The following is an essay I wrote in March 2013 on homelessness and housing policy in Canada. This is how I cemented my interest (and desire to work) in housing policy, and though it is just a research paper, it is the proudest I have ever been of any accomplishment in my life, at that point or since. I hope it disheartens and inspires you, too.
It is no great secret that today’s economic climate is characterized by great wealth in some areas of the world and acute poverty in others. What is more surprising is the disparity that exists between the wealthy and impoverished peoples of developed nations, and the high cost burden of supporting the system which is placed heavily on the backs of the working class. In Canada, this struggle is exemplified on two fronts: by the massive but poorly documented numbers of Canadians living without permanent residence in many metropolitan areas, and by the larger number of Canadians struggling to afford the roof above their heads with the high cost of housing and disproportionately low incomes. It is the intent of this essay to prove that Canada’s current address to both homelessness and to those living at risk is an inadequate approach, given the current low prioritization of social and supportive housing, and the ignorance of this in public policy directed toward improving the nation’s future. To this end, Canada’s current address to homelessness and housing will be detailed, followed by some proposed improvement strategies made by activist organizations advocating for the needs of the struggling Canadian population. This will include a comparison to some of the policies of other nations in addressing these issues within their own borders, highlighting some more progressive options than Canada’s current system and proving them to be both adequate and equitable. As will be evident due to both the shortcomings of the current system and the benefits of several alternatives, Canadian policy is not addressing the housing crisis of growing concern in Canada, and in effect ignores the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
When analyzing the effectiveness of a social program, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the current system against those of alternative measures is the most effective way to determine the best of all available options. As it currently stands, the Canadian address to both homelessness and the housing crisis of at-risk households is often criticized as lacking efficiency and sustainability, greatly due to a lack of involvement from some necessary parts of government. To best understand the significance of the issue, this essay will begin with a brief explanation of some current statistics regarding Canada’s negligence of the homeless and at risk populations. These are interlinking issues, and so they will be examined simultaneously in the coming arguments: but to avoid confusion, each shall always begin with those living in absolute homelessness. This is a term succinctly defined by Steve Pomeroy (2001, p. 3) as “living without four walls and a roof,” and these individuals most poignantly exemplify the suffering which results from Canada’s lack of strategy. But what must not be ignored is the less visible but still significant burden of the situation, which is also felt by individuals and families living at risk.
In 2005, Canada’s population totaled approximately 32,299,500 citizens (Statistics Canada, 2007). Of these, an estimation of Canada’s homeless population suggested there were approximately 150,000 Canadians living in absolute homelessness based on street and shelter counts (Laird, 2007). This 150,000 people is often cited as a low count, excluding from the survey those individuals who are in and out of homelessness, or who avoid the regions in which the survey took place. So though there are no official numbers to support this, many non-governmental estimates indicate that this number is much higher, instead ranging somewhere between 200,000-300,000 individuals (Laird, 2007). The first indication that Canada is guilty of neglecting its most marginalized population lies in the fact that there is no official or remotely annual count of the numbers of homeless Canadians. As Canadian citizens, it is the duty of the government to protect these citizens: yet these rights cannot be protected when the individuals remain excluded from official counts of the nation’s population. This process is complicated because of the ambiguity of the term “homelessness,” which may be broken down into primary, secondary, and tertiary degrees: in short, these terms distinguish between individuals who lack any form of shelter, those in short-term care (such as shelters or staying with friends and family), and individuals with severely precarious living situations (Collins 2010, 935). Yet counting and classification of these groups, so often ignored, is a vital part of the solution: says Collins, “The ability to provide comprehensive, quantitative answers to questions concerning the size and characteristics of the homeless population (however defined) is critical to keeping homelessness on the political agenda, and to informing policy” (Collins 2010, 935). Thus if the solution to the problem begins with policy, it must be a quantitative discussion. The significance of the attention paid to this crisis will be further examined under the umbrella of agenda-setting theory later on.
