Causes of homelessness lost in debate over where to put the homeless


THEY SAY THEY DON’T HATE THE HOMELESS. But a lot of people in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Vanier are fighting hard to keep them out.

The Salvation Army wants to close their homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa and build a new “mega shelter” for the homeless in Vanier. The opposition from Vanier residents is broad, deep and persistent. They have just one objective: put the shelter  anywhere but Vanier. The question of whether or not to build another homeless shelter anywhere at all never comes up. It should.

Many advocates for the homeless believe warehousing the homeless in shelters will never help end homelessness. To do that we need to ask why there has been a rise in homelessness. Once we do that the need for other options beyond relying on charity from private institutions becomes obvious.

Public services better than private charity

Most of us probably associate homelessness with panhandlers or scruffy-looking men sleeping on park benches. But that picture is incomplete.

On any given night, there are about 35,000 Canadians on the streets and in shelters, and as many as 50,000 more are “hidden homeless” who stay with friends or family. Over the course of a year, 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness, according to one estimate: 5,000 on the streets, 180,000 in emergency shelters and 50,000 are provisionally accommodated. And 1.6 million more are at risk of losing their homes, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“We tend to individualize homelessness, and say that homelessness is created by addiction and mental illness or something to happen to an individual,” says Tim Richter, head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “But frankly homelessness is a product of the breakdown of the public system.

“In Canada we can trace the rise of modern mass homelessness to the withdrawal of the federal government from housing investment. They began to back away in the Mulroney years.”

Homelessness turned into an epidemic in the 1980s, due to the “austerity agenda” brought in by many governments and the deep cuts they made to social services like the closing of mental health care facilities and the selling off of affordable housing. The rise of precarious, part time and contract employment only made matters worse

Clearly the old ways of dealing with homelessness offer no cure. That will only come with a broader public policy effort to deal with root causes. The“Housing First” strategy developed by the federal government is one attempt to do that.

The Homelessness Partnering Strategy is one part of that effort. It is a community-based program that provides support and funding to 61 designated communities across Canada working to prevent and reduce homelessness.

Homelessness demonstration

Just $46 per year to end homelessness

According to Richter, using Housing First principles could eliminate homelessness in Canada at a cost of just $1.7 billion a year, or about $46 per Canadian!

Housing First is a project based on the belief that the factors that make a person homeless can be better addressed once they have a home base—something shelters cannot provide.

The strategy involves moving people directly into a place of their own with almost no strings attached—they don’t have to be sober or attending a mental health program or have a job. They just need to be in need, and rent is subsidized based on their ability to pay.

Medicine Hat, Alberta launched a Housing First initiative in 2009. Now the city has no chronically homeless people living on the streets and is able to move people from emergency shelters to permanent housing within 10 days.

Six other cities in Alberta, including Edmonton and Calgary, have taken a Housing First approach. The result has been a 16 per cent overall drop in homelessness since 2008. In Vancouver hundreds of homeless people have been put into permanent homes.

The bottom line truth about the epidemic of homelessness is that most of it was caused by government cuts to programs for people. No amount of private charity can fill that gap, no matter how well-intentioned. The only thing that can help is for governments to return to full funding of public services to support people in their struggle to avoid or recover from homelessness.

It is an approach that will have no room for the building of “mega-shelters” for the homeless.

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