Homelessness in Canada has reached a humanitarian crisis level, experts warn

‘Many Canadians, especially renters, are closer to homelessness than they might imagine’
Photo: Samuel Engelking via Now Magazine
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Increasingly since the pandemic, in cities across the country, more and more people are choosing to live in a tent, often out of necessity, because they feel unsafe in overcrowded shelters, or they’re turned away because shelters are at capacity.

Encampments have become a regular fixture in parks and sometimes on city streets, as more and more people face rapidly increasing rents and fewer and fewer options.

Long-time street nurse Cathy Crowe
UOttawa

According to Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse working with unhoused populations, one major factor in the housing shortage was a program the federal government cancelled in 1993. Canada had funded 20,000 new units of social housing each year up to that point — but since the program was cut, Crowe says the country has seen a 30-year deficit of new affordable housing, which has resulted in chronically long waitlists to access housing.

She’s seen the toll of this crisis firsthand. Each month, she witnesses between 10 and 16 names added to Toronto’s memorial for people who have died while living unhoused.

“We have people literally dying on the street in every season of the year,” said Crowe.

An escalating national crisis

In 2021 about 235,000 Canadians experienced homelessness, Statistics Canada estimates — a number that experts say is likely to grow due to increasing pressures of rising inflation, massive rent increases, stagnant wages, and a growing influx of refugees seeking asylum from climate disasters and conflict.

A 2023 study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the hourly wage for a 40-hour work week that is needed to afford rent in every province far exceeds the minimum wage.

The CCPA also found that almost half of all Canadians are “less than $200” away from bankruptcy.

Toronto spent nearly $2 million to clear encampments in three city parks during the summer of 2021. Advocates say the amount doesn't include the hidden cost of criminalizing, displacing, and scattering vulnerable people during a pandemic.
CBC

None of this is new. In 2007 the U.N.’s human rights council sent a special rapporteur to Canada to examine housing and homelessness. It was called a national crisis that caused “a large number of deaths.” And, as Crowe points out, experts even declared the crisis a “state of emergency,” and “a man-made social welfare disaster,” in 1998.

The CCPA researchers point to a number of factors currently exacerbating the crisis and pushing people onto the street, including provincial legislation such as Ontario's 2018 move to remove rent control for new units, and more recently, Quebec's attempt to end lease transfers.

Once unhoused, people often face multiple social and economic barriers to return to stable housing. People who receive income assistance and disability payments may have trouble getting their money without a fixed address, and the payments may not be enough for them to afford the rising cost of rent in their area. Living unhoused can also make life more difficult for those working to hold down or secure a job, particularly due to the stigma it can carry.

Since the violent police raids on Toronto encampments during the pandemic, only eight per cent of those evicted have since made it into permanent housing, the CBC reports. “The vast majority continue to be shuffled through a broken system with a severe shortage of affordable rental homes.”

In search of solutions to save lives

Kaleel Seivwright is a carpenter who builds tiny home shelters for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. He was forced to stop when the City of Toronto filed a court injunction against him.

Seivwright’s Toronto Tiny Shelters are small, insulated dwellings meant to keep people living outside warm through the winter. He was recently featured in the documentary “Someone Lives Here,” directed by Zack Russell, and won the top prize at Hot Docs Film Festival earlier this year.

From his experience working with this community, and having experienced homelessness himself, he says it is often a “cascade of emergency situations” that leads to someone becoming homeless.

Sievwright says that many Canadians, especially renters, are closer to homelessness than they might imagine.

“It's actually shocking how close I think a lot of people are to being [homeless], but don't feel that way because you've always been able to pay your rent,” he said. “As soon as you stop being able to do that, you get into a cycle where it becomes harder and harder to get back to that place.”

Toronto carpenter Kaleel Seivwright was forced to stop building tiny houses when the City of Toronto filed a court injunction against him. Seivwright’s tiny shelters are small, insulated dwellings meant to save lives by keeping people living outside warm through the winter. He was recently featured in the documentary “Someone Lives Here,” which screened at Hot Docs Film Festival earlier this year.

