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Why Housing First won't end homelessness

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Photo: flickr/ Kurt Bauschardt

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Housing First is championed as the solution to end homelessness by many, including the Harper government. Yet, Housing First does not deal with the fundamental causes of homelessness or its prevention, nor does it adequately reach the diversity of people who experience homelessness.

Housing First targets long-term, chronically homeless individuals. Most of these individuals are men; many have addictions, often concurrent with mental health issues. They live on the street or in shelters. They are the "visible" homeless.

Housing First is based on the principle that people need a home before they can address addiction and other issues. This is a step in the right direction, but Housing First as it is currently construed will not end homelessness.

At the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), and at other community legal clinics that we work with across the province, we hear from people every day who do not live on the streets or in shelters -- yet they are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or inadequately housed. They are the "hidden" homeless who are estimated to be 50,000 persons on any given night, but some put that number even higher.

One of them is a single mom with four children. They are about to be evicted from their home. Mom does not have mental health or addiction issues. Her problem is poverty: she can't afford to pay the rent and feed the kids.

In the meantime, she won't live on the street and she likely won't go to a shelter either. Both places are too violent; she can't risk her children's lives. This means no access to Housing First programs.

Another is on disability support. He has schizophrenia. Last year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He receives $479 per month for rent from the Ontario Disability Support Program. Yet the average rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto is $899.

As a result, he lives in an overcrowded home with six other people as he struggles with his illnesses. He is on the waiting list for social housing, but the wait will be several years. He cannot access Housing First either, at least not until he ends up on the street.

The 100,000 Homes Campaign in the United States, based on a Housing First model, serves as a cautionary tale. The program housed 105,000 people. It was deemed a resounding success but here's the problem: of the people housed, 80 per cent were men. No new affordable housing was built.

Instead, people who had been on waiting lists for many years -- including families, women fleeing abuse, and many other "hidden homeless" -- were bumped off to make way for the men. The campaign also relied extensively on the private housing market, often with scant attention paid to adequate housing.

And by narrowing homelessness to those living on the street, the campaign negatively impacted those who may be less visible, but who are just as profoundly bereft of a secure home.

So when you hear that Housing First will end homelessness, think again.

Homelessness in Canada remains at crisis proportions. Over 235,000 people experience visible homelessness in a year, and at least 1.3 million have experienced homelessness or precarious housing in the past five years.

In rental households across Canada, nearly one in five tenants are paying more than 50 per cent of their income on rent, placing them at serious risk of homelessness. This crisis has not gone unnoticed on the international stage: in 2009, Miloon Kothari, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, called the housing and homelessness crisis in Canada a "national emergency."

The crisis is about to deepen. According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report, federal funding towards housing has decreased by 46 per cent, despite Canada's population increase of nearly 30 per cent over the past 25 years.

At the same time, while claiming to "end homelessness" through Housing First, the federal government is in the midst of cutting funding to 365,000 low-income households across the country that rely on subsidized housing.

Where will these households go? The federal government is not ending homelessness. It is helping to create and maintain it.

What we really need in Canada is the political will to adopt and adequately fund a national housing strategy that will holistically address the multiple causes and the continuum of homelessness -- and greatly expand the supply of affordable housing.

If you're alarmed about our national emergency, put affordable housing on the political agenda. Vote for a national housing strategy in the next federal election.


Tracy Heffernan, Mary Todorow and Helen Luu are staff at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, a community legal clinic that works to better the housing situation of Ontario residents who have low incomes including tenants, co-op members and people who are homeless.

Photo: flickr/ Kurt Bauschardt

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