The pandemic and the associated recession provide an opportunity for us to reconsider the ‘normal’ state of affairs. Now is the time to envision a bold new normal and learn from the failures of the previous status quo.
The old normal
In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated number of Canadians experiencing homelessness each year was anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000. Difficulties in collecting data around the exact number of people experiencing homelessness means that this number could be much higher. In Toronto alone, an estimated 10,000 people were homeless on any given night – with over 500 sleeping rough outside on the streets, or in encampments in Toronto’s ravines, waterfront, and under overpasses. The wait list for supportive housing in Toronto has grown from 700 in 2009, to over 18,000 now, and is projected to rise to 37,000 without new investments.
The homeless population prior to the pandemic was diverse, and sometimes hidden. While there are many ways to define and classify homelessness, a useful distinction that is often made is between those in chronic (long-term homelessness), episodic (cycling in and out of homelessness), and temporary (short-term). The majority of people who experience homelessness do so temporarily. The National Shelter Study found that over a 10-year period, 70 per cent of people who use shelters were first-time shelter users, and most use a shelter only once. In contrast, people experiencing chronic homelessness tend to be homeless for much longer, often years. Despite only being two to four per cent of the homeless population, people experiencing chronic homelessness occupy more than half the emergency shelter beds on any given night.
On top of these categories, many Canadians live at high risk of homelessness largely due to poverty and housing instability, while others live in ‘hidden homelessness,’ with a temporary place to stay, though without any permanent home of their own.
People experiencing chronic homelessness suffer greatly as negative impacts build over time, and result in adverse health effects and poor well-being. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to die prematurely, between 25 and 45 years of age, and suffer from a wide range of health problems. Conditions more prevalent in the homeless population include: clinical depression, seizures, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, respiratory tract infections, and many more. Put simply, stable housing is a basic requirement for health, and homelessness erodes health at a population level.
The old normal was systemic and left disparities within the homeless population unaddressed. Historic and ongoing structural racism led to Black and Indigenous Torontonians in particular being overrepresented in the homeless population with nearly a third of Canadians experiencing homelessness in 2018 identifying as Indigenous.
Mass homelessness of the old normal was driven by policy choices and inaction. For decades, government spending on affordable housing shrank, while underinvestment in affordable housing continued and remains today. Social assistance benefits were cut sharply in the 1990s, and after accounting for inflation, rates had still not recovered by 2020. The quality of jobs has been allowed to deteriorate, contributing to economic hardship and homelessness. Public policy choices caused or allowed these problems to perpetuate, and homelessness to result.
The pandemic impact
The pandemic has highlighted many faults and inequities in our society, and it has made our homelessness crisis unignorable. Encampments grew across Toronto’s public places as COVID-19 killed thousands of Torontonians. Rapid public action was taken to reduce the high risk of COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness. All levels of government responded, including the City leasing hotels as housing, the rapid construction of modular housing, and provincial freezes on residential evictions. Although these policy changes are positive, alone they are not enough to end homelessness in Canada.
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession are likely to contribute to rising homelessness across Canada. As people struggle economically to remain housed, the rise in homelessness is likely to be a lagged effect that could take up to five years before its full impact is felt. Residential evictions were a primary contributor to homelessness in Toronto prior to the pandemic and can be expected to increase as enforcement restarts. At our current time many unknowns remain ahead but policy solutions could mitigate and reverse the expected rise in homelessness.
A new normal: Ending homelessness
A new normal should build on the momentum of housing protections that were introduced in response to the pandemic and push further and faster towards ending homelessness. A new normal in which homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring is possible. It is possible to have a system where few become homeless and no-one remains homeless. A new normal in which communities have systemic responses in place that ensure homelessness is prevented, and that everyone is transitioned out of homelessness quickly. Where no one is forced to sleep on the streets, and our most vulnerable neighbours would have long-term, affordable homes, complete with the supports they need to be healthy and thrive.
