Homelessness in Canada

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Homeless man in Toronto

Homelessness in Canada had grown in size and complexity by 2006.[1] While historically known as a crisis only of urban centres such as Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal, the increasing incidence of homelessness in the suburbs is necessitating new services and resources.[2]

The demographic profile of Canada's homeless population is also changing. By 2009 it was reported that, while previously, men comprised the vast majority of homeless persons, now women and children represent the fastest growing subgroup of the homeless population, followed by youth.[3] In recent years homelessness has become a major political issue in Canada.

In Economic Action Plan 2013, the Federal Government of Canada proposed $119 million annually from March 2014 until March 2019—with $600 million in new funding—to renew its Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). In dealing with homelessness in Canada, the focus is on the Housing First model. Thus, private or public organizations across Canada are eligible to receive HPS subsidies to implement Housing First programs.[4]

Definition[edit]

In 2005 most research and programs in Canada focused on "absolute homelessness" and there was no consistent definition of homelessness.[5] and public policy initiatives.[5]

In 2012 the York University-based Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) released the first Canadian Definition of Homelessness.[6]

"Homelessness describes the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing."

—CHRN, 2012

Stephen Gaetz, a homelessness researcher at York University, argued that the detailed classification of homelessness, provided municipal governments with more “precision” in figuring out how to draw up homeless plans.[7] The report 4 typologies: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated, and at risk of homelessness. The definition received a lot of support from advocates for the homeless.[7] Critics included Peter Goldring, an Alberta MP, member of the Edmonton Committee to End Homelessness, who argued that the CHRN's definition of homelessness painted an overly broad picture including those who were "having a hard time financially." Goldring felt that, "You don’t want to look at it coldly, but they’re really not in desperate need until they’re holding that eviction notice in their hand."[7]

Homelessness count[edit]

By 2007 the annual homelessness count was considered to be a politically charged and methodologically contentious issue. The federal estimate of the core number of homeless people in Canada was 150,000 in 2005, or about 0.5 per cent of the population.[2] Homeless advocates estimated it to be closer to 200,000 annually, or 30,000 on any given night plus those in the hidden homelessness category. This includes 6,000 youth nightly and 30,000 youth annually. [8]

Cost of homelessness[edit]

Based on the more conservative figure, the annual cost of homelessness in Canada in 2007 was approximately $4.5 to $6 billion in emergency services, community organizations, and non-profits.[2]

Myths[edit]

There are many myths about "the homeless."

Contrary to popular stereotypes, only a small proportion, about 6% in Toronto, of the homeless population suffers from schizophrenia.[5] Much more common are affective disorders, self-reported by 20-40% of Toronto's homeless.[5] According to Toronto's Street Health Report in 2007, one in ten homeless people reports attempted suicide in the past year.[9]

Homelessness is actually a chronic problem for only a small minority of people, the vast majority of individuals are "one-time only" shelter users or experience episodic homelessness. However, the distinctly different subgroup of individuals who are "chronically homeless" consume about half of shelter beds and available resources at any given time.[2]

Many of "the homeless" who make use of homeless shelters are also employed.[10] Individuals and families are simply priced out of private housing markets. In 2000, about 22% or 2.5 million Canadian households fell below the minimum amount required to afford a basic home, gauged at $25, 920. Five years later, this number rose to 26% or 3.2 million households.[11]

Another common misunderstanding surrounds the homeless who prefer not to use the shelter system. In addition to rules and regulations, shelter users must accept crowded shelter conditions, which carry a high likelihood of TB exposure in inadequately ventilated room, along with risks of bedbugs, scabies, and lice infestations.[5]

History[edit]

While in Canada there has always been a certain portion of the population that was very poor, it is not until recently, after the 1980s, that "homeless" has come to mean the "unhoused" versus those simply living in poor quality housing.[3] Previously, the "homeless" was a general term applied mostly to transient men with no family ties, such as the migrant workers who travelled by freight hopping during the Great Depression.[3]

Homelessness remained a minor concern as extremely cheap accommodation was available in 'skid row' rooming houses or flophouses located in the poorest parts of most major cities. Even the most destitute could find some form of housing, even if its quality was abysmal.

At the end of the Second World War in 1946, the federal government created the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to make mortgages and home ownership more accessible to people and organizations.[2] The surplus generated by the CMHC was used in the 1980s to fund non-profit, Aboriginal, and rent supplement housing.

However, following changes to Canada's National Housing Act housing act in 1996 to give the CMHC "more flexibility", it was able to directly fund social housing and its role in supporting new and existing affordable housing diminished.[12] Today the CMHC still exists, and its annual surpluses ($7.6 billion in 2006) raises questions as to why some of this money cannot be spent on new housing initiatives.[13]

About 20,000 social housing units were created every year following the 1973 amendments to the National Housing Act.[3] Starting in the mid-1980s, the federal government initiated a series of cuts in funding for national housing programs.[12] While accurate statistics on the homeless population are hard to gather, it is the general consensus that the number of homeless increased considerably beginning in the 1980s.

