Last week, I was in Yellowknife, where I released results of new research on affordable housing in the Northwest Territories (NWT). The research project was sponsored by the Social Economy Research Network of Northern Canada, and was a collaboration with the Centre for Northern Families.
Research findings include the following:
- Housing indicators suggest that the state of housing in the NWT (especially in small communities) is much worse than in the rest of Canada. While 2% of Canadians report living in “crowded conditions,” that figure is 8% for rural NWT. And while 8% of Canadian households report living in housing that requires major repairs, the figure is 22% for rural NWT.
- Housing is more expensive to both build and maintain in the NWT than in the rest of Canada, and there are three main reasons for this. First, building costs are higher in most parts of the North, especially areas that do not have road access; building costs on the Arctic Coast are roughly $300 per square foot, which is roughly double the cost in some other parts of the NWT. Second, utility costs (i.e. electricity, fuel, water) in the NWT, for the average household, are more than double the Canadian average. Third, there is a considerable amount of poverty in the NWT, especially in small communities, meaning that a large proportion of households in the NWT require public housing, which is a relatively expensive form of government-assisted housing. (Public housing requires a very deep subsidy–i.e. as much as $20,000 per unit, per year, in the NWT–for the operation and maintenance of that unit. Among other things, this subsidy covers fuel, power and water.)
- Due to many of the above factors, the Government of the NWT pays considerably more on housing than a ‘typical Canadian province.’ While the average province pays $61 per capita on housing, the Government of the NWT pays $1,672. Ergo: the Government of the NWT pays more than 25 times per capita on housing than what is the norm for a Canadian province.
- In light of the above, the NWT is very reliant on federal funding for the building, operation and maintenance of housing. But across Canada, federal funding agreements for housing (most of which began in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and which typically last between 35 and 50 years) are starting to expire. In the NWT, all federal funding commitments of this nature will completely expire by 2038. In the NWT, in the absence of new agreements with the federal government, roughly half of all public housing units will disappear by 2038. Put differently, the issue of expiring operating agreements is very significant throughout Canada, including in Toronto, but even more pressing in the NWT.
- The research results, which appear as a chapter in the 2011-2012 edition of How Ottawa Spends, suggest that a long-term, permanent commitment is required by the federal government in order to sustain housing in the NWT. The chapter argues that it’s more cost effective for the federal government to reinvest the savings it accrues (as current agreements run out) into fixing already-existing housing, than it would be to allow current units to disappear completely and to then rebuild from scratch. (This general argument has been made before by Steve Pomeroy in the following report, commissioned by the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.)
All of the information relating to last week’s launch of the research can be found here, including a PowerPoint presentation I gave in Yellowknife on Thursday, and plain-language summaries of both my chapter and that of Dr. Frances Abele (who supervised this research and has a chapter of her own in the same publication on the federal government’s northern strategy).
This post originally appeared in The Progressive Economics Forum
Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration and teaches a course on affordable housing and homelessness in Carleton’s School of Social Work. His research interests include poverty, affordable housing, social assistance, homelessness and post-secondary education policy. Under the supervision of Dr. Frances Abele, he is currently involved in two SSHRC-funded research projects looking at poverty and affordable housing in Canada’s North. And his doctoral dissertation, under the supervision of Dr. Saul Schwartz, consists of three essays on social assistance. Nick is a frequent blogger and op-ed writer, a steering committee member of the Progressive Economics Forum (PEF) and the PEF Events Coordinator for the Annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association. Prior to his doctoral studies, Nick was a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa, and then worked for 10 years as a community social worker with homeless persons in Toronto. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Homelessness continues to be a visible problem in most Canadian cities. I would say most Canadians, when they think about how we respond to homelessness, would consider emergency shelters, drop-ins and soup kitchens – charitable programs set up to shelter and protect people while they are homeless – as central to our response.
But what about policing and law enforcement? What about the issuing of tickets and fines for panhandling or sleeping in parks? Such practices, which essentially criminalize homelessness, are every bit as central to our response.
At a time when the growing divide between rich and poor is in the spotlight, how we choose to deal with society’s most vulnerable – the people who occupy our streets not by choice but by necessity – is important to consider. The criminalization of homelessness runs counter to the “Canadian way.” It is out of line with our principles as a just and civilized society.
