Mike Creek was once homeless so he knows how difficult life is for people living on the streets and in the shelter system.
“It’s a shame that we live in this country and we don’t even have a housing strategy,” said Creek at a rally Tuesday outside the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in Toronto, part of a national day of action to support Bill C-304. “We need to put pressure on our MP’s to make sure that this bill gets passed.”
Bill C-304, an Act for a National Housing Strategy introduced by NDP MP Libby Davies last year, will be up for final debate Wednesday in the House of Commons.
“You need to pick up a phone and call your MP and tell them you want a housing strategy now,” said Creek who works with people every day who have experienced homelessness. “I see what a home can do in their lives. Without a good home you’re impossible to do anything.”
Creek is the coordinator of the Toronto Speakers Bureau, Voices from the Street, where he learned research, public policy and public speaking. He is one of three Ontario directors on the board of the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), and is also a board member of the Gerstein Crisis Centre.
A psychiatric consumer/survivor who has overcome cancer, physical and mental abuse, homelessness, and poverty, he believes that housing is a human right.
“Subsidized housing is wonderful but it’s also got to be safe and secure,” said Patricia Diaz. “My daughter at the age of 12 was raped and at 13 was gang raped in those areas.”
Edward Lantz, the chair of the St. Jamestown chapter of ACORN which has been fighting for affordable housing for the last six years, said people have to decide every month whether to pay the rent or buy food.
“And that’s why we have a large influx to the food banks,” he said. “Many live in squalor conditions, paying fair market rent for shanty dwellings.”
In 2006, the United Nations called on Canada to immediately tackle its national housing crisis. It said that the federal government “needs to commit stable and long-term funding and programmes to realize a comprehensive national housing strategy, and to co-ordinate actions among the provinces and territories, to meet Canada’s housing rights obligations.”
As of June 2009, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, there were 140,000 households on municipal waiting lists for affordable housing. In Ontario, the number of applications has increased 9.6 per cent in the last two years.
“Canada remains the only country of the G8 nations that does not have a national housing program,” said Lantz. “And this is unacceptable.”
In Ontario, he said that the government promised ACORN that it would release its report on affordable housing in June. But ACORN still hasn’t received anything.
“So Mr. McGuinty, get your ass in gear and lets get some affordable housing down here from the provincial level as well,” said Lantz, who also had a message for Toronto municipal politicians and candidates.
“We find it imperative that city councilors and the new mayor demand affordable, livable housing from the provincial and federal governments for all people.”
Including parents with disabled children.
Sylvia Villaron has a 14-year-old multiple handicapped child, one of 4.4 million disabled Canadians. There are thousands of families who are caring for severely disabled children; one third of young children with disabilities come from families living below Statistics Canada’s low income cutoff.
“Having a child with a disability is linked with family poverty,” said Barbara Germon, a social worker with Bloorview Holland Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. “It is no surprise that families of children with disabilities are over-represented in their need for affordable housing.”
Disabled children and their families wait for up to 12 years before they can move into an affordable housing unit. In the meantime, they pay market rent to live in overcrowded, inaccessible basement apartments with little space for wheelchairs or other equipment.
“Parents carry disabled children up and down stairs,” said Germon.
Ken McLeod is a member of the Dream Team, a group of consumer survivors that advocates for more supportive housing for people living with mental health and addictions issues. He grew up in a troubled home with an alcoholic father and experienced feelings of worthlessness. Eventually he became socially isolated and was never able to hold down a job so he could afford a permanent place to live.
“But I’m one of the lucky ones who is recovering from mental illness by having access to a safe, secure affordable home,” said McLeod, who lives in Houselink Community Homes, a supportive housing agency that helps members keep their homes even through episodes of serious illness.
“Supportive housing is the most cost efficient way of addressing the issue of homelessness,” he said. A 2008 City of Toronto report stated that a one-day hospital stay costs the province $1048, a psychiatric in-patient bed $665, incarceration $143 and emergency shelter $69.
“It costs the province only $55 a day to house someone in supportive housing who has experienced homelessness or mental illness. The math is simple. So should be the solution.”
In the past, Canada had a national housing strategy. But in 1993, Finance Minister Paul Martin announced that the federal government would no longer fund affordable housing projects. Three years earlier, when in opposition, Martin criticized the Conservatives for doing little to solve Canada’s housing problems.
“When you don’t have a home you don’t belong,” said Dri, a long time resident of Tent City, Toronto’s first major settlement formed in 1998 when a group of homeless individuals built shacks and lean-tos on a property on the waterfront owned by Home Depot.
“No matter where you are somebody can ask you to move along.”