News Items for Thursday, February 16, 2017:
- United Way raises more than $55 million despite economic hard times
- Medicine Hat poverty-elimination plan draws skepticism from locals
- Eliminating poverty the best prescription for better health, doctor says
- Four Keys to a Successful Housing Strategy
- More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction
- Cambridge man camping out 90 nights for homelessness
- Vancouver rental building part of federal plans to ‘innovate’ housing sector
- Stable housing critical to success of mental health treatment
- We’re Losing What ‘SRO’ Hotels Can Do Right
United Way raises more than $55 million despite economic hard times
Calgary Sun, Feb 13, 2017
Calgary’s hobbled economy didn’t deter thousands from stepping up to boost the United Way. Monday, United Way of Calgary and Area unveiled the tally from the charity’s 2016 fundraising campaign, which raked in $55.7 million thanks to the support of 984 workplace campaigns, 34,623 individual donors and more than 12,000 volunteers. Karen Young, president and CEO of the United Way, said she was astonished by the support show in difficult financial times, which topped last year’s total by some $500,000. “I am humbled by the generosity of our city and appreciative of every single person’s support,” she said. “The steadfast commitment through good times and bad demonstrates the true spirit of Calgarians.” Funds from the campaign will be invested back into the community through a variety of local programs and partnerships focused on poverty, children and communities. More than 100 agencies along with some 177,000 Calgarians will benefit from the donated funds. The campaign was further buoyed by a special one-time gift of $2 million to the United Way’s Tomorrow Fund, a long-term investment fund, from long-time volunteers and supporters Michael and Heather Culbert. Campaign Co-Chair for 2016 Mick Dilger, president and CEO of Pembina Pipeline Corporation — who was joined this year by Calgary Herald columnist Deborah Yedlin — said he was awed to see the community rally behind those on the margins. “The 2016 campaign ‘We Are All Calgary’ has very special meaning to me,” he said. “To see thousands of people come together for the greater good to bring about change is inspiring. We issued a plea to Calgarians because the need was greater than ever. And Calgarians responded overwhelmingly.” The co-chairs for the 2017 campaign were also announced at Monday’s event, with Minhas Breweries co-founder and television personality Manjit Minhas joining forces with Rich Kruger, president and CEO of Imperial Oil. “We’re going to tell the story of Calgarians; those who support United Way and those who need our support,” Young said of the 2017 campaign.
Medicine Hat poverty-elimination plan draws skepticism from locals
CBC News, Feb 15, 2017
The southern Alberta city that ended homelessness two years ago is now upping its game with a plan to eliminate poverty in 13 years. Medicine Hat made the bold claim it had ended homelessness in May 2015. It got a lot of attention as cities and communities across the country struggle with the same issues and look for answers. A city councillor and food bank co-executive director says the city hopes to apply its learnings on homelessness to poverty as a whole. “Lots of people would say that’s a utopian belief, that we would ever have a community without poverty, but I think it comes back to inclusion,” Celina Symmonds told CBC News Wednesday at the program launch. “Instead of having a segmented society, that we have an inclusive society where everyone belongs, everyone feels like they are part of something bigger,” she said. Symmonds says it’s a matter of taking a big picture approach. “We have come to a functional zero on homelessness here in Medicine Hat, and I see no reason we can’t do the same thing with poverty. We had our naysayers then too, [but] we always have early adopters who believe that we can do it.” “We can push this forward like we did with the ending homelessness plan.” A volunteer and client of the food bank says that’s a tall order, and he struggles to see it working. “They have been trying to take care of poverty since the beginning of time,” Norman Whitford said. “A thousand years from now, you will still have poverty. I don’t think for one moment you will every solve poverty. Not even in Medicine Hat.” He says the issue is complex and textured. “Medicine Hat is well known for the street people’s programs. Nobody lives on the street, but they are still hungry,” he said. “To say that it is not going to continue, I don’t believe that for one minute. Some other reasons will come up and next thing you know you are going to have needy people. We are a wealthy country. There shouldn’t be as much poverty.” Alina Turner, a consultant who has worked on both the homelessness and poverty initiatives, agrees on that last point. She said Medicine Hat is in a good position to come at the problem. “You have leaders that are really good at executing,” Turner explained. “It is not just setting ambitious plans — we have tons of examples of ambitious plans that don’t have the same level of impact that we see here. There is this perfect marriage of visioning, a sense of urgency and this ability to execute and practice that is often harder to find.” Turner says poverty is about a lot more than just money in the bank. “If you ask people with lived experience … they will tell you it is mental health, recreation for their children, food security, access to good jobs,” she said. The Medicine Hat approach, if successful, could be applied to larger centres quite easily, Turner said. “You can apply it anywhere,” she said. “In bigger cities, you’re not talking about 200 programs; you’re talking about thousands of programs, so in that case, maybe it is a matter of dividing it up in bite-size pieces, or maybe it is a phased approach where we focus on one part of the system and then expand to include to all the other pieces.” Medicine Hat’s goal of getting rid of poverty by 2030, is in line with a global World Bank initiative to do the same thing.