Two reports that highlight the downside of criminalizing homelessness in Canada have been released this week. “Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto” (Bill O’Grady, Stephen Gaetz, Kristy Buccieri) and “La judiciarisation des personnes en situation d’itinérance à Québec : point de vue des acteurs socio-judiciaires et analyse du phénomène” (Dominique Bernier, Céline Bellot, Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Catherine Chesnay) both explore the impact of policing on homelessness. The first report, Can I See Your ID, reveals that despite strong evidence that panhandling and squeegeeing have declined over the past ten years, the amount of tickets issued under Ontario’s Safe Streets Act has increased exponentially, rising from 780 issued in 2000, to over 15,000 in 2010. All this has left homeless people with an accumulated debt of over $4 million dollars.
Interviews with street youth reveal that they receive a huge amount of attention from police, not only in the form of tickets, but also through regular ‘stop and searches’. This attention is not limited to those who are criminally involved – the evidence is clear, street youth are being subject to social profiling. In particular, being young, male and visibly homeless in downtown Toronto means you are very likely to have regular encounters with police. The second report also documents consistent practices of criminalizing homelessness across seven Canadian cities (Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax).
How does any of this make sense? Issuing fines to people with little or no money does not help them move forward with their lives. It alienates and traumatizes an already marginalized population and makes moving out of homelessness that much more difficult. Ample research from the United States highlights the negative impact of criminalizing homelessness (Culhane 2010; Ruddick, 1996; NLCHP, 2006; 2009). While we often consider the use of law enforcement – including both policing and incarceration – as a characteristically ‘American’ response to poverty, we need to accept and realize that we do the same thing in Canada (Hermer & Mosher, 2002; Sommers, 2005; Sylvestre, 2010). Whether this means creating new laws that target homeless persons, (banning panhandling or sleeping in parks), or simply using existing laws in a disproportionate or discriminatory manner, (tickets for drinking in public, jaywalking etc.), the goal is to harass people who are homeless so they stay away from public places – spaces that we are all entitled to use. The outcome of all this is debt, a greater likelihood of going to jail, and the outright violation of the rights of Canadian citizens.
In recent years, several Canadian studies have highlighted the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison (Gaetz & O’Grady, 2006, 2009; Novac, Hermer, Paradis and Kellen, 2007; Kellen et al., 2010). That is, being homeless means you are more likely to go to prison, and prisoners – unless they receive effective discharge planning and supports, are more likely to become homeless.
All of this raises important questions. If people are afraid of those who are homeless, should the police intervene? The answer is no. One might be afraid of someone because of the way they look, their second hand clothes, their ethnic background, or the colour of their skin, but that doesn’t mean they actually pose a real threat. Using police intervention to respond to public fear that is based on stereotypes and prejudice is unacceptable. Then why don’t we object when this happens to people who are homeless?
If the general public, business owners and politicians find homeless people annoying or unseemly and don’t want to see them on their streets or sidewalks, is there an obligation for the State to act? Perhaps there IS an obligation . . . but doesn’t it make more sense to address homelessness by ensuring there are the necessary resources and supports (including an adequate supply of affordable housing) to prevent homelessness in the first place or to help people move into permanent housing? Let’s stop treating the symptom through punishment, and instead let’s go for the cure!
To read the full reports, visit:
The minority Liberal government voters elected on October 6 provides a political opportunity for Ontario to realize a long-overdue and much-needed four-point affordable housing plan. The province’s last two minority governments delivered robust housing initiatives: In 1975, the province’s first rent regulation and tenant protection laws, which grew more substantial and effective until they were significantly dismantled in 1998; and Ontario’s first major affordable housing programs in 1985, which were successfully increased until they were shut down in 1995.
The signs of Ontario’s province-wide housing distress are clear: one in every three Ontario renter households are in core housing need – the federal government’s definition of precarious housing. Approximately 1.3 million provincial households pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing, the official definition of unaffordable housing. There are more than 152,000 households on affordable housing waiting lists across Ontario. Housing is not only the single biggest expense in the monthly budget of low and moderate-income households, but the high cost of housing is one of the biggest factors driving people to food banks because they don’t have enough money to pay the rent, and cover other basics such as food, energy, transportation and child care. Housing is also one of the most important fundamentals for good health for individuals and for the entire population. However, federal and provincial investments in affordable housing are set to drop sharply this year, and continue to decline after 2014.
