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No shelter from the storm

Reflections on the explosion of homelessness and unmet housing needs

Economic CrisisHousingHuman Rights

Protest against Vancouver’s removal of a homeless encampment on the sidewalks in the Downtown Eastside, August 16, 2022. Photo courtesy PHS Community Services Society.

Mass homelessness has persisted in Canada for the past four decades. It has persisted because of systemic failures and failed policy decisions.

A plethora of government-funded initiatives over the past 30 to 40 years has not stemmed the tide of people becoming—and remaining—unhoused. Programs and service agencies have tried to deal with the problem largely on an individual basis, with the underlying assumption that people become unhoused due to some personal failing. Lip service has been paid to the systemic barriers that people face, such as the lack of affordable housing or stagnant incomes.

We have entered an unprecedented period of multiple, converging crises. It’s estimated that homelessness has doubled since 2018. We are seeing growing numbers of people experiencing housing precarity and food insecurity. Mental health, social isolation, addiction, and homelessness have all been compounded by the pandemic. We are also seeing deteriorating social supports and infrastructure as well as growing income inequality and a chronic lack of affordable housing options.

When a country as prosperous as Canada cannot meet the shelter and housing needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized, this is an indicator of a profound crisis. It signals the failure of the dominant market-driven model for providing housing and personal security. We are approaching a level of displacement that Canada has not witnessed since the Great Depression.

We desperately need a comprehensive, long-term plan involving all levels of government and all community partners to surmount the homeless and housing crises—a plan which takes a systemic approach.

Disgraceful data

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) estimates that up to 300,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in a given year. The estimates of the numbers of “hidden homeless” are even higher.

A State of Canada’s Cities report released by the Canadian Urban Institute on November 30 contains this stark assessment: “For every person who’s homeless, there’s about 26 people who are underhoused or on the verge of homelessness in Canada—more than 5 million people annually.”

The face of homelessness in Toronto and across the country continues to change. The old stereotype of the itinerant male with an addiction issue living on skid row has long been shattered.

About 40 percent of the people in Toronto’s shelter system are recently-arrived refugees or asylum seekers. The significant presence of asylum seekers in homeless shelters is not new; it has been growing for the past decade.

Indigenous People—First Nations, Inuit and Métis—account for 20-50 percent of the unhoused populations in urban centres, and the figure is as high as 90 percent in the North.

The Street Needs Assessment (SNA), conducted every few years by the City of Toronto, provides an interesting look at the demographic changes among those experiencing homelessness. The data from the latest SNA, in 2021, showed that 59 percent of all respondents identified as members of racialized groups, with the largest percentage (31 percent) identifying as Black.

Non-binary, transgender, and 2SLGBTQ+ people were all over-represented in the SNA. Seniors constituted 15 percent of respondents.

Almost 40 percent of the people in the shelter system are women. It is estimated that women, and newcomers, make up the majority of the “hidden homeless.”

According to Without a Home, the first pan-Canadian study of young people who experience homelessness, 20 percent of the unhoused population in Canada is comprised of youths between the ages of 13-24.

A lineup stretches down the block outside of Fort York Food Bank on College Street, near Kensington Market, in Toronto. Photo by Martin Reis/X.

Food bank usage has reached record highs, with the majority of food bank clients being women (61 percent) and racialized residents (73 percent). The annual Who’s Hungry report, released on November 13 by Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank, shows that one in ten people in the city are now relying on food banks, twice as many as the previous year, and the highest annual increase ever recorded. Three-quarters of food bank clients spend more than half their income on housing alone, and 23 percent spend all their income on it.

It’s generally acknowledged that the numbers of people unhoused across the country have increased by 30-40 percent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent counts of the homeless populations in both Vancouver and Montréal have confirmed this.

Recent data from Statistics Canada shows that the incomes of Canada’s top one percent averaged $579,100 in 2021, a 9.4 percent increase from 2020, and one of the largest increases in recent years. The incomes of the bottom 50 percent averaged $21,100, $700 less than the previous year—the first drop in average earnings in 30 years.

