Why Toronto needs a national housing strategy
The City of Toronto is doing its best to end homelessness, but without necessary investments in affordable housing homelessness will keep growing. To put it bluntly, City Hall needs more support from Ottawa and Queen’s Park.
Over the past decade, advocates and governments across Canada have increasingly agreed that policies and programs to address homelessness should follow a Housing First approach. The idea is that someone experiencing homelessness should be housed as quickly as possible – any individual-level factors that contributed to that person’s homelessness (such as mental health issues and addictions) can be addressed afterwards.
In 2005, the City of Toronto introduced a Housing First program called Streets to Homes (S2H). But since that time, homelessness has increased. Why?
In a recent report, I argue that the underfunding of social policy over the last three decades is impeding the effectiveness of Toronto’s Streets to Homes program—a finding that likely holds true for Housing First programs throughout Canada.
It’s clear that the Housing First model, and ultimately S2H, has been a positive development for Toronto. But the lack of suitable, affordable housing, as well as the inadequacy of income security programs, has left many Streets to Homes clients in poverty and inadequately housed. When they’re asked to name the biggest barrier to meeting their objectives, S2H staff say it’s the lack of affordable housing throughout Toronto.
Indeed, a person can’t immediately be housed when Housing First programs lack an adequate and reliable supply of affordable housing. S2H simply doesn’t have access to the supply of housing that it needs.
A recent study of Housing First programs in London, Hamilton and Waterloo Region found that access to housing is a major concern there, too.
When a Streets to Homes client is housed, it does not mark an end to the profound poverty that, for the overwhelming majority, led to their homelessness in the first place. In fact, S2H does not have a mandate to address clients’ poverty. The result is many clients continue to rely on drop-in centres, soup kitchens, and panhandling to get by. Surely, a program whose clients continue to struggle to pay the rent and buy groceries isn’t fully succeeding.
Ontario municipalities need solid partners in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park. The National Housing Strategy about to be released by the Trudeau government must contain coordinated and sustained commitments from all levels of government. This strategy requires the development of new social housing, tax incentives and other planning measures to encourage the construction of private rental stock and sustained funding for rent supplements for low-income households.
In Ontario, the poverty experienced by S2H clients could be alleviated if social assistance benefit levels were increased. Recent Liberal governments have offered a series of increases approximately in line with the rate of inflation; but in real terms benefit levels have never caught up after the 22-per-cent cut during the Mike Harris years. A one-time substantial increase, coupled with regular inflation adjustments, would address questions of extreme poverty for the majority people in the Streets to Homes program.
We know Housing First programs work, and the fact that they have been embraced by governments is a good thing. But merely endorsing a policy isn’t enough; that endorsement must come with the investments necessary to ensure the policy is effective.
The new National Housing Strategy could be a watershed moment for truly ending homelessness in Canada. Housing First should be a part of the effort, but only if governments are willing to move beyond rhetoric and support it adequately.
Colin Phillips is a contract lecturer in Ryerson University’s School of Social Work. His recent report has been published by the Calgary Homeless Foundation.