By: Krista Robinson
In 1998, Toronto’s then-mayor, Mel Lastman declared homelessness a national disaster in our city. He called on federal and provincial governments to take action and support those experiencing homelessness. This was a direct result of the nation-wide affordable housing crisis that began in the 1970s when new building permits became difficult to obtain and zoning laws disrupted the potential supply of new housing. Fast-forward to 2015, where there are over 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto on any given night. An exact estimate is difficult to produce because there are not only those living on the streets or in shelters, but the “hidden-homeless,” those who live out-of-sight, for example on a friend or relative’s couch.
This past winter alone, three homeless men died in Toronto due to frigid temperatures. Recently, incumbent mayor John Tory said he feels “embarrassed” by the number of people sleeping on the streets but says that at the municipal level, there is little he can do. He has called on help from the provincial and federal government to address this ever-growing problem.
Unfortunately, housing has not been a hot-topic in this year’s federal election, being trumped by the economy, energy and immigration. But at WiTOpoli, we feel it’s an issue that deserves as much attention as any other. We sat down with social activist, Cathy Crowe, to talk about our city’s struggles with affordable housing, and to name a few solutions. Crowe’s current project is a petition for a new national housing strategy that will hopefully entice city hall to prioritize the funding of social housing in Toronto.
“It’s been really hard, historically, to have affordable housing and homelessness in an election platform,” said Crowe. Shelter closures and housing shortages rarely make front page news, especially during an election campaign, however, the closing of many long-standing homeless shelters in Toronto has been covered in the media as of late after vocal criticism and public outcry from advocates.
Some of these shelters include Beatrice House, a transitional house for women and children, that closed at the end of August after the land was bought by developer Urbancorp. Second Base is a youth shelter that has been in operation since 1993, and is the city’s second largest and only youth shelter east of the Don River. It is set to close in October, due to lack of funds. The 50-bed men’s shelter, Cornerstone, closed its St. Clair Ave. W. location, but has plans to relocate to the Oakwood Village area despite community backlash and the opposition of local councillor Josh Colle. The Red Door Family Shelter, that has been running since 1982 on Queen St. E, faced the possibility of closure last year due to a private property deal, however, through the loyalty of the community and the efforts of activists, they were able to persuade the developer rebuild the shelter as part of a new condo project. These are only a few examples of the hardships local shelters have faced in recent months.
Studies have shown that it’s cheaper to take steps to eliminate homelessness than it is to ignore it. On April 1, 2014, the Conservative Government initiated the Housing First approach, to come into effect over the following two years, as a cornerstone of the Government’s renewed Homelessness Partnering Strategy. A Canadian Government press release stated that the method has proven to be a “sound investment,” by way of saving the government $21.72 for every $10 invested in those who more often sought emergency and social services. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “participants in the Housing First group spent an average of 73 percent of their time in stable housing, compared to 32 percent for the group receiving usual care.”
Crowe, who has worked as a street nurse for over two decades, remains critical of the Housing First approach because she believes it benefits homeless men first, often leaving behind women and children.
“When Housing First became national policy, it meant housing the most visible,” which in turn meant benefitting those living permanently on the streets, the majority being men.
“This means it’s not housing first for women and children, it’s not housing first for seniors, and it’s not housing first for someone with a severe disability or palliative need,” she said. “It’s just being used to clear the streets.”
Keeping shelters open and services available is needed to support those experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Crowe believes that pressure needs to be put on city hall, the principle funder of shelters, in order to keep these services afloat. The city, in turn, will need the support and assistance of the provincial and federal government.
Though the issue has not been given sufficient attention on the campaign trail, here’s a breakdown on what the parties have to say on housing.
CONSERVATIVE: Stephen Harper
In last week’s federal debate, Harper said he believes “the housing story is a very positive story in this country.” He points to homeownership growth as a result of lower interest rates and the home renovation tax credit.
According the Harper’s platform, over the next four years, the Conservative government will commit $2.3 billion per year to give Canadians access to affordable housing. In addition, his Home Buyer’s Plan will “allow aspiring homeowners to make tax-free withdrawals from their Registered Retirement Savings Plans to finance the purchase or construction of their first home.” The Conservatives would increase the allowable RRSP withdrawal from $25,000 to $35,000.
Over the next five years, Harper has committed over $86,000,000 in funding to the City of Toronto for projects in the community that prevent and reduce homelessness.
LIBERAL: Justin Trudeau
Earlier this month at Alexandra Park Community Centre in Toronto, Trudeau said, “Investing in social housing is much more than putting a roof over people’s heads. It also creates stable, well-paid jobs that families can rely on.” The Liberal leader continued on to say, “We know that access to affordable and safe housing is part of the solution to many social issues, such as child poverty, student debt and our ability to help people with serious mental health issues and addiction.”
If the Liberals are elected on Oct. 19, Trudeau has pledged to commit $20 billion over 10 years to “social infrastructure.” Despite his party having cancelled the country’s National Housing Strategy last time they were in power, the Liberal Party wants to create a national housing action plan that would theoretically provide affordable housing for Canadians at all income levels. His party has committed to providing “$125 million per year in tax incentives for developers and landlords to build and renovate rental units.”
Trudeau would relax some regulations on accessing RRSPs to put a downpayment on a house, however, unlike Harper, he would keep the withdrawal limit at $25,000.
NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Tom Mulcair
If elected, Mulcair has promised to make affordable housing a national priority. He notes that “the last time the Liberal Party was in power, they cancelled Canada’s National Housing Strategy. It’s also worth noting there are 35,000 homeless people in Canada right now,” said Mulcair during last week’s leaders’ debate. “We would put more money in people’s pockets with quality, affordable child care and to the hundred thousand people that we would give a raise with a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. Somebody who works full-time shouldn’t be living in poverty.”
Mulcair plans to build 10,000 affordable housing units across the country and maintain and strengthen social housing.
GREEN PARTY: Elizabeth May
In August, Green Party leader Elizabeth May laid out her plan to end homelessness.
“It’s no longer acceptable for Canadians, that any of us, should live without adequate housing. Housing is a human right, and in Canada, as a wealthy country, we simply have no more excuses for our failure to ensure housing,” said May at a press conference. It may be important to note that May was the only candidate to hold a press conference on the issue of housing.
To eliminate homelessness, May stressed that we need to recognize that there’s the issue of homelessness and social housing, as well as the separate issue of affordable housing within the marketplace. She blames foreign investment for skewing housing prices and leaving younger Canadians without many options.
Her national housing strategy would “ensure every Canadian has access to affordable, safe, and secure housing. A Green government will increase social housing transfers to provincial, territorial, and municipal governments through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). They would also call for the appointment of a Minister of Housing to oversee the development and implementation of the the affordable housing strategy, which would see 20,000 new and 10,000 rehabilitated affordable housing units built each year for the next decade.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Housing should be a top priority in this federal election because it affects the wellbeing of all Canadians. Despite this, the federal candidates have simply voiced their support for the Housing First approach, which despite its benefits, may exclude certain homeless populations. A National Housing Strategy needs to be expanded in order to provide support to renters, buyers and all those in need – including women and children, seniors, people with disabilities and Aboriginals – if any progress is going to be made in solving the nation’s housing crisis.
For a comprehensive look at where the #canpoli parties stand on housing and homelessness, check out The Homeless Hub, where you can research even more in-depth comparisons and get informed!