Discover more from Fix Your City
Fix Housing 7: We Can End Homelessness. Here’s How.
Cities are at the front lines of homelessness. Cities need to come up with the ambitious plans that provinces and the federal government can fund in a serious effort to get people housed.
This is the seventh in a series of common sense solutions for achieving housing affordability for all.
An immense task but not a particularly difficult one to solve
You’ve heard us say that housing is a system. That you can’t solve home ownership affordability without solving rental affordability without solving the community housing shortage without solving homelessness.
There is extensive pressure on community (or social) housing, and without a greater supply, efforts to help people who are experiencing homelessness will compete with efforts to help those living on the edge, in core housing need.
You’ve also heard us say that addressing homelessness seems to have been largely ignored in the current discourse on housing.
So how would a municipality go about addressing homelessness?
It is an immense task but not a particularly difficult one to solve. It won’t happen immediately, but it is possible to lay out a plan for how cities could end homelessness within a decade or less depending on their level of ambition.
The formula for solving homelessness is straightforward. First, stop new people from falling into homelessness and rapidly rehouse those who do. Second, every year place more and more of the individuals and households who are experiencing chronic homelessness into appropriate housing with supports.
Ending chronic homelessness and addressing the need for more community housing will do two things: it will take the most difficult cases of people experiencing long-term homelessness out of the shelter system (and growing encampments) and it will provide housing for people who are most at risk of falling into homelessness.
You cannot end homelessness if more people are entering shelter than leaving into housing.
Cities are key
To be more specific, municipalities can end homelessness. When provinces and territories have downloaded this responsibility, the burden falls directly on the city. But even when that responsibility has not been downloaded, it is cities that are on the front line of homelessness on a day-to-day basis.
Cities, better than any other level of government, understand the pattern of homelessness in their community. Cities also can see what would be required to break that pattern.
But cities don’t have the resources to solve homelessness on their own. Cities should be putting together ambitious master plans that can be regularly measured and publicly reported back on, that federal and provincial governments can then support.
Resources are available for well crafted solutions. Canada’s National Housing Strategy is a $82 billion ten-year program to help Canadians find a place to call home.
There are dedicated provincial resources for housing. There are also opportunities for significant savings in other budgets — including health care, emergency services, policing and the justice system — that can be realized through addressing homelessness.
A 2017 study found that, on average in Canada, the annual costs of homelessness are about $53,000 per person compared to providing a home and supports for about $22,000 per person.
We need provincial governments to work collaboratively with the federal government, aligned behind the plans of municipalities.
Cities tend to create plans for addressing housing and homelessness that assume a status quo level of resources. Not surprisingly, those plans tend to be low on ambition.
The path forward
Ending homelessness will be an evergreen challenge, with no end date.
Every year, new people will require emergency shelter to offset shocks in their lives such as illness or loss of income. Until we have sufficient new community housing, newcomers will sometimes also require shelter services. The shelter system will be there to help individuals and families deal with these short-term emergencies.
But, there is a path forward for solving homelessness. It has two key elements.
1. Stop more people falling into homelessness, and quickly rehouse those who do
Stopping more people falling into homelessness, as we recently wrote, means three things: preserve existing affordable housing through acquisition funds and land trusts; provide housing allowances to keep those on the edge in their existing homes; and, rapidly rehouse those who slip into homelessness. (Note: a significant increase in community housing units is key; here is our plan for that.)
2. End chronic homelessness
Develop a strategy for addressing chronic homelessness – anyone spending more than 180 days a year without a home.
Take, for example, a city of 1 million people like Ottawa which might have around 500-600 people who are chronically homeless.
We could end chronic homelessness with a Housing First strategy. As per the Homeless Hub, “Housing First is a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that centers on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed. Ideally, people are given a choice where they want to live and that will often be in the broader community. Others may choose more congregated settings like supportive housing. Both are predicated on individualized supports to keep people housed by addressing their physical, social and mental health needs.”
Create the community housing required
If we are to be successful in both stopping more people falling into homelessness and ending chronic homelessness, we need more deeply affordable housing. A lot more than we currently have.
We’ve previously laid out a strategy for building 1 million new community housing units by 2030. If we move on building new social housing, we can tackle homelessness.
New approaches, new results
A lot of people seem to have given up on solving homelessness. That is too difficult, or too expensive, or too far out of our control.
That’s nonsense. We can solve homelessness in Canada. Medicine Hat figured out how to do it, largely using the approaches mentioned earlier.
It won’t be cheap. But it’s a lot cheaper to house people who are experiencing homelessness than it is to pay for all the services required when individuals and families don’t have the stability and security of a home.
The way forward to end homelessness is not complicated. It starts with cities defining plans for their municipality, and with the federal and provincial governments lining up with funding behind those plans.