A four-point housing agenda for the new minority Ontario government would include the following:
New affordable homes: Most parts of Ontario urgently need more affordable homes to accommodate people that are homeless or in grossly substandard and over-crowded housing, and also to deal with population growth. A provincial inclusionary housing policy that authorizes municipalities to introduce planning rules that would require affordable housing in all new developments is one important measure, but it needs to be combined with a long-term affordable housing supply initiative that includes committed funding. In recent years, most affordable housing development dollars in Ontario have come from the federal government, with some of these dollars matched by the province. But the federal housing investments are eroding ($1.2 billion in housing cuts this year alone), and Ontario has no plan to deal with the federal withdrawal.
Affordability measures: A universal housing benefit that would help cover the gap between household income and housing costs is long overdue. The Ontario government has dabbled in various housing supplements over the years, but – as the auditor-general noted in 2009 – none have been particularly well designed. With conventional ownership housing increasingly out of reach for low, moderate and even middle-income households, and the federal government committed to tightening mortgage eligibility rules even more, the pressure is building on the province’s private rental and social housing stock. But vacancies are low, and rents are rising in private rental markets throughout the province.
Rent regulation / rental housing protection: For almost a quarter of a century, Ontario had increasingly effective rent regulation and rental housing protection laws. In 1998, the provincial government of the day introduced “vacancy decontrol,” which allows landlords to charge any rent they want on a vacant unit. This has allowed rents to increase significantly, often much higher than the mandated provincial guideline. In addition, rent regulation is waived for newly constructed buildings. The gaps in rent regulation laws need to be patched. Ontario used to have a law that slowed the demolition or conversion of private rental housing. Although the province’s population is increasing, and there is a growing need for new rental homes, the private rental housing universe has been stagnant or declining in most parts of the province. The previous law required landlords seeking to take private rental housing off the market to ensure that the tenants were re-housed. Rent regulation and rental housing protection are key components of a critically important enhancement of tenant protection laws.
Ending homelessness / linking with supports: Ontario is lagging behind other provinces, including Alberta, in making a commitment – and backing it with a solid plan and funding – to end homelessness. The province’s so-called long-term affordable housing strategy does contain some useful measures, including a commitment to work with municipalities to create more flexibility among a variety of disjointed provincial homelessness and housing programs, but a specific provincial plan with adequate funding is lacking. A key to preventing and ending homelessness is an effective strategy that links health and social supports with housing through a “housing first” approach – successfully used in a growing number of US and Canadian jurisdictions. Ontario’s supportive housing policies have not kept pace with innovative developments in Canada and internationally.
Reprinted with permission from the Wellesley Institute
Michael Shapcott is Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute, an independent, non-profit research and policy dedicated to advancing urban health. Michael has worked extensively in Toronto, in many parts of Canada, nationally and internationally on social innovation, the non-profit sector, civic engagement, housing and housing rights, poverty, social exclusion, urban health and health equity. He is recognized as one of Canada’s leading community-based housing and homelessness experts.
Calgary launches its Plan to End Youth Homelessness
I think it’s time to change the way we respond to youth homelessness in Canada. I began working with homeless youth in the early 1990s at Shout Clinic in Toronto. At that time, the youth homelessness population was exploding, and communities were scrambling to develop emergency services to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable young people who found themselves on the street. Today, many years later, we still address youth homelessness primarily through the provision of emergency services, such as shelters, drop-ins and clinics. Yet for me, the longer I am involved with the issue of homelessness, the more frustrated I get by the fact that we think this is OK – that it is reasonable to have young people languish in emergency services with limited opportunities, without access to school and with seemingly irrevocable breaches with family. Our recent report, Family Matters, asks for a radical shift in how we address youth homelessness.
So, where is the innovation? Who is going to take the first step?
The Calgary Homeless Foundation just released its “Plan to End Homelessness in Calgary”. Those interested in what an effective and humane response to youth homelessness could look like should really check this out. There is no doubt that this is the most innovative plan to address youth homelessness in Canada, and if implemented well, will drastically reduce youth homelessness and give many young people a better chance of growing into adulthood in a safe way, with appropriate supports and opportunities. The basic tenets of the plan weren’t simply pulled from thin air. They are drawn from a grounded understanding of effective responses to youth homelessness, particularly from the UK and Australia. Here is what I like about the plan:
Making the case for an investment in youth homelessness
Many places in Canada have few - if any – supports for homeless youth. In other places, there are designated services, but these do not always recognitize that the causes of youth homelessness (and thus, the solutions) are distinct from those that characterize the adult population. Communities need to recognize that there is need for a strategic, coordinated and integrated response to youth homelessness based on the developmental needs of young people.