As someone who has worked for the past dozen years with unhoused and marginalized populations in Toronto, I have never seen the situation so dire.

It takes relentless effort for someone to find emergency shelter space in Toronto where facilities have been operating at capacity since the pre-pandemic period. There are currently 10,583 people in the city’s shelter system, including 3,527 refugees. Another 1,288 refugees find support outside the shelter system.

Finding affordable housing is a frustrating experience in a city where both rents and evictions are surging. Rents account for up to half, and sometimes more, of the disposable income of low-income and working class people. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now $2,620, a 16 percent year-over-year increase. Toronto’s unaffordability is exceeded only by Vancouver’s where the average rent for a one-bedroom place is now $2,988. Even a room in shared accommodation, one of the last options for low-income people, now averages $1,300 a month.

Finding rent-geared-to-income accommodations is next to impossible. The wait list for subsidized housing in Toronto currently stands at 84,583 households, 42 percent of whom are seniors. The average wait for a one-bedroom apartment has risen to a shocking 14 years. People are staying in shelters longer than previously because of the lack of affordable housing options.

Twenty-eight years after the Mike Harris government slashed social assistance rates by 21.6 percent, people who rely on assistance are still expected to survive on income levels which are well below the poverty line. The gap between social assistance rates and rents has widened further, forcing many to spend the bulk of their income on rent with less and less remaining for food and other basic necessities.

Street Health in Toronto has documented that 55 percent of people experiencing homelessness have a serious health issue. Housing is the primary social determinant of health and people who are unhoused are dying at much higher rates and at much younger ages than the general population. Toronto Public Health data shows that the median age of death for homeless men last year was 55 years. For women, it was 42 years.

Toronto recently joined over 60 other Ontario municipalities in declaring an epidemic of gender-based and intimate-partner violence, but again there is a dearth of shelters and support services. The YWCA’s shelters for women fleeing violence have been at capacity for months.

The underlying causes

Mass homelessness started in the 1980s, directly linked to the emergence of neoliberalism globally as the dominant ideology of governments and decision makers. Neoliberalism formulated a reduced role for the state in the arena of social services in favour of private sector market solutions.

Four decades of neoliberalism have resulted in deeper and deeper cuts to social programs, harsh austerity measures, a dismantling of the social-safety net, unregulated market forces, and rising inequality.

The present crisis of mass homelessness is often attributed to the decisions of successive Conservative and Liberal governments to abandon housing. Beginning in 1984, federal governments cancelled new funding for housing, turning to market solutions. They offloaded responsibility for social housing onto the provinces while cutting federal-provincial transfer payments. In turn, provincial governments, like that of Mike Harris’s in the 1990s, downloaded responsibility for public housing to the municipalities and cut welfare payments.

Canada became one of the few major countries without a national housing strategy, something that Justin Trudeau made an election promise to revisit. After two years of extensive consultations, the National Housing Strategy (NHS) was launched in 2017 as a 10-year, $82 billion effort to increase housing affordability and reduce homelessness.

Last year, the Auditor General Karen Hogan released a scathing report on the NHS. She charged that, due to a glaring lack of data and accountability, Ottawa did not know who was benefitting from its initiatives, and was unable to say whether homelessness had increased or decreased as a result of its efforts.

A few months later, Canada’s first federal housing advocate, Marie-Josée Houle, bluntly called the NHS a failure: “The strategy is failing. We have all of this taxpayer money—record money—and it’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do … How acceptable is it, in a country such as Canada, that people are dying because they’re unsheltered or they’re inadequately housed? These are systemic failures—not individual failures. This is policy driven.”

Access to adequate and affordable housing has been hacked away by the commodification and financialization of housing, and the rising use of homes as an investment asset in the global financial market. Housing is financialized to an extent that is incompatible with the material needs of the majority of people.

The market solution to housing has been to turn it into a commodity for investors, speculators, developers and bankers, putting home ownership or even affordable rental housing out of reach for many. In 2019 the Canadian Parliament passed the National Housing Strategy Act, which recognizes housing as a human right, yet, we are excluding a growing proportion of the population from accessing adequate and affordable housing. There is incontrovertible evidence that unrestrained capitalism fails spectacularly at lifting people out of poverty and meeting their basic needs.

