Homelessness in Canada remains a national crisis despite the best efforts of social groups, housing advocates and all levels of government. In the 2014 State of Homelessness in Canada Report Card released recently, the most startling number remains that on any given night 35,000 Canadians have no place to call home.
Even more damning is that throughout the year an estimated 235,000 different individuals will experience the harshness of having no housing. Among industrialized nations, Forbes ranks Canada among the top 20 richest nations, yet we have failed to tackle homelessness in Canada despite years of sustained effort.
The mid-1990s were less than kind to Canadian cities. The economy was stagnant and the federal government shifted its policies on social housing, transferring responsibility from the federal government to the provinces. This period was marked by a significant shortfall in building affordable housing across the country and a lack of supports within a healthcare system that was already maxed out. A flashpoint was in 1999, when images of Tent City, an encampment of homeless persons in Toronto, thrust Canada into the limelight for the entire world to see that we could not house people in one of our most prosperous cities.
In reactionary fashion, the Federal government stepped in amidst an international shaming and growing pubic fervour that something had to be done. The outcome was the establishment of a large-scale intervention big enough to have an immediate impact. Seeded with $750 million, a national program was launched in Canada’s largest cities. While the funding was not enough, the wheels were set in motion to help address the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
Over the next 15 years the emphasis shifted from building homeless shelters to include a much broader focus in areas such as labour reintegration, supportive housing and acknowledging that our mental healthcare system has failed to address the complex needs of a large number of persons.
Today, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) is Canada’s main source of federal policy with funds directed toward ending homelessness. HPS funds are deployed to cities via local community entities that are responsible for the implementation and distribution of dollars. This has created an important delivery mechanism by which federal monies are able to flow to local jurisdictions without much complexity. In its most current iteration, the HPS has taken the lead by promoting “Housing First” which is an intervention aimed at ending homelessness by providing specialized supports along with housing. Housing First has been proven to be highly effective in ending homelessness for persons with mental health issues.
The 2014 Report Card notes the impact of homelessness to the Canadian economy is upwards of $7 billion annually, with a substantive portion attributed to the over consumption of services and supports related to mental health and social services. This includes the overuse of hospital and primary care centres, the deployment of police, as well as other areas of our social safety net that could be better used if more people had decent housing and the supports necessary to succeed.
What is needed now is the momentum to deal with homelessness in a more comprehensive manner. Solutions must come from the community, such as the Task Force to End Homelessness in Winnipeg which has penned a plan, to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’s bold announcement of launching the “20,000 Homes Campaign” with the objective to house 20,000 of Canada’s most vulnerable by 2018.
All levels of government and the private sector must begin to see the tremendous social and economic benefits of doing the right thing. Canada can end homelessness and our elected officials have a duty to work together on funding community based solutions.
Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He is also the co-principal investigator for the Winnipeg site of the At Home Chez Soi Project.