With nowhere to turn, many homeless persons seeking safety through the night look to emergency shelters; in worse cases, many of these individuals end up spending the night in jail or in hospital (Eberle et al., 2001). Those who cannot or will not partake in the system of emergency care are forced to find shelter out of doors, although this does not guarantee freedom from admittance to hospital or jail. In 2001, Eberle et al. conducted a study in British Columbia chronicling the social service usage of a number of homeless individuals in the province, including not only the standard services associated with homelessness – namely shelters and food banks – but also that of health care, the criminal justice system, and incarceration. Each of these services see disproportionately high usage from homeless Canadians, so their cost and frequency of use are decisive factors in determining the significance of the cost of homelessness to Canada’s social spending. In this study, the average cost per day of staying in hospital was approximately $512 when averaged among all those surveyed, and staying in provincial correctional institutions varied from $155-$250 per day (Eberle et al., 2001). Given the high usage of these and related social services as necessitated by the harsh circumstances of absolute homelessness, these costs are significant when tabulated. Using these and related costs, and averaging the frequency of their use by the homeless persons involved in the survey, the study approximated that a single homeless individual costs Canada somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 annually (Eberle et al., 2001).
In contrast, the same report estimates the cost of providing housing and supportive services to formerly homeless individuals to be significantly less, costing somewhere between $22,000 to $28,000 per year depending on the level of care required (Eberle et al., 2001). To calculate the annual cost of homelessness in Canada based on the low estimate of 150,000 individuals, approximately 4.5 to 6 billion dollars are spent annually on temporary emergency service use by individuals living in absolute homelessness (Laird, 2007; Gaetz, 2010 & 2012). Using the higher estimates of the Canadian homeless population, this cost could be anywhere between 6 to 12 billion dollars annually. The significance of this spending is best understood when also considering the context: that this money is spent on temporary and emergency response services, and necessitates that it is spent repeatedly on an annual basis because it does nothing toward creating long-term solutions to the problems faced by homeless individuals.
Returning to the annual cost of $22,000-$28,000 on supportive housing and social structures, this translates to an annual spending of $3.3 to $8.4 billion annually. The economic advantage of this is significant, not only with regards to the costs outlined above, but also the tremendous savings associated with removing individuals from the street – for example, housing homeless individuals reduces their likelihood of incarceration and involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as increases their safety and subsequently decreases their likelihood of requiring costly hospital stays. On another note, spending more money than must be required on a less socially desirable outcome than is possible is neither equitable nor sustainable for the Canadian social system. To illustrate this point, an estimate of the waste created during the decade following Canada’s social service budget cuts of 1994 saw Canada spend approximately $49.5 billion to essentially maintain the status quo, by providing the most minimal necessities to Canada’s homeless population with no movement toward long-term care (Laird, 2007).
The above statistics make a strong case against the needless expenditures of the current emergency response approach taken by the government in addressing homelessness in Canada. On a related note, adequate housing supply for those fortunate enough to have a permanent place of residence to call home is becoming an increasing concern. In 2004, 1.7 million Canadian households (roughly one in seven homes) were living at risk, paying upwards of 30 percent of their total income on housing; more than two thirds of this population are renters (Laird, 2007). By definition, a reasonable home is expected to provide adequate space for all members of the household, as well as provide safe plumbing and electricity. Ideally, these qualities should be attainable within one’s community and cost less than 30 percent of household income to attain. A home is referred to as being in core housing need when these standards are not met (Pomeroy, 2001). Worse still, in 1996 approximately 830,000 Canadian renters were living in the category of worse case need, characterized by the home paying more than 50 percent of household income on housing (Pomeroy, 2001).
The dwindling availability of suitable but affordable housing in Canada is very much a political issue, though it is rarely treated as such. Through 1993 and 1994, the Canadian government made a series of budget cuts to social assistance programs, and the Canadian system has suffered for it. One of the most devastating of these is the lack of social housing. 1993 marked the end of federal funding to the provinces for non-profit housing projects, massively decreasing available housing units for Canadians. To illustrate the significance of this, consider the 1980’s, in which approximately 20,000 social housing units were being built per year; compare this to the post-budget cut social housing completions, which saw only 4,450 units created between the years 1994-1998 (Pomeroy, 2001; Laird, 2007). Closely related to these cost-saving measures were reductions in the federal transfers to the provinces for social security, and an increase in the restrictions placed upon accessing Unemployment Insurance in 1994 (Martin, 1994). Perhaps not surprisingly, more than half of today’s core need households receive social assistance, and 95 percent of all renters reported affordability as their main barrier to suitable housing (Pomeroy, 2001). This is summarized beautifully by Damian Collins, saying:
“This withdrawal of the state meant the supply of affordable housing remained static, while private market rental accommodation became increasingly unaffordable for many low-income individuals and families. This was due to rapid increases in average rents, low vacancy rates in many cities, and a private sector focus on the provision of owner-occupied accommodation – all processes associated with increasing prosperity and economic growth” (Collins 2010, 939).