The current affordability crisis drives home not only the destructive nature of unregulated capital, but also its weakness. The fact that real estate sales accounted for nearly half of Canada’s GDP growth in 2022 should be sobering for anyone who thinks that the fundamentals of our economy are strong.

These issues are not unique to Canada. There are successful affordable-housing models elsewhere in countries such as Finland, Norway, Austria and the city-state of Singapore. Cities such as Vienna, Glasgow and Berlin have developed non-market housing alternatives. In Helsinki, the Finnish capital, homeless people are provided with housing as a first priority. There are a plethora of non-market and community-focused housing experiments in the Global South. All of these models involve the state playing a central or integral role.

These are initiatives that Canada could emulate, but we have not chosen that path. Shamefully, only six percent of housing stock in Canada is social housing, a category which includes public housing (such as Toronto Community Housing), non-profit housing and co-operative housing. By comparison, social housing in the Netherlands is 34 percent of housing stock, in Austria it’s 24 percent, and in Denmark it’s 21 percent. In the United States, where inequality is racialized and entrenched, it is 3.6 percent.

Super InTent City, Victoria, BC, 2016. Activism in support this now closed homeless encampment led to the creation of hundreds of units of new housing. Photo by Bruce Dean/Flickr.

Cities out of reach

Toronto and Vancouver are now among the most expensive cities in the world to live in. Renters make up a majority of the residents in Vancouver and Montréal and 48 percent in Toronto—all vulnerable to rent hikes, evictions and dispossession. Rents continue to surge, unchecked. Rents for modest living spaces in Toronto will soon be in the range of $3,000–4,000, forcing low-income and working-class people, newcomers and racialized people to move further and further away from the downtown core.

Evictions are surging. In the first nine months of 2023, landlords in Toronto filed 1,767 N12s (personal use evictions), an almost 80 percent increase over the previous year. N12s are frequently misused by greedy landlords to evict tenants so that they can increase rents. Any penalties incurred by landlords for so-called ‘bad faith’ evictions are infrequent and minor. Other landlords don’t even bother with the legalities, and intimidate or pressure tenants into leaving.

Developers are not putting up purpose-built rentals or affordable housing; instead they continue to focus on condos. We now have whole neighbourhoods dominated by self-proclaimed “luxury” condo towers, mainly located in the downtown core and at transit hubs. During an affordability crisis, a record 25,000 condo units will be completed in Toronto this year with an additional 100,000 units to be completed between 2024 and 2028. This translates into a record 100 new glass towers being built in Toronto over the next five years. None of these condo units will be affordable. It’s not hard to figure out why. A staggering 57 percent, and rising, of recently built condo units in Toronto are being purchased by investors for the sole purpose of turning a profit.

Two years after Montréal Mayor Valérie Plante introduced a bylaw intended to force private developers to incorporate affordable housing and social housing units in new projects, not a single affordable housing unit has been produced among the 7,100 units built. Developers were given the option of paying a fine instead, and all of them chose that option rather than build affordable housing units.

The Trudeau government is under relentless pressure to address the affordability and housing crises. With a federal election expected in 2025, we are already seeing a lot of political theatre and posturing. The federal government and the new Housing Minister Sean Fraser have started to issue almost daily policy announcements. Fraser is refreshing for his candor about how government failures have precipitated the housing crisis. He is making progress with the Housing Accelerator Fund, but the federal Liberals know that time is running out for a fix.

Hope and optimism are the operative words when it comes to Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow. Expectations are high. During the mayoral by-election campaign, she vowed to get the government back into the business of building affordable housing.

Specifically, she promised to build 25,000 rent-controlled homes on city-owned land, in addition to the existing Housing TO plan, with a minimum of 7,500 affordable units, and at least 2,500 rent-geared-to-income units. She also vowed to expand the reach of Toronto’s Rent Bank, eviction prevention programs, and tenant support programs to help tenants organize to fight evictions and above guideline rent increases.

