small homes offer crucial features: privacy, a door to lock and a safe place to keep their belongings. 

"It's like being at home," said Richard King, who lives in one of the cabins. A contractor by trade, he's built a makeshift kitchenette in his cabin and hung knick-knacks on the walls.  "If I need an escape, I just come out here, throw on a movie, close and lock the door and I've got my own little corner to get away." 

King is one of roughly 50 residents of A Better Tent City, a community of people living in tents and small cabins set up as an alternative to the homeless shelter system. The cabins surround a grey metal building that used to be a venue for conferences and events. Inside is a former bar that has been retrofitted into a kitchen, and a large open room where newcomers can stay in tents until a cabin frees up.

Keeping the community running is co-ordinator Nadine Green, who lives on-site in a cabin of her own.  Her role includes everything from sorting out donations to breaking up fights — something she says happens about once a day. "Sometimes people are stressed out … and they may start a fight just for no reason. And then a lot of people have addiction issues, and that can make a difference," said Green. "Whatever happens, we just work with it." 

The community is unique, Green said, because residents get to live life on their own terms. They can live in a cabin alone, as a couple or with a pet — something that isn't always possible in more traditional homeless shelters. 

Tent encampments have been popping up in cities across the country during the pandemic, as COVID-19 outbreaks hit homeless shelters and people living on the streets try to find a safe place to stay. ...

In recent years, homelessness has been a growing issue in Kitchener. In the last decade, the average cost of rent in the city has increased by about 40 per cent, numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show.  There are roughly 6,000 households on a regional waiting list for affordable housing and about 200 people who are chronically homeless, according to the region's director of housing services. ...

Behind the name of the project — A Better Tent City — is the idea of making a traditional tent city safer and more viable through better infrastructure and a willing landlord, said Jeff Willmer, one of the volunteers behind the project. At the very least, you're not trespassing, and you've got a modest house of your own," said Willmer, who is also the former chief administrative officer for the City of Kitchener. ...

The willing landlord in this case is Ron Doyle, a self-described "retired industrialist" who owns Lot 42, the former industrial site-turned-event venue the community sits on. Doyle and Willmer knew each other through city hall, and reconnected in the fall of 2019 over a shared interest in building alternative housing for people facing homelessness.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, and with no events or conferences on the horizon, Doyle decided to offer up his property for the initiative.  He called Green and asked her to start moving people in. "We didn't ask anybody, we just did it," said Doyle. ...

Since the community has been up and running, there have been "quite a number of challenges," said Willmer.  Cost is one, since the community isn't part of the government's official shelter system. Conflict is another issue. Data from the Waterloo Regional Police Service show an increasing number of calls to the area since the spring of 2020, when the first residents moved in. ...

Larkin noted crime and disorder happen in places where people are — and it isn't surprising to see flare-ups in parts of the city where a community has recently moved in. "That's the reality of what happens," said Larkin. He said that meeting people's basic needs — such as housing — should help cut down on crime in the long run. ...

Right now, the clock is ticking on A Better Tent City. The site is currently for sale, although Doyle said he is committed to keeping it up and running through the end of the one-year zoning exemption.  Willmer said volunteers are in talks with the city and the regional government about what to do next. Everything is on the table, he said, from helping current residents find supportive housing, to moving the project to a new site.




The number of homeless in the country is growing, not just in the Waterloo region, but across the country as housing prices spike and Covid decreases the number of jobs, which are often grossly underpaid to meet housing, let alone other needs. 

The Region of Waterloo says the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has risen 34 per cent since the fall.   On Nov. 1, 2020, there were 271 people experiencing chronic homelessness. As of May 1, 2021, there were 365.

Driving the increase is a lack of supportive housing for people with mental illness and addiction, said Chris McEvoy.  "That's where the need is in our community," said McEvoy, the region's manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention. 

Someone experiencing chronic homelessness has been without a residence for six months or more in the last year, or for 1½ years in the last three. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) said it's also aware of a high level of demand for supportive housing. Across Waterloo-Wellington, the CMHA said its average wait time for long-term mental health supportive housing is 1,093 days. The association said it is aware of 983 people waiting for this type of housing. ...

McEvoy noted some of the uptick in the region's numbers could also be due to people who have been without a home for a while, but who have only recently been connected with social services. "Folks may have not wanted to go into a congregate environment previously and may have opted for an experience of unsheltered homelessness. "Now, with some of the use of hotels and motels as overflow spaces, or in some cases the default shelter option, they may be more inclined to access service." 

People who are chronically homeless may be living in a mix of different locations, he said, from shelter spaces to motel rooms to Kitchener's A Better Tent City. 



The Covid pandemic has fueled greater and to some extent a different kind of homelessness. 

A Halifax-based street outreach worker says that since the pandemic started, he's met more and more people who have likely become homeless for the first time.

"Everywhere I look … I see a place where last year or six months ago, there wasn't somebody sleeping. But now there's people in every park, there's people on so many different benches," said Eric Jonsson, program co-ordinator with Navigator Street Outreach. "I've been doing this for about 10 years or so, and in previous years … you really had to look. But now you don't have to look very hard to find people who are homeless."

