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Homelessness is not an issue that can wait

Written by Think Forward Staff
Thursday, 20 March 2014

For decades growing income inequality, cuts to social services and affordable housing, and changes in the economy due to globalization have fuelled rising homelessness in Canadian cities. It's now estimated that roughly 200,000 to 300,000 citizens experience homelessness every year, even though Canada is one of the richest nations in the world. This raises the question: why do so many people lack a place to live in a country as wealthy as ours?    

The answer is more complex than you might think. The main causes of homelessness are a shortage of affordable housing and poverty resulting from unemployment or a lack of income. However, one-third of homeless people – that is, individuals who live on the street, in shelters, or in an accommodation where they do not pay rent – suffer from mental illness, and violence or abuse in the home are additional factors that cause homelessness. Studies also show that youth experiencing homelessness have typically been involved in child protection services or foster care at some point in their life.  

While adult males between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half of the homeless population in Canada, a staggering one-third of homeless people are between the ages of 16 and 24, and a significant number are children who families have recently become homeless. That's right: homelessness doesn't just affect middle-aged men. And contrary to popular belief, it's not a choice. Homelessness can happen to anyone, such as a teenager trying to escape an abusive household.

It's an issue that needs to be addressed because homelessness is on the rise in Canada and our current response to the problem – which focuses on providing emergency accommodations and uncoordinated public services – isn't working. In fact, both the numbers of homeless Canadians and the length of time that they remain homeless are increasing dramatically. Not to mention, the economic and social costs of homelessness are massive: Raising the Roof estimates that homelessness costs the Canadian economy $7 billion annually in emergency accommodations and social, health care, and corrections services, and homeless youths are at much greater risk of dying or killing themselves than their non-homeless peers.

And yet, Canadian cities trying to fight homelessness have not been able to count on the federal government for help in combating this growing urban problem. Despite claims from the Conservatives that "thousands of...individuals have secured stable housing" since the government launched its Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) in 2007, the reality is that the HPS cut funding for homelessness programs compared to the previous government's National Homeless Initiative. Moving forward, the cor­porate plan for the Canada Mortgage and Hous­ing Corporation – the federal govern­ment’s housing agency – shows that by 2014, national housing invest­ments will be lower than they were in 2007 and will continue to decline after. Clearly, then, the Harper Conservatives are doing more to exacerbate homelessness than they are to alleviate it.

So what could be done differently to help cities grapple with rising homelessness? The government could start by adopting the fully costed housing and homelessness commitments outlined in the CCPA's Alternative Federal Budget 2014. The AFB would increase federal funding for affordable housing and homelessness programs to $2 billion annually, up from the current investment of $219 million per year, and this amount would be matched by the provinces and territories. An investment of this nature would protect existing social housing, expand new affordable housing, and greatly reduce homelessness in the process, as housing first strategies are proven to be the most effective solution to homelessness.

With mounting homelessness straining Canada's economy and putting lives at risk, and Canadian cities dubbing housing and homelessness their top legislative priority, the federal government can no longer treat homelessness as an issue that can wait. Real action is needed now to help the hundreds of thousands of people – many of them youth and children – who are living on Canada's streets.

 

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