Focus on prevention
The Calgary plan goes farther than any other Canadian community I know of in investing in the prevention of youth homelessness. Drawing heavily on really creative ideas from the United Kingdom and Australia, this plan demonstrates how you can make prevention work, by: a) putting systems in place that identify young people at risk of homelessness, and giving them and their families the supports they need, b) adopting a policy that ends the institutional practice (child protection services, corrections, mental health) of discharging young people into homelessness, c) recasting the role of emergency shelters and outreach services, and d) encouraging the development of innovative, coordinated and targeted initiatives that stop young people from falling into homelessness, or conversely, to help them transition into independence in a safe and planned way.
Housing for young people
One cannot address youth homelessness if there is not an adequate supply of affordable and supportive housing options. Recognizing that young people moving into independent living have special needs distinct from adults (most youth have no experience running their own home), the plan includes innovative approaches to housing young people who can no longer return home, or who have no home to go to.
Case Management and a Common Assessment Framework
An effective response to youth homelessness does not rely on young people figuring things out themselves (I wouldn’t want that for my children). Rather, there is need for a really good case management approach that prevents young people from slipping through the cracks and in the shelter system for years. The development and adoption of a ‘common assessment framework’ (widely used in the UK) will allow for effective client-centred planning and programming.
Role of research and data collection
The Calgary plan that draws heavily on what we know about the causes of youth homelessness, but also effective solutions. It is a strong example of how we can make research matter. At the same time, the plan calls for effective implementation of a data management system, so that progress can be tracked, systems evaluated and improvements made.
The process by which this plan was developed relied heavily on engagement with community members including service providers in the sector, but more importantly, young people who have experienced homelessness.
The Calgary plan’s strength lies in its systems level approach that focuses on stopping youth homelessness before it starts and on helping those who do become homeless to successfully move into independent living as soon as possible and with the necessary supports, so that they can grow into adulthood and achieve the promise that we want for all young people.
This is the best plan to address youth homelessness in Canada right now, and CHRA and Eva’s Initiatives are preparing to launch their responses to youth homelessness in short order. Things are beginning to change after all.
In Florida, people are being arrested for giving food to people who are homeless. That’s right, for providing food to malnourished people. The City of Orlando has been targeting Food not Bombs, a community group that, twice a week for the past 5 years, has been providing meals to homeless people in parks. By June 15th of this year, 15 people had been arrested. The penalty for violating the Orlando ordinance is 60 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both. This kind of ridiculous policy and practice raises a couple of issues for me.
First, we have to address the criminalization of homelessness as a serious problem. Most people don’t consider law enforcement when thinking about our response to homeless. Shelters and day programs are usually what come to mind. But, criminalization of homelessness isn’t just an American issue; we’re equally good at this in Canada. Ontario, for instance, legislated the Safe Streets Act over ten years ago to address panhandling and squeegeeing (many communities across Canada have followed suit), and in Toronto police continue to issue thousands of Safe Streets act tickets (not to mention tickets for other misdemeanors) to people who are homeless and without means to pay the fines. In response to this, there is a growing body of research on ticketing and the use of law enforcement to address homelessness, and the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison, that attests to the highly problematic (and unethical) nature of this ‘response’ to homelessness.
The second issue to consider is the nutritional vulnerability of people who are homeless. While many of us may believe that the nutritional needs of homeless people are met through charitable food services, the reality is quite different. In fact, Val Tarasuk’s research on youth homelessness and nutritional vulnerability shows that it doesn’t matter whether young people get all their food in agencies, or from the proceeds of panhandling, they are quite likely to be malnourished, and this at a time when they are growing and really need appropriate and adequate food.
A new report from Victoria highlights the link between homelessness and nutritional vulnerability. More than this, the report reminds us that a person’s lack of food isn’t solved once they become housed. In fact, when homeless people do become housed, a large number continue to live in extreme poverty, and after the rent, utilities and other necessities are paid, there is often very little left for food. The use of food banks in Victoria and other communities continues to rise.
If we want to support people who are homeless in an ethical and humane way, we need to begin by treating them as people. Criminalizing homelessness, and failing to address nutritional needs of particularly vulnerable people is no solution, and this is something no one should be proud of.
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