COVID-19 has been particularly hard on Canada's homeless population. With shelters cutting back the number of beds they offer to facilitate physical distancing, many cities have seen homeless encampments popping up in parks as people try to find a safe place to sleep. One Toronto organization warned earlier this year that the pandemic could push more people into homelessness as people who have lost their jobs struggle to pay their bills. ...

Dr. Andrew Bond, medical director at Inner City Health Associates in Toronto, says Canada's increasing affordability crisis is part of the problem.While housing prices have been rising, pandemic benefits like the CERB have been difficult to get into the hands of people living on the streets, he said.

"The ability to match income to available, affordable places is certainly a huge challenge that's increased throughout COVID," said Bond. "People are opting, when they don't have any other options, to go the streets, to go to tents and encampments, to try and get as much distance as they can to keep themselves safe," he added. "It's very much a self-protective practice that's happening amidst an economic crisis at the same time."



Saskatchewan now has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. 

In Saskatchewan, homelessness has become a grave concern and a serious reality for many women and children. Saskatchewan now has the highest rates of homelessness in the country with one in five people saying that they are homeless or at risk of being homeless.  In the past 3 years in Saskatchewan the vacancy rate has been dropping with the rate for 2009 being 1.5%.  Regina and Saskatoon have vacancy rates below 1%.  

Homelessness is compounded by poverty.   More than 41% of female-headed lone-parent families in Saskatchewan struggle to provide the basic needs of their families because they live below the poverty line.  Saskatchewan has the third highest child poverty rate in Canada.

 With sky-rocketing home ownership costs and a constantly decreasing availability of safe and affordable housing, the women and children of Saskatchewan who are attempting to exit abusive situations are faced with incredible challenges. If women cannot find adequate and affordable housing their chances of succeeding in leading lives free from violence are diminished.  

While the causes and consequences of violence against women exist beyond housing, there is no question that without an adequate, suitable and affordable home to which one can escape, women are choosing to stay in violent relationships or return to abusive partners because they feel they have no other option. 

To read the full PATHS report, visit here.



A pending rezoning policy of areas in Vancouver is giving speculators the opportunity to buy land at rapidly escalating prices that drive up housing costs, making more people susceptible to homelessness. 

The city has long held that renting a home is inherently and significantly more affordable than owning. But is it? Recent land assemblies in the city suggest that it will be difficult or impossible for rental project developers to provide rental units at rates that are affordable by average renter families. For example, a full block assemblywas recently advertised in the Dunbar neighbourhood with a price tag of more than double the assessed values of the seven detached homes on the block: approximately $5.6 million each for a total price of $39 million.

This skyrocketing land price inflation was almost certainly prompted by a pending city policy which may allow this block to be converted to apartments. Significantly, the price for these lots inflated well before the council even reviewed this new rezoning policy, proving yet again that land speculators will line up years ahead of land rezonings, locking in their gains in anticipation of city action, rather than consequent to it. An offering price double the assessed values is a mark of just how much money is to be made in the Vancouver land speculation game. 

Since this new policy is aimed at encouraging market rentals, the units will eventually have to rent out at rates that cover the cost of land and construction (plus a variety of other costs). A bit of fourth grade math suggests that rents in these units will be close to double what average city wage earners can afford. Here is why. ...

Now the city has long held that building market rental is the main leg of an affordable housing strategy. ...

One important recent “meta study” (essentially a study of studies) compiled evidence from over 100 individual peer-reviewed studies to conclude that adding density spawns good things (more efficient land use, lowered greenhouse gas, supporting neighbourhood services, etc.) — but sadly, lowering prices was not one of them.

And from the 2019 Journal of Urban Economics: “Overall, the evidence suggests that density is a net amenity. This does not imply, however, that everybody necessarily benefits from densification policies. Renters may be net losers of densification because of rent effects that exceed amenity benefits.” ...

Thus it would seem the city is uncritically accepting the received opinions of neoliberal market enthusiasts, and embedding their dicta, without supporting evidence, in the policy documents presented to council. ...

Cambridge, Massachusetts ... [when] faced with a similar conundrum, they decided on a strategy that avoids inflating land prices by streaming what would otherwise be land-value increases lining the pockets of land speculators into social benefit for wage earners. The secret sauce was to only allow density increases in return for affordability. This strategy was specifically designed by the city, in collaboration with non-profit housing providers, to stabilize land values — so non-profit providers could compete with market providers for suitable development land.

To be fair the evidence in the literature is inconclusive. But this meta study does not support the view that adding new supply automatically lowers prices, as “market enthusiasts” would have it.



More and more Canadians are seeing homelessness as a major problem according to the August 3rd Angus Reid poll. For the question

Please rank the issues facing Canada that you care most about (Up to three selected, items with 10% or greater shown) (All respondents, n=1,605)

Homelessness came in tied for fourth at 26% of respondents in a tie with the deficit/Government spending, after

Environment/Climate Change (35%), Health Care (33%) and Covid (31%) in a list of eleven issues to choose from.