Mayor Chow’s first 100 days set a tone of collaboration within the ranks of council. She showed her strengths by listening to others, reaching out and valuing community input. Chow is supported by many in the labour movement and community organizations. Her term will likely be a milestone for the city, but she faces many challenges including a massive $1.5 billion budget shortfall and crumbling infrastructure in the city.

During her first 100 days in office, she has won praise by fast-tracking her housing strategy, a plan she described as bold and transformative. It will involve non-profit partners, including Indigenous agencies, and be led by city staff and not developers.

On November 10, city council endorsed Chow’s housing plan by a vote of 24 to one. It calls for Toronto to build 65,000 affordable rental units by 2030. It’s a multi-billion effort which is contingent on the provincial and federal government each kicking in $500-800 million per year for seven years, plus contributing free land and billions in low-cost loans the city will proceed to build 4,445 units on five Housing Now sites.

While we are waiting for housing to be built, it is concerning that more short-term measures are being postponed by Toronto city council. A $120 million project to expand the number of shelter beds is being delayed for five years. As we head into winter, the city’s Winter Services Plan to ensure warm spaces for people experiencing homelessness has been widely criticized as inadequate. Encampments are still being cleared by the city.

Housing protest poster in Montréal reading, “Rent hikes. Expropriate the landlords.” Photo by Andrea Levy.

Housing for people, not for profit

Much more is needed to undo decades of austerity and neglect, which have resulted in increased poverty, displacement, marginalization, housing precarity and homelessness.

We are losing more affordable housing than is being built. More than 85 percent of Ontario’s stock of rental housing was built before 1980. Steve Pomeroy from the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaboration has researched the issue and concluded that “The loss of affordable housing in Canada is occurring at such a high rate that it will be impossible for current NHS initiatives to maintain, never mind expand, the net stock of low-rent units.”

Last year, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimated that the country will need an additional 3.5 million affordable housing units by 2030, on top of those already slated for construction, to ‘restore’ housing affordability.

A growing number of voices are also challenging the dominant market model to produce housing, a model which is essentially driven by greed and profit.

The Tenant Class, a new book by Ricardo Tranjan, a political economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is gaining a lot of attention. The author describes the housing crisis as “a poorly regulated market that extracts income from working-class people and channels it to higher-income segments of Canadian society. … An alternative, just housing system requires landlords and developers to give up high profits, which they won’t consent to. It takes a struggle.”

In a September column in the Toronto Star entitled “People over profit in housing,” housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle calls for a human rights approach to housing that puts people before profit. She writes that “we cannot count on the for-profit housing industry to fix the problem” of the housing crisis. “Public money should support nonmarket housing—co-operatives, non-profit and public housing—that is permanently affordable and accessible.”

Ultimately, we need a radical paradigm shift in thinking and practice—to tackle the underlying systemic factors producing displacement and homelessness. We need to de-commodify and de-financialize housing while adopting a framework of universal housing. The commodity character of housing needs to be challenged and reversed if we are to make housing a basic human right. House prices and rents should be linked to local wages and incomes rather than a market rate.

Miloon Kothari, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, has written that “the de-commodification of housing and land is perhaps the only way to truly build cities where all the residents have equal rights to everything that cities have to offer.” Leilani Farha, also a former UN Special Rapporteur and the Global Director of The Shift (a housing initiative), has become one of the world’s leading experts on financialization of housing and has proposed concrete ways to regulate and reduce its impact.

In the long term, we need a radical rethink about housing, ownership, land use, and planning, including comprehensive discussions on how we build cities and build community.

Do we really want an unregulated profit-driven market determining how we build homes, neighbourhoods and cities? We can do better than this, through democratic planning, community input and re-investment.

Ironically, with the new advances in technology and building materials, the possibility of providing affordable housing for all is tangible. Even Housing Minister Sean Fraser has mused about using modular homebuilding, 3D printing and other methods to mass produce housing in factories. “While there have been advances in the techniques and the tools used to build homes, we largely do it the same way we did a century ago,” he said.