Despite Canada's economy this trend continued, and perhaps even accelerated in the 1990s. In Toronto, for instance, admissions to homeless shelters increase by 75% between 1988 and 1998[14] After 1993 the national affordable housing program initiated in 1973 was cut and Canada's focus in addressing homelessness in the 1990s was to create more homeless shelters and emergency services[2] A decade later, in 2003, the federal government resumed spending on housing investment at $2.03 billion, a 25% decline from 1993 levels of $1.98 billion when adjusted for inflation (Laird 2007:15).[2]

On December 19, 2006, Prime Minister Harper announced their social policies with $526 million of funding to tackle poverty and homelessness in Canada. The Homelessness Partnering Strategy received $270 million and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation received $246 million to refurbish and renovate low-income homes, as well as to improve access for homeless people to various services and supports such as health and substance abusetreatment programs. Activists protested at Human Resources and Social Services Minister Diane Finley's offices in Ottawa.[15]

The first Canadian national report card on homelessness was compiled by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2013.[8][Notes 1]

Causes[edit]

Why people become homeless is a complex question and the answers are as unique as each individual's history. People become homeless by many different paths; however, the most common reasons are "inability to pay rent (53%), conflict or abuse (26%), alcohol or drug use problems(8%)". Other factors can include mental disorders, foster care exits, exiting from jail or hospitalization, immigration, rising housing costs and decreased rent controls, federal and provincial downloading of housing programs, and low social assistance rates.[3]

While the causes are complex, the solutions to homelessness may be simple: "Homelessness may not be only a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem; housing is necessary, although sometimes not sufficient, to solve the problem of homelessness."[16] Policy changes are often criticized for punishing the poor instead of trying to solve the underlying problem.[17]

Lack of low-income housing[edit]

A homeless Toronto woman sits on a park bench

While in 1986 30,000 new low-income housing units had been built across Canada, this had fallen to 7,000 in 1999. In the city of Calgary, with one of the most acute housing shortages, only 16 new units of rental housing were built in 1996.

Deinstitutionalization[edit]

A homeless man sleeps on the TTC subway.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw an international movement towards deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, moving them out of asylums and other facilities, and releasing them into the community. Studies found that the vast majority of those who had been placed in asylums could be healthy and productive members of society if placed in the community and provided with the proper care and medication.

Thus over these decades the number of people confined to mental institutions fell dramatically from just under 70,000 to about 20,000. However, while great savings were made by shutting down empty institutions much of this money was absorbed by general government funds, and did not make it into community care.

No assurances were made that those discharged had access and were taking the medication they needed. While some of those discharged did integrate with the community, a significant number, estimated at around 75%, did not. Many of these individuals became homeless. Today up to 40% of homeless have some sort of mental illness.[18]

Justice system and homelessness[edit]

In a paper published in 2010, York University professor, Stephen Gaetz, argued that, "[p]risoners who are sentenced or who are awaiting trial often lose their jobs and housing, and without support, wind up in homeless shelters and drop-ins upon release . . . When prisoners become homeless, their chances of reoffending increase."[19]

In 2008, Alberta initiated a three-year program offering an "alternative to sending people to jail or helping them when they are released."[19] Alberta's Pathways to Housing program, which includes about $7 million in provincial money, has been helping homeless Calgarians who have been in and out of the corrections system due to unpaid tickets for petty crimes.

Poverty in Canada[edit]

Main article: Poverty in Canada

Poverty in Canada remains prevalent with certain groups in Canada. The measurement of poverty has been a challenge as there is no official government measure. Some groups, like the Canadian Council on Social Development and the National Anti-Poverty Organization, believe the low-income cut off published by Statistics Canada is applicable as a poverty measure regardless of whether its intent or designation is to be one. They have argued, that as it stands, the LICO is the best measure available that accurately measures a relative poverty rate. The LICO has fallen to a near a record low at 9.4% as of 2008, down from a recent high of 15.7% in 1996. [2]

In the 2001 census, 702,600 Canadians were considered to be at-risk for homelessness, in that they spent more than 50 per cent of their household income on shelter. Lack of income security combined with the lack of affordable housing creates the problem of "hidden" homelessness. The "hidden homeless" may actually fall back and forth between homelessness and being housed, making the problem of homelessness much larger than that identified in street or shelter counts.[2]

Cuts to Social Assistance (welfare)[edit]

In the late 1990s, under Finance Minister Paul Martin, large cuts were made to transfer payments to Canada's provinces. At the same time, Canada removed a long-standing requirement of each province and territory to provide a livable rate of social assistance to all those in need. This led to a series of cuts to welfare rates and tightened elibility rules, with many provinces literally competing with each other to offer the lowest assistance so those in need would leave. Alberta even offered bus tickets for welfare recipients to leave the province. In 2002, B.C.'s newly elected Liberal government introduced welfare reforms which in the coming years removed tens of thousands from that province's welfare rolls. All of this has had the effect of leaving thousands of people without the means to pay for even the most modest accommodation, resulting in many Canadians having literally no home and thus relying on homeless shelters or else sleeping outside. [3]

Public Policy[edit]


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