The trickle-down flow of power which characterizes the Canadian political system is one aspect of Canadian government which requires clarification when addressing homelessness, given the ambiguity of the responsibilities of each layer of government. Christopher Leo (2006) speaks to the complications that arise from the inter-related nature of municipal, regional and federal governments when making policy decisions, given that each level of government has its own needs and agenda. Leo states three ‘hard realities’ of Federalism in the modern century: first, being constrained by many pressures at once, the federal government is limited in its ability to protect citizens from an increasingly harsh economic climate; second, communities within the nation find themselves at competition against one another given the limited nature of resources, and also at odds with international competition; and third, this leaves municipal and provincial governments increasingly dependent upon their own resources, rather than being able to depend upon the federal government for support (Leo, 2006). This argument is central to the national concerns of both housing and homelessness, as these are local issues which cause strains primarily on regional and municipal governments. Yet this is directly at odds with the Canadian tax system, in which the federal government accrues the most wealth from taxation, followed by that of the provinces (Alway, 2013). Revenue generated at the municipal level is markedly insufficient to provide measures to defend against either housing or homelessness crises, yet the acute burden of these issues falls almost entirely at the local level. This issue is one which requires discussion amongst members of all levels of government in order to formulate a national strategy to alleviate the burden on Canada’s most marginalized groups, as will be further discussed when examining several proposed solutions to the crisis at hand.
Though the current state of disrepair evidenced by the present Canadian address to housing and homelessness certainly looks bleak, evidence does not suggest that there is no way to improve the situation. In fact, much of the literature criticizing the current system does so only for the sake of highlighting the more efficient and equitable ways the system may be approached. Given the current prioritization of Canadian politics, however, the current state of affairs suggests a very laissez-faire approach to tackling Canada’s housing crisis, and this non-interventionism on behalf of the government is the first thing which must be changed. Thus the second argument of this essay – based on targeting proposed solutions to the current crisis, and why these are not yet being implemented – will begin by examining the agenda-setting priorities of government, followed by strategic suggestions from some Canadian homelessness policy activists.
In deciding how best to make housing in Canada a national priority, the obvious choice as suggested by proponents of Agenda-Setting Theory is to make homelessness a more publicized issue to the Canadian population. In their influential writing on the matter of agenda-setting theory, McCombs and Shaw (1972) demonstrate the relationship between political issues which are highly discussed in the media and the importance of those issues as regarded by the general public. As voters, matters of public significance have a direct impact on the matters discussed in government, most notably in the running platforms of hopeful electoral candidates. Indeed, their findings state “While the mass media may have little influence on the direction or intensity of attitudes, it is hypothesized that the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues” (McCombs and Shaw, 1972, 177).
While the above findings of agenda-setting theory clearly define the impact of mass media on public opinion, it arguably does not capture the entire circular flow of reality: it is easily argued that more often than not, at the same time mass media is influencing the direction of public discourse, public interest in issues also influences those topics most covered by the media. Assuming this to be true, it would be beneficial to have more Canadians take note of the homeless crisis evident in nearly every metropolitan area nationwide, thus making homelessness a platform of importance to the governments of the day. Though it is not fully conclusive evidence, there is some argument to be made that the Canadian identity is becoming more closely aligned with these objectives, given the success of the New Democratic Party in the last federal election. The NDP is openly supportive of increasing social welfare programs, and in fact recently attempted to pass a bill intent upon initiating talks of a national housing strategy for Canada (Parliament of Canada, 2013). Unfortunately the bill was both underpublicized and unsuccessful, yet agenda-setting theory dictates that if homelessness were more heavily publicized, its popularity in public opinion would increase and politicians would be likely to reflect this discussion in their issues of significance. However, the unfortunate shortcoming of this idea lies in the fact that homelessness is an issue which goes widely ignored by the general population.
