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10 things to know about the challenges of ending homelessness in Canada

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On November 18, I gave a presentation on "ending homelessness" at the 7 Cities Leadership Summit in Edmonton. My PowerPoint slides can be downloaded here.

Here are ten things to know about "ending homelessness" in Canada:

1. In 2008, Calgary became the first Canadian municipality to publicly commit to "ending homelessness."

More than a dozen other Canadian municipalities have since followed suit, with Medicine Hat's Mayor recently claiming that his municipality has indeed "ended homelessness." Such plans have the potential to raise awareness and focus collective efforts to develop new practices focused on ending homelessness. I think one reason Alberta communities have adopted such advocacy approaches stems from the successful use of similar advocacy campaigns in the United States. Speaking at a Toronto conference in 2009 -- and drawing on successful homelessness advocacy campaigns in the United States -- Nan Roman said: "By saying the problem keeps getting worse, we weren't getting resources. By focusing on solutions, we got more resources." Put differently, speaking positively (and demonstrating positive outcomes) can result in more resources being committed to fighting homelessness; and I think that's been an important reason that many advocates in Canada have developed "ending homelessness" strategies.

2. Good researchers should be cautious in attributing success or failure in "ending homelessness" solely to each community's respective plan.

"Correlation doesn't imply causation" is a common expression in statistics. In the present context, it should be interpreted to mean that, just because a municipality's homeless population has decreased after a plan to "end homelessness" has been written, doesn't mean it's because of the plan that the number of homeless people has gone down. Likewise, just because one municipality's homeless population has decreased faster than another's, doesn't mean it's because the former is doing a better job of designing and coordinating programs that respond to homelessness. Indeed, a wide array of other factors are at play here, including availability of rental housing, migration, and unemployment.

3. When it comes to "ending homelessness" campaigns across Canada, Alberta is generally viewed as being the leading province.

In 2009, Alberta became the first Canadian province to commit to "ending homelessness," establishing a government agency to develop and monitor a provincial plan to "end homelessness" by 2019. The plan includes the following components: i) the development of measurable standards (aided by municipal-level plans to "end homelessness"); ii) the establishment of an information management system; iii) the ongoing monitoring of outcomes; iv) the provision of more supportive housing (i.e. an arrangement that combines subsidized housing and social work support to tenants); and v) preventing "provincial systems" (i.e. public health, justice and child welfare systems) from "discharging clients into homelessness" (ASAH, 2008, p. 12). A January 2013 progress report reports that, since the implementation of the provincial plan to end homelessness, Alberta has seen a 10-per cent reduction in the use of emergency shelter beds.

4. The Ontario government recently committed to "ending chronic homelessness" by 2025.

In its 2014-2019 poverty reduction strategy, the Wynne government announced its "long-term goal" of ending homelessness. A 13-member advisory panel was then struck to advise the government; and in October of this year, that panel released a report that recommended -- among other things -- that the Ontario government aim to "end chronic homelessness within 10 years" (Matthews & McMeekin, 2015, p. 1). The Wynne government has accepted that advice.

5. With "ending homelessness" campaigns being in full swing for many years now, government officials and researchers are attempting to define what precisely it should mean to say a jurisdiction has "ended homelessness."

The following organizations are involved in this effort: the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development; the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Earlier this year, Iain de Jong blogged about this here. More recently, the topic was discussed on a panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness by Alina Turner, Tom Albanese, Jaime Rogers, Michael O'Brien and Kyle Pakeman.

6. Considerably less rental housing is being built in Canada today than in the past; this will make it harder for communities to "end homelessness."

In the 1960s and 1970s, a good deal of new rental housing was built in Canada each year. Some units were owned and operated by for-profit entities, often supported by tax incentives from government; other units were developed by non-profit entities, with substantial government subsidy, and always in partnership with the private sector. In the 1980s, with neoliberalism in full swing, Canada's federal government stopped providing most of its tax incentives to for-profit developers; it also seriously scaled back its subsidies for the construction of new social housing units (i.e. housing developed and operated by non-profit entities). In 1993, federal funding for new social housing units stopped altogether (with the sole exception of on-reserve units). Beginning in 2001, the federal government began subsidizing new social housing construction again, but not to the extent that it did in the 1960s and 1970s (I've previously blogged about more recent initiatives here).

 7. Each year, the federal government provides non-profit organizations with less money to operate their existing non-profit housing units than the previous year; this too will make it harder for municipalities to end homelessness.

Canada's provinces and territories receive funding on an annual basis from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to operate existing housing units (primarily for low-income tenants). This funding does not just fund the mortgages; it also helps with the ongoing operating costs -- that is, the difference between the rent received from tenants and what it actually costs the housing provider to operate the units. These funding agreements typically last 35-50 years. This funding is declining and is scheduled to end altogether in 2039. This two-minute video does a decent job of explaining all of this.

8. Today, the federal government spends considerably less money on programs that respond directly to homelessness than it did in 1999; this will also make it harder to "end homelessness."

Annual federal funding for homelessness today is worth $119 million; after adjusting for inflation, this represents just 35 per cent of what federal funding for homelessness was in 1999. I believe this substantial erosion in federal funding for homelessness makes it considerably harder for communities to "end homelessness." I think it would be reasonable for advocates to begin asking for the federal government to restore annual federal funding for homelessness to its 1999 level. Specifically, that would mean asking the federal government to increase annual funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy from $119 million to $343 million.

 9. Declining tax revenue in Canada will make it even harder still to "end homelessness."

Let's consider the following: in the early 1980s, Canada's top federal income tax rate was 43 per cent; today, it's just 29 per cent. In 2000, the federal government's general corporate income tax rate was 29 per cent; by 2012, it was down to 15 per cent. Finally, in 1999, total taxes as a percentage of Canada's GDP (including all federal and provincial taxes) were 36 per cent; by 2010, they were 31 per cent. Social programs -- including housing for low-income persons -- need to be financed. Without important revenue from taxation, it will be more challenging for government to finance more housing and related social support for low-income persons.

10. Without a significant increase in the availability of affordable housing, I think enhanced efforts to simply make emergency responses to homelessness more efficient will be limited by behaviour responses.

Across Canada, local officials often try moving homeless persons from emergency shelter into affordable housing as quickly as possible. As officials work toward developing more efficient ways of doing this, there are anecdotal accounts of "behaviour responses." That is, as word gets out that persons who access emergency shelter can be placed into affordable housing quickly (sometimes with social work support) low-income persons who had previously resisted accessing emergency shelter (by "couch surfing" with friends and family, for example) are realizing that accessing emergency shelter may result in better outcomes for them. Put differently, the "flow in" increases. My concern is that, as program responses to homelessness become more efficient, millions of low-income persons will be more inclined to "come out of the woodwork" and access emergency support services. While I like to see people receive good services, I think this phenomenon may leave some local officials in the position of trying to push the ocean back with a spoon (unless of course a major increase in the availability of affordable housing supports the emergency response). Professor Dennis Culhane has previously written about this phenomenon here.

The following individuals provided invaluable assistance in the preparation of this blog post: Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Stephen Gaetz, Alison Kooistra, Steve Pomeroy, Angela Pye, Ron Kneebone, Kevin McNichol, Tim Richter, Alina Turner and Mike Veall. Any errors are mine.

Photo: Emily/flickr

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