This is our first instalment of the Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Dear Homeless Hub

I saw an article in NOW Magazine last week that said the city was going to redevelop Seaton House and make more of the beds permanent instead of shelter beds. The City of Toronto just released its findings for the 2013 Street Needs Assessment and the number of people sleeping on the streets has gone up! Shouldn’t we be adding more shelter beds instead of taking them away?

Thanks,
~Confused in Toronto

Dear Confused,

You’re right, it’s very important to understand the math behind homelessness. Too often, politicians and policy makers get focused on the solutions –building safe, secure and affordable housing with needed supports—and forget about the current state of affairs. While the housing is important, so is making sure the needs of people who are currently homeless get met.

As our recent State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 report pointed out many people are homeless for only one night and 29% are homeless for less than a month. But, at least 200,000 people are homeless every year and across the country at least 30,000 are homeless every night. That means, as a country, we need to provide 30,000 beds a night until we have sufficient housing to meet demand AND we’re able to stem the flow of people into homelessness.

That’s the key point really. It's not as if we have a finite group of homeless people and once enough housing is built to house them, homelessness is over. New people become homeless every day. We need to address the upstream issues that are leading people to become homeless. Prevention is a big topic and one that we will be focusing a lot on over the next while here at the Hub.

But let’s look at the Seaton House numbers and the new Street Needs assessment numbers the City of Toronto just released. The city’s early report on numbers of the 2013 Street Needs Assessment show that both overall and street homelessness have gone up in the past 4 years. 24% more people are sleeping outside and 1% more people are homeless in Toronto, according to the count. Unlike most Alberta cities, and many others across the country, which are seeing significant drops in both categories, Toronto is seeing an increase.

  2006 2009 2013
Location Count Share of total Count Share of total Count Share of total
Outdoors 735 14.8% 362 7.0% 447 8.6%
City-administered shelters 3,649 73.4% 3,990 77.2% 3,970 76.1%
Violence Against Women (VAW) shelters 171 3.4% 306 5.9% 356 6.8%
Health & treatement facilities 275 5.5% 223 4.3% 236 4.5%
Correctional facilities 139 2.8% 288 5.6% 210 4.0%
Total 4,969 100.0% 5,169 100.0% 5,219 100.0%

Source: City of Toronto, Street Needs Assessment Interim Report

Shelter operators have told me that they are running at almost full capacity, especially since July 2012. Another report in NOW magazine from March of this year, showed that, “shelters are operating closer to 100 per cent capacity than was previously thought, and are using beds on a daily basis that are supposed to be reserved for emergencies.”

According to the NOW article you mentioned, Seaton House has “543 beds, 240 are used as emergency shelter, and the rest are part of long-term care, harm reduction and infirmary programs.”

Since the goal of the redevelopment is to create more permanent housing, NOW points out, “emergency beds would be reduced from 240 to roughly 96. According to the report approved by council, the 140 men left over would be ‘absorbed into transitional housing programs or the emergency shelter system.’”

So, this is where we run into fuzzy logic and faulty math. Tonight, there will be close to 240 men using Seaton House. Tomorrow night there will be close to 240 men using Seaton House, and a few of them will be different. Next month, there will be close to 240 men using Seaton House and a significant percentage of them will be different. So there won’t be “140 men left over” as the report says, there may be several hundred.

The city’s move to build transitional and permanent housing units is important and a key step in solving homelessness, but there won’t be as stark a decrease in need as the city is predicting, unless significant prevention and homelessness reduction strategies are established in the interim. There is time; the ground-breaking isn’t until 2017 after all.

Tanya Gulliver-GarciaResearch CoordinatorCanadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University