One possible explanation for this, courtesy of Ross Gordon (2012), suggests that a region’s sense of community drives commitment to particular social issues. Needless to say, this general approach to certain issues is of significance to the local politics of the community. At the same time, this communal atmosphere is at odds with individuals who differ from the collectively desired criteria, who are effectively excluded from the community’s social sphere because they are not aligned with certain standards, despite living in the region (Gordon, 2012). Given the significance of homelessness falling primarily in the realm of municipal jurisdiction, the importance of recognizing a city’s homeless population as a part of the community is tremendous. Arguably, failing to do so results in the system we currently have, in which homeless individuals are cared for only insofar as to provide basic necessities of life involving minimal long-term commitments on part of the Canadian government. To address homelessness, community outreach programs should be used to bring homelessness to the forefront of discussion in local politics. To do this, recall Leo’s (2006) reflections on the struggles of the governmental hierarchy, showing that municipal governments clearly require more resources – such as power and funding – to improve the quality of life of the citizens within their region. Thus, a seemingly local issue must become a national discussion involving support and strategizing on behalf of all levels of government.
It is important to note that the significance of this issue lies not only in the idyllic hope for a more egalitarian future, but also to protect the rights associated with Canadian citizenship. If Canada allows the rights of some citizens to be trespassed upon, then the rights of all are arguably more open to compromise. Homelessness is a vulnerability which marginalizes Canadian citizens by excluding them from the public sphere, effectively eliminating their say in the creation of policies which often most affect them. So when this ignorance of the acute needs of a city’s homeless population takes place in policy creation, its effects transcend interpersonal neglect: instead, ignorant policies have occasionally been found in direct conflict with the rights assigned to all Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a highly publicized court case in British Columbia, Victoria (city) v. Adams, certain municipal bylaws were found to be guilty of infringing upon the rights of the city’s homeless population as those stated in the Charter’s section 7 (Young, 2009/2010). In direct relation to this case, Young distinguishes between positive and negative rights, clarifying their impact on society: negative rights are those which require the government’s non-interference in matters, such as freedom of speech, religion and association; on the other hand, positive rights are those which require government intervention to ensure, such as equality of opportunity and some social and economic rights (Young, 2009/2010). It goes without saying that many social and economic rights come easier to some than to others, and many individuals living at risk or in absolute homelessness require government assistance to achieve equality of opportunity. In BC, two Victoria bylaws attempted to beautify the city by prohibiting the formation of temporary shelter in public spaces: this made it impossible for homeless individuals to protect themselves against the elements while sleeping out of doors. The Supreme Court found this to be in violation of the Charter by obstructing the attempts of the city’s homeless population to meet their needs for life, liberty and security.
The importance of the rights associated with Canadian citizenship as entrenched in the Charter cannot be understated. Not only is it a statement of all those things one can and cannot do as a citizen of Canada, but it is also a reflection of Canadian values, hugely significant to our cultural identity. As stated by Martha Jackman in reflecting upon the importance of those rights within the Charter,
“Were one to ask individual Canadians themselves what they consider to be ‘the values most fundamental to the Canadian way of life,’ and by definition, those which they would expect to find expressed in our constitutional Charter, one of the first responses would surely be the near-universal concern for individual social and economic security. … These deeply held values cannot be ignored in the general search for meaning in the Charter. However they have particular relevance for the interpretation of section 7. This can best be understood by looking to dominant Canadian perceptions of the relationship between the community, the individual and the state” (Jackman, 1988, 260-261).