The new normal should build on successes in addressing homelessness. Large-scale studies provide strong evidence on the effective ways to reduce homelessness, such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study which demonstrated that a Housing First approach reduces homelessness, and lowers costs for our homelessness, health, and justice institutions. This study showed that providing people with housing and supports boosts recovery, wellness, and community.
The new normal must include people with lived-experience shaping the plan and actions. Successful responses to homelessness engage with and learn from the on-the-ground experience of those that are living through homelessness and housing challenges.
A new normal provides an opportunity to reimagine how our society builds and distributes housing more broadly. Large investments in mixed-income non-profit rental housing would provide stability to many of our neighbours, long before homelessness becomes a threat. We can look to other countries, where large percentages of people find reasonably-priced and decent housing in non-profit and public developments. Their example allows us to move our current social housing system away from poorly maintained buildings that are rationed only to those in deepest need, towards dignified mixed-income communities where wide sections of society live, work, and socialize together.
What it would mean
Ending homelessness is often taken to mean reaching what is called ‘functional zero.’ This means that anyone who experiences homelessness does so only briefly, is rehoused quickly, successfully, and with the affordability and supports which make them unlikely to return to homelessness.
This new normal would mean that we reduce the tragic personal burdens of homelessness and allow those facing homelessness to have an opportunity to have stability, to recover, and to have healthy lives.
Ending homelessness is also realizing one facet of equity. Homelessness is one of the systemic inequities that further harms equity-seeking groups in Canada. Ending homelessness would mean that everyone – Indigenous, Black, low-income, LGBTQIA2S+, and people with disabilities – would have a home.
The end of homelessness would also mean reducing the huge financial costs associated with homelessness – estimated at $7 billion across Canada in 2016. Managing homelessness is expensive, and often means providing care in expensive crisis settings such as emergency rooms, shelters, and psychiatric hospitals. Studies have found that with support and housing, care can often be shifted to more efficient community services with improved outcomes. Investments in ending homelessness such as these are cost-effective and can pay for themselves over time.
How we get there
To end homelessness we must address, prevent, focus, and fund. Broadly, this will involve working across a spectrum of responses. Moving from our crisis-oriented support system, to working upstream to prevent homelessness, as well as providing safe, appropriate, and affordable housing, with supports when required.
Address – The primary way to end homelessness for those without a home, is to provide housing. This Housing First approach has been studied rigorously across the globe and is well-supported by the evidence. The housing provided will need to vary, from 24-hour supportive housing, to rent benefits for living in market apartments. The solutions to chronic, episodic, and temporary homelessness vary, as the people experiencing them do.
Prevent – This involves moving upstream to the underlying causes before homelessness starts. This must include retaining, maintaining, and developing more affordable, and supportive housing. Annual targets must be set along with public and private financing schemes. It also requires improving income security programming such as direct financial assistance to low-income Canadians, including social assistance, Canada Child Benefit, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Beyond housing and income support, institutional reform is necessary so that no one is discharged into homelessness from prisons, hospitals, or the children’s aid system.
Focus – There is no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing and ending homelessness. Successful responses to homelessness focus on priority populations with targeted interventions that work with the unique needs of groups like youth, Indigenous people, Black people, families with children, and people with serious mental illness and addictions. For these targeted responses to be successful, they will require substantive direction provided by people experiencing homelessness themselves.
Fund – Ending homelessness will require a plan to get us there over time complete with committed resources and follow-through. The time for partial solutions has passed. Plainly put, there is currently not enough funding provided to meet the need. Each level of government will need to play a critical role, leaning into their individual advantages. The federal government has the power of the purse and needs to fund and finance programs with greater intensity. The National Housing Strategy and Reaching Home are positive steps, though their current magnitudes are insufficient to even meet the stated goal of reducing homelessness by 50 per cent by 2028. The provinces, with their expertise and capacity in the health and social service sector, have a role to play in providing the support services and dollars required to assist people transitioning out of homelessness and staying housed. Our cities have land, can expedite development approvals, can waive property taxes, and can focus their energy on non-profit development over private for-profit housing.
Ending homelessness will require an all-hands-on-deck approach that so far, we have collectively failed to deliver. Now is the time to change that.