By Kira Heineck
There is only one solution to stopping the tragic deaths of homeless people in Toronto. It is housing. Yes, we need particular mixes of housing, including housing with supports for those unable to find and sustain homes on their own. But the key to ending homelessness is more housing.
The deaths of two women experiencing homelessness at the start of 2019, is heartbreaking. It is also embarrassing for a city and province as rich as ours and should rightly make us all angry. These senseless deaths will renew calls for immediate action, including the demand for an increase in emergency shelter beds.
But before we rush into another round of short-term responses that manage the current crisis but do not contribute to actually ending homelessness, let’s consider the following:
· Despite more investment in shelters over the last several years, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, both indoors and outside, has increased. Currently 8,715 people are homeless in Toronto.
· Toronto has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, at 1.1%. This means that for every 100 apartments in the city, only 1 is available to rent at any given time. The intense competition this engenders only drives up rents, creating the affordability crisis we are all aware of here.
· There are over 15,000 people on Toronto’s Centralized Mental Health and Addictions supportive housing waiting list – a figure almost too mindboggling to comprehend.
What all of this underscores is the urgent need for more housing – for more apartments, rooms and housing units that people exiting homelessness can afford along with more housing with supports.
The former is often called “deeply affordable” housing to distinguish it from what is commonly thought of as affordable housing, meaning that costs come in at or below 80% of market rent. Not insignificantly, this level of affordability will also make it easier for lower wage earners to keep quality housing, thereby preventing homelessness in the first place. And the latter – supportive housing - includes a variety of types and styles of supports, including permanent, dedicated supportive housing buildings.
For example, Toronto’s street outreach teams, and agencies in our city who provide support services for people grappling with challenges that have led to or exacerbate their homelessness often have rent supplements or housing allowances available to close the affordability gap in supportive housing environments. But when there is almost no housing available to apply these rent supplements to in order to support a successful journey out of homelessness, even the most dedicated, talented and resourceful outreach workers have no where to start.
How do we get more housing of the kind we need to end homelessness? We start by supporting City Council’s commitment to develop 1,800 new supportive housing units in Toronto, beginning this year for a total of 18,000 new units in 10 years. This is forward thinking and we should all be doing what we can to help make it happen. The Mayor’s recent Housing Now initiative, making surplus land available for affordable housing development, including non-profit supportive housing providers, is also worth championing.
We can also redirect a substantial portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for the increase of shelter beds towards building dedicated supportive housing, and new deeply affordable housing. This will help as many people as shelter beds will, but in a permanent way that has significantly higher odds of ending their homelessness once and for all. Looking to Queen’s Park, we can insist that our provincial government increase funding to their current successful supportive housing initiative and other health and housing programs to ensure homeless Torontonians can access housing with supports. More resources will help chronically, “hard to house” people sleeping outside and in crowded drop-ins obtain their own homes and the supports they need.
Making the shift to ending chronic homelessness and not continuing to manage it is the challenge of 2019 for all of us in Toronto. Understanding the role of a rapid increase of new deeply affordable housing options and housing with supports is critical to this shift.