Brian Cleary, a formerly unhoused advocate for the homeless community in Toronto, says that Canada’s response to homelessness has been “woefully inadequate.” In Toronto alone, he says that there are at least 2,000 more people experiencing homelessness each night than the shelter system has capacity to house.

Without housing, Cleary said, people can not even begin to recover from the situation that made them homeless in the first place, along with any trauma they’ve taken on while living unhoused.

“It's a system that grinds you down and wears you out,” he said.

Currently, Cleary says that support for people experiencing homelessness in Canada is not providing a consistent, stable foothold for people to move beyond the shelter system. He has seen friends who attained affordable housing move beyond struggling to access basic necessities and “completely bloom.” However, Cleary says, that there isn’t enough affordable housing in Canada for everyone to have this opportunity.

“It's actually shocking how close I think a lot of people are to being [homeless], but don't feel that way because you've always been able to pay your rent. As soon as you stop being able to do that, you get into a cycle where it becomes harder and harder to get back to that place.”

Vicky Stergiopoulos, a clinician scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), said it’s time for Canada to take notice of other countries’ efforts to end homelessness.

“Having seen Canada fail to manage homelessness, let alone end it, it would be high time that we look at countries that have done a better job and try to see what lessons can be learned,” she said.

Looking beyond Canada’s borders

Advocates of a policy that prioritizes providing affordable, permanent housing and support to people experiencing homelessness say that it could be possible to drastically decrease the number of people struggling with housing security.

The strategy, called “Housing First,” has been credited with reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness within several European nations that have adopted it nationally. Housing First provides long-term affordable housing to those experiencing chronic homelessness, along with an additional support network to prevent them from becoming homeless again.

Toronto's homeless memorial lists the names of those who have died while unhoused and living on Toronto streets or in the shelter system.
Toronto Homeless Memorial

According to advocates on the ground, Canada’s current approach to eliminating homelessness has fallen short of addressing the deeper need faced by unhoused Canadians: affordable, stable housing. Housing experts say now may be the time to give widespread implementation of Housing First a chance by investing in the creation of new affordable, long-term homes and support networks for people experiencing homelessness.

“The cost of housing, as we all know, has gone up steadily, and that makes many more people vulnerable,” said Stephen Gaetz, President and CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

Trials and regional programs throughout Canada have modeled some success from this policy at tackling chronic homelessness. Most notably, a national study by Homeless Hub, At Home/Chez Soi , examined Housing First programs in five Canadian cities — Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal, and Moncton — the world’s largest Housing First trial at the time. But there are numerous political and structural hurdles that experts say would have to be summited to make a long-term, coordinated national program possible in the country.

For deeper results to be seen, Samara Jones, coordinator of the Housing First Europe Hub, feels Canada will need to follow the lead of several major European countries and implement a more widespread Housing First plan.

How does Housing First work?

A core belief behind this policy, according to a 2013 report by the Canada Homeless Research Network, is that giving people housing enables them to be more successful in moving forward in their lives. Residents pay a subsidized rent within the means of their income or social assistance payments. Often, these programs also have support workers assigned to help people manage their transition into housing, along with mental health and addictions treatment.

Gaetz said that while Canadians might stress over what this policy would cost them — between funding new subsidized housing units and social supports for residents — it would actually save taxpayers money in the long term.

A 2019 study by the CAMH and St. Michael’s Hospital found that for every $10 spent on Housing First programs, $9.60 was saved in the long term.

The study, which focused on Housing First programs in five Canadian cities, also observed a significant increase in long-term housing stability. Housing First program members maintained stable housing 85 per cent of the time over a year, compared to 60 per cent for those navigating traditional housing and treatment services.

Some of the trial programs from the study have continued, but do not have the capacity to address the demand for their services without wider support, according to Stergiopoulos, the study’s lead author.

