March 13, 2013

The Time to End Homelessness Was Yesterday!

Suggestions for Ontario's 2013 Provincial Budget:
Excerpts from  Lynn Macaulay's recent presentation to the People's Budget

Canada Cannot Afford Homelessness
Monday, March 11, 2013

 In order to maintain housing people need three things, adequate income, adequate housing and access to appropriate supports.   While addressing one of these issues helps some people, if we are serious about ending homelessness then we need to be addressing all three. 

While we now have a nationally accepted definition of homelessness, it is very difficult to determine the number of people impacted by housing instability.  While we can count the number of people using formal shelters or the number of people on waiting lists for subsidized housing, this does not include people who are couch surfing, using informal shelters such as Out of the Cold programs, staying in housing that is temporary, living in the rough, whose housing is precarious because they are living in places that are not adequately maintained or accessible or that are way too expensive based on level of income. 

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With the people we can count, we know that in 2011 there were 3 133 people who stayed in Waterloo Region emergency shelters.  This is a 10% increase over 2010.   Another very troubling trend is the 30% increase in the number of families accessing shelters in 2011 compared to 2010.  

There continues to be a prevalent attitude that people who are having housing issues are somehow responsible for their situation.   While common sense suggests that individual choices are a component, this completely ignores the systemic realities.  No one can adequately live on the Ontario Works benefits.   The maximum shelter allowance in 2011 for a single person was $372, while the average bachelor rented for $608 (See HHUG Report Card).  

We also have such punitive claw back systems that people on Ontario Works and in subsidized housing often make the choice not to work because they are better off.  These are just two of the many significant systemic barriers that contribute to making and keeping people homeless. 

It is important to remember that we are not just talking about numbers or bricks and mortar.  We are talking about people’s lives.  Everyone of the 3133 people who stayed at a shelter has a story.  Each person has hopes and dreams for their life and their future.  

While I know people who chose homelessness as the best current option for them, I have never met anyone who had the career ambition to be homeless.  Living in extreme poverty, in adequate or temporary housing grinds people down.  The impact of homelessness on people is appalling. 

In addition to the human toll, quite simply we can no longer afford the cost of homelessness.  Every year Canada spends billions in emergency services for people who are experiencing homelessness.  Research by Dr. Stephen Hwang, a leading medical researcher on homelessness in Canada concluded that “homeless people are admitted to hospital up to five times more often and the general population and stay in hospital longer than other low-income patients."   

A 2007 report pegged the cost of an acute in-patient hospital bed at $855/day.  The same report determined that the average cost per ambulance call was $348.  Add in the cost of policing and fire, when there is a 911 three-tiered response the cost approaches $1000.  Compared to these figures, the cost of subsidizing rent and providing supports to maintain housing are a bargain.

When different levels of government invest money in building new affordable housing they are really “priming the pump”.  The Federal and Provincial Governments recoup their contributions during construction through income and payroll taxes.  While it takes Regional government more time, over 20 years, they recoup their investment with the increase in property taxes [1]. Investments in affordable housing are revenue neutral and can, in the long run, be revenue generating. 

While we appreciate the Province’s decision to amalgamate housing programs and give local areas more ability to meet local needs, the cuts that went along with this new freedom make the changes completely untenable

Quite frankly, to quote Charles Nichols, Chair of HHUG, the time to end homelessness was yesterday.  As a country, as a province and as a region we cannot afford the human and financial costs of having people homeless.   

Thank you.

Lynn Macaulay is the HHUG (Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group) Initiatives Coordinator and member of Poverty Free Waterloo Region.  This presentation was given at the Waterloo Region People's Budget Consultation on March, 11 2013

[1] Pomeroy, Steve (2007) The Region of Waterloo Affordable Housing Strategy: Measuring Community Returns on Investment,  2007 Update.

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