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Activists demand federal government boost affordable housing investments, develop national housing strategy

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Louise Bark was angry.

The disabled woman, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, receives $1,086 in monthly benefits. Yet in Toronto a bachelor apartment rents for $876 a month, a one bedroom for $1,035.

"Now I happen to be lucky," she said, addressing a crowd of almost 500 people at a National Housing Day rally in Toronto on Friday. 

"I happen to be subsidized but there are far too many people that are not and that is shameful."

According to the recently released The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report published by the Canadian Observatory, the Homeless Hub and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, reduced benefit levels -- including pensions and social assistance -- and a shrinking supply of affordable housing have placed more and more Canadians at risk of homelessness. 

The federal government significantly reduced investments in affordable housing in the 1990s and today we are the only G8 country without a national housing strategy. 

Over the past 25 years, while Canada's population increased by almost 30 per cent, annual national investment in housing has decreased dramatically, by over 46 per cent, said the report.

The result, said report authors Stephen Gaetz, Tanya Gulliver, and Tim Richter, has been "an explosion in homelessness" as a visible and seemingly ever-present problem. 

Today, nearly one in five households spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.

The authors estimated that over 235,000 different Canadians will experience homelessness in a year, with over 35,000 Canadians homeless on any given night. 

"If you get $1,086 and your rent is $1,035 you are taking a choice of eating or home sleeping under a roof," said Bark.

"That is inexcusable."

Experts estimate that homelessness alone costs the Canadian economy over $7 billion per year. 

For that reason, report authors recommend a proposed investment in affordable housing that would see an increase in annual federal spending, from the projected commitments of $2.019 billion to $3.752 billion in 2015/16 with a total investment of $44 billion over ten years. 

When Shandisha Adderley moved to Canada, there was no heating in the house she lived in with other roommates. 

"So I had to take cold showers during the winter," she said. "When I went to bed I had to use my hair dryer to warm my sheets up."

Adderly said some of her friends have been victims of housing discrimination based on their sexual orientation and the colour of their skin.

Colin Desjarlais, an articling student at Aboriginal Legal Services, moved to Toronto in September after spending the last six months in Vancouver sleeping outdoors. 

Previously, the best accommodation he could find was a single room occupancy hotel in Downtown Eastside Vancouver.

"Cockroaches, bedbugs and rats for $375 a month," he said. 

"So I chose to sleep on the streets because I felt safer. (But) once you're homeless you're invisible. No one looks at you. And that's the really grim sad reality of my experience."

But coming to Toronto, said Desjarlais, gave him new hope, especially after he landed a job in his field.

The Toronto rally at Dundas Square, organized by the Right to Housing (R2H) Coalition and endorsed by 38 groups and organizations, was part of a national day of action with groups in Montreal, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver and Whitehorse calling on the Federal government for a national housing strategy and a stop to housing cuts. 

Fourteen years after the first National Housing Day was observed, Canada still doesn't have a national housing strategy.

Banners were dropped from the building fronts of several downtown social service organizations, including Street Health, Fred Victor Centre, and Casey House, to send a message to the federal government that Canada needs a national housing strategy now.

In Canada, 365,000 low income households are at risk of losing their homes because the Federal government refuses to renew subsidies for social housing. 

Another 165,000 households remain on the waiting list for an affordable unit in Ontario.

"My first National Housing Day was in 2000," said Tanya Gulliver, one of the authors of the recently released The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report.

"This is the day, 16 years ago, that big city mayors across the country declared homelessness a national disaster. Today, more people than ever are homeless."

In Canada, there are 150,000 to 300,000 people who are visibly homeless, plus 450,000 to 900,000 people who are among the "hidden homeless."

On Thursday night in Toronto, 4,100 people slept inside a city shelter. A 94 per cent occupancy rate.

"That's overcrowded," she said.

"If we don't stop the cuts coming to co-op and social housing, we're going to be here in another 14 years and we're going to have 500,000 people homeless."

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