Through the Housing First program, Finland has dramatically decreased its homeless population. People facing homelessness in Finland are given permanent housing, ranging from a self-contained apartment to a housing block. Similarly, they receive individually tailored support services. Depending on their income, they can contribute to the cost of the support services they receive, and the rest is covered by the local government.
Y-Foundation

Calls for change

Some of those on the frontlines of the crisis, however, are discouraged by how Canada has implemented Housing First so far, and feel other methods might prove more equitable.

A.J. Withers is the Ruth Wynn Woodward junior chair of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Department at Simon Fraser University and a long-time anti-poverty activist. Withers feels that the policy has largely been used as a cost-cutting measure without much movement towards deeper social change.

“There are people that can point to very discrete examples of successes, but sadly Housing First has been a profound failure,” they said.

Withers says they’ve seen the current implementation of Housing First in Canada prioritize housing people who have been living unsheltered for six months or longer — the cases they say are seen as the “most expensive.” They also say funding for Housing First programs can come at the expense of governments cutting funding for other social support programs.

Making people live unhoused for six months to qualify for the program, Withers said, is also “deeply unethical,” as people would often have to endure a lot of trauma and violence during that time.

Crowe, the Toronto-based street nurse, is also wary of Housing First, as she has witnessed housing programs that provide these services for certain groups — such as students, families, or seniors — but not everyone.

However, she agrees that national action is needed to address this crisis. For it to be successful, she feels new housing would have to be offered equally to people in need, and coexist in communities with a mixture of market, private, supportive, and public housing, to prevent creating a “ghetto” of formerly unhoused people.

“We can fight for it and make it happen. The social safety net that is in place now is there because people have fought for it.”

Withers says that more systemic change could come from raising social assistance rates to allow people to survive and find housing as the cost of living continues to rise in Canada. They also feel that more widespread social housing, and policies allowing people to access housing services as soon as they become unhoused, could go a long way.

However, they say to execute that vision, it will take a lot of pressure on political leaders, and political will from those with power.

“We can fight for it and make it happen,” Withers said. “The social safety net that is in place now is there because people have fought for it.”

Reducing the rates of homelessness

For more than a decade, several European nations have begun adopting national Housing First strategies, including Finland, France, Scotland, The Netherlands, and Denmark.

According to Juha Kahila, the head of international affairs for the Y-Foundation — a social housing provider and the fourth largest landlord in Finland — their work has yielded reductions in rates of homelessness.

Finland is 15 years into their ambitious Housing First plan, which aims to house everyone in the country by 2027. In a bipartisan agreement, federal politicians incentivized service providers to renovate their temporary homeless shelters into permanent units and they invested in organizations such as the Y-Foundation to build new housing.

Simon Fraser University's A.J. Withers.

Kahila said that this strategy has reduced homelessness by 80 per cent since the Y-Foundation began efforts to end homelessness in the 1980s. But that didn’t happen overnight.

“It took six, seven years for us to really see the benefits and to see that the number of homeless people is really going down and not going back up,” Kahila said.

Other countries, such as France, have taken a bottom-up approach to Housing First by empowering their cities to develop and deliver Housing First services. This has not come without challenges: in spite of the country’s progress, citizens express that it is difficult to see widespread street-level change.

For Canada to implement Housing First effectively, Stergiopoulos believes it would require a reshaping of the homelessness and social welfare sectors, undertaken with federal leadership and provincial support. But beyond that, she said it will take political will.

Even though Canada has been a pioneer in Housing First on a regional level, Stergiopoulos said inconsistent housing policies have so far proven to be a barrier to solving homelessness.

“Politics can take away from policies that can solve homelessness,” she said.

Jones, coordinator of the Housing First Europe Hub, said that Canada has the potential to once again be a leader in working to end homelessness.

“It just needs a bit of a backbone,” she said. “Metaphorically, but also in structural support to make it happen.”

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