Jackman identifies the Charter as characteristic of the Canadian identity and as something which must reflect the nation’s values and priorities. To disregard the rights invested in the Charter to any Canadian citizen – especially those most vulnerable – does more than violate the rights of the individual: this act violates the values associated with the Charter, invalidating the significance of the equal protections laid out in its depths and the morals from which they are derived. The case of Victoria v. Adams is significant in the battle against homelessness because it demonstrates the sometimes conflicting interests of national and regional governments, and illustrates the ways in which these crossing lines of authority can trespass upon the rights of Canadian citizens. This is one of many reasons for which there must be more open communication between local and national policies. It must also be noted that given the antagonistic nature of Victoria’s dually conflicting needs – those of caring for the homeless population while maintaining liveability and aesthetic appeal – financial assistance from the government is required to help initiate and support improved social programs, aiding the city’s homeless population by providing them with a home off of the streets, and not with punitive public policies. Stricter regulations of bylaws, so as to ensure they do not infringe upon the rights of vulnerable citizens, must be monitored: this must be paired with assistance and communication from all levels of government, so as to equitably aid all Canadians in need.
In understanding the significance of government assistance in creating equitable and egalitarian social policies, a closer examination of some suggested alterations to the system of housing in Canada requires attention. Steve Pomeroy (2001), a Toronto-based policy activist and researcher aimed primarily at national housing issues, identifies several ways in which Canada’s approach to the provision of housing could be altered to be more effective for all. He identifies both supply- and demand-side measures, the first being those solutions which boost new unit production and the latter being financial assistance to households in need. While demand-focused support certainly has its merits – particularly its relatively low cost to government expenditures – it does nothing to address the rising need for new production resulting of Canada’s growing population. Thus, though demand-centred approaches may contribute to the system and have some relevance, the predominant approach to housing must address the need for increased supply.
Pomeroy (2001) provides an array of solutions for targeting supply issues in Canada’s housing crisis, and these pair well with a comparison to some various strategies seen worldwide. To address homelessness as a crucial example of the need for a national housing strategy, Damian Collins (2010) makes an excellent case of the differences in policy between Canada and New Zealand with regards to social housing, and the impact it has upon homelessness. He does this by comparing the prevalence of housing need and homelessness in two Canadian cities, Vancouver and Edmonton, to New Zealand’s Auckland City. When looking at each city’s local policies directed at targeting homelessness, he emphasizes vast disparities between them, noting “Auckland City has recently developed a Homeless Action Plan that, while generally supportive in tone, is modest in its goals and extremely brief. Homelessness policy in Edmonton and (more particularly) Greater Vancouver entails complex layers of plans and proposals, and articulates a key role for local authorities in increasing housing supply” (Collins 2010, 949). Yet the pervasiveness of homelessness in Auckland is significantly less than those of Canada: in a single night’s survey of Auckland (population 1.4 million, and the nation’s city with the greatest homeless problem), there were 134 individuals found to be living in absolute homelessness. In a similar study in Vancouver, a single day’s survey of the city found 2,174 homeless individuals in a population of 2.2 million (Collins 2010, 940-941). It must also be assumed that both of these are undercounts, given that “only a proportion of all those without shelter are visible at any one time” (Collins 2010, 942).
Though the city plans of Vancouver and Edmonton are greatly more detailed than those of Auckland, New Zealand’s success in minimizing its homeless population has been undeniable. This is likely because of the emphasis the New Zealand government places on creating long-term housing solutions within their national housing strategy, which starkly compares to the withdrawal of the Canadian federal government from the issue of housing production within Canada in 1993 (Collins 2010, 949). New Zealand’s housing strategy is two-fold: as introduced by Pomeroy, it includes both supply- and demand-centred approaches. Collins (2010) introduces New Zealand’s strategy to the comparison to Canada, noting that its aims are first to create State Housing, and also to provide Accommodation Supplements to households in financial need. As of 2010, there were 64,000 units of state housing available to low-income households with rent charged on a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) basis: this necessitates that no household within the program pays more than 25% of its total income on rent (Collins, 2010). Collins further elaborates that his may work in tandem with or separately from the state’s accommodation supplement, which provides financial assistance to low- and middle-income households for payments on home loans or rent.