The Canadian Urban Institute report calls for making more use of public land for affordable housing, as well as land now used by institutions such as universities or hospitals. It also urges converting underused office buildings to residential use, and providing homes instead of temporary shelter to the unhoused, as is done in Finland.

What we need is the political will and a comprehensive strategy to carry through on suggestions like these. Instead, we have different levels of government continuing to shift the blame and spar over funding and responsibility.

There is a stark need to look at alternatives to the real estate market and to revisit and renew public funding for co-op housing, co-housing, community land trusts, supportive housing for people in need, and affordable social housing. If we had a participatory approach to a National Housing Strategy, instead of a top-down one, we could encourage experimentation with non-profit models. We could promote housing alternatives and make NHS funds available for community initiatives. We could strive for true public ownership of social housing, while making housing management democratic and community-based.

There’s also a glaring need to democratize housing policy. We should widen the process of decision-making and diminish the power of bureaucrats and so-called experts. “Nothing about us without us” is now a ubiquitous mantra, but it unfortunately needs repeating as housing policy is now dominated by policy wonks. We need to listen to and involve those with lived experience of poverty, inadequate housing and homelessness in the planning and design of housing, social programs and community spaces. Likewise, with Indigenous people, racialized communities, women, disabled people, and gender-diverse people. Lived experience should be at the forefront of the reimagining of inclusive and culturally-appropriate housing solutions.

The recently formed Toronto Underhoused and Homeless Union (TUHU) has demanded that the city give people experiencing homelessness and precarious housing a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect them. The TUHU has also demanded an immediate moratorium on housing evictions, encampment clearings and service restrictions, and for rent subsidies for unhoused people.

As a core principle, we need to prioritize land banks and Indigenous housing.

The Indigenous worldview challenges the dominant colonial perspective on many issues, including the private ownership of land, property and resources. The implications of decolonization can offer a paradigm shift from the dominant views and can help us to recognize the absurdity of viewing Mother Earth as “real estate” or a commodity of any kind. It can impact many other areas, including social services and enhance how we support those whom we categorize as “marginalized” or “vulnerable.”

For Indigenous peoples, “home” has a more cadenced meaning—it’s about culture, identity, and connection to community. The Cree-Métis writer and activist Jesse Thistle has critiqued mainstream approaches to working with homeless people, saying “the sector focuses more on brick-and-mortar structures than it does on relationships, connections and love.”

For decades, homeless and housing advocates have engaged in tireless organizing, relentlessly pushing governments and decision makers. Advocates include many people with lived experience of poverty and homelessness as well as many front-line workers and allies.

Effective advocacy involves direct action, research, organizing, public awareness campaigns, networking, building coalitions, and developing policy alternatives. Toronto, like many other cities, has a long history of grassroots organizations pushing for change and having a significant impact. These have included the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, Health Providers Against Poverty, and the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN). Health care providers and faith communities have stepped up and become strong advocates for the unhoused.

During the pandemic, we saw mutual-aid organizations springing up to help their neighbours, like Parkdale Organize and the Encampment Support Network.

We also witnessed a remarkable upsurge of tenant associations and unions being formed to resist evictions, rent increases, displacements, and renovictions and to fight for rent control and tenant protection. The most notable is the York South-Weston Tenant Union which has been engaged in a high-profile rent strike against a corporate landlord for the past seven months.

Ricardo Tranjan writes that “We need to politicize the housing debate in Canada; the tenant class needs to organize, accumulate power and force the government to make change.”

Even the annual Who’s Hungry report, was subtitled “A call to action from a city in crisis.” The Daily Bread and North York Harvest Food Banks, co-authors of the report, wrote “The time to act is now. We cannot wait any longer. Let’s be loud, together.”

The issues of affordability, housing, homelessness, and growing income inequality can no longer be ignored. The type of persistent organizing and advocacy which we’ve seen previously, and which does generate hope, is needed now more than ever.

Ken Theobald is a community worker and anti-poverty activist based in Toronto’s northwest inner suburbs.

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