This is a startling comparison to Canada, in which there exists no national housing strategy, and in which the burdens of struggling homeowners and homeless persons alike fall predominantly on the resources of local governments. Where in New Zealand it is a national objective is to provide affordable housing for all New Zealanders in need, the burden of homelessness does not fall heavily upon the cities. Collins (2010) goes on to point out that when homeless individuals do require assistance, the city is more able to treat each case on an ad hoc basis, efficiently aiding the individual and avoiding the social crisis as seen in Canada. By contrast, Canada’s focus on emergency response measures places an unbearable burden on metropolitan areas with limited funds, and the effects of this are evidenced by many statistics as stated. As a result of these factors, the burden of homelessness is visibly significantly less in New Zealand than in Canada, as a direct result of the proactive policies of New Zealand and the highly desensitized Canadian agenda.
In Toward a Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy for Canada, Steve Pomeroy (2001) puts forward an array of options available to the Canadian government for meeting both supply- and demand-based measures of housing provision. He lists supply measures as the greater need of the two, given the more quickly rising Canadian population rate as compared with the slow rate of completion for new housing projects. He lists several supply options such as: aiding public and non-profit developments with subsidies or loans to reduce the cost of development and keep rents low; providing incentives for private companies to produce rental units; providing tax benefits to small-scale landlords; encouraging single-person occupancy development projects; and, shifting patterns of ownership of existing stock from private to not-for-profit organizations (Pomeroy, 2001, 9-18). Promoting the production of new housing stock is constantly disregarded by Canadian policy because it is the most expensive of the available measures. This is because of the incentives required per unit to encourage production by various organizations, as well as the sheer volume of units required. Though it is a costly project to undertake, the benefits of this are seen in the New Zealand system having used this strategy for decades, and it is arguably less expensive in the long run given the saved costs in emergency funds.
An effective social strategy which is gaining momentum around the world is the conception of “Housing First,” which is the controversial implementation of the premise that homelessness is best defeated by first providing adequate housing. This may then be followed up with in-depth social service provisions which are tailored to the needs of the newly-housed individuals (Laird, 2007). This concept is at odds with the popular opinion that homeless individuals are somehow at fault for their unfortunate circumstances, and so housing first is widely contested: yet, given it has already been proven that the removal of homeless individuals from the streets is both a moral and financial asset to a city’s wellbeing, fighting this very simple idea seems irrational. Providing housing to all members of a nation must carry an uplifting effect in national identity, as well as captures a progressive move in Canada toward planning for the needs of future growth in the nation. Though costs up front prove expensive, many nations have adopted a national housing strategy and Canada is in the minority of developed nations left without one. While the Canadian interests of remaining internationally competitive have led to a series of cuts to social welfare, meeting a certain standard to determine the nation’s quality of life can do us no harm in trade, liveability and reputation. The positive ideological effects of this would be a national point of pride, and the savings incurred from relieving the strains on emergency care responses would be felt by Municipal, Provincial and Federal governments alike.
As this essay set out to prove, there are obvious limitations to the approach currently taken by the Canadian government in addressing the nation’s rising needs for social and supportive housing. The current system is a drain on the scarce resources of the Canadian economy, health care and criminal justice systems, and at the same time is not investing these lost funds into the creation of a more sustainable future. Because of these failings, there are both ideological and financial lessons to be learned by examining the successful policy implementations of nations with more supportive social networks than Canada: most notably among these is New Zealand, with a remarkably invisible homeless population and (not coincidentally) a publicly planned source of housing. Even within Canada there exists no shortage of recommendations for possible improvements to be made, offering suggestions to alter or reform the current system through the Canadian agenda once prioritized within the political system. To make the case for these changes, their affordability has been highlighted and their social impact made arguably mandatory. Though a broader change is required than that which would come of implementing only one of all of the available options, the savings associated with some very basic changes could alleviate the cost burden of implementing more expansive future objectives. Though this alteration to policy may be more expensive up front than is desired by today’s politicians, it must be regarded as an investment in Canada’s future state of affairs, and treated as a long-term value. Thus at only a brief glance at the provision of welfare in Canada, there are many obvious improvements which could be implemented atop of the current system to make it more equitable, sustainable and fair: and assuming these to be the primary objectives of a democratic society at work, a great change is needed within the Canadian political and social realm to ensure the rights of all Canadians are justly upheld.
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