Eliminating poverty the best prescription for better health, doctor says
Calgary Herald, Feb 15, 2017
By: Jonathan Charlton
Toronto family doctor and hospital administrator Dr. Danielle Martin is visiting the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon on Thursday to speak about her six big ideas to improve the health care system. Among them is a call for a national guaranteed basic income. She explained the link between poverty and poor health to reporter Jonathan Charlton.
Q: What do your Toronto stories have in common with the stories of people in, say, rural Saskatchewan?
A: Most of the issues apply across the country. Martin tells the story of a patient living in social housing which flooded, causing mould. The patient subsequently developed asthma. “That happens in every community — rural, urban or otherwise — across the country, that people living in substandard housing experience health complications as a result of their poverty.”
Q: Can you explain the relationship between poverty and health?
A: Income explains the likelihood of getting sick better than any other factor — even the existence of a health care system. Low income people are less able to access the necessities of life, such as housing and nutritious food. Poverty restricts access to higher education, which affects people’s future income, meaning their children will likely also be poor. Low income people are also more likely to live with “survival stress” and turn to smoking and drinking. Low income people are less likely to be in community networks that can help in times of stress. Poverty and poor health then last through generations.
Q: Why is a guaranteed basic income the best way to address this?
A: Martin cites data from Canada and other countries showing a basic income is an effective way to reduce poverty and improve health. She draws particular attention to a study decades ago in Dauphin, Manitoba in which low income people received a small income top up. The town saw an 8.5 per cent decrease in hospitalization during that time. “It is hard to imagine a bigger health impact from any single intervention. I can’t think of anything else that reduces all-cause hospitalizations by 8.5 per cent.” Stable housing critical to success of mental health treatment
Four Keys to a Successful Housing Strategy
National Newswatch, Feb 12, 2017
By: Rosanne Haggerty
This is an exciting time to be working in housing and homelessness in Canada. Over the last year and a half, my team and I have had the honour to support a growing movement of communities in Canada working to house 20,000 of Canada’s most vulnerable homeless people. It has been wonderful to witness communities like Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Hamilton and others achieve significant and permanent reductions in homelessness – an outcome that seemed impossible only a few short years ago. With the impending release of a National Housing Strategy and the government exploring a revamp of Canada’s flagship national homelessness program, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, an end to homelessness across Canada has come within reach. I’ve been working for an end to homelessness in the United States for over thirty years now and my team and I have watched closely the progress being made in several Canadian cities. I wanted to share some of our lessons in the hope Canada can avoid making the same mistakes we made. In 1983, when I started working at a Times Square shelter for homeless youth, homelessness was a new issue in America, as it was in Canada. Back then, homelessness seemed so urgent, but also so fixable. Yet, that initial confidence had faded by the end of my first winter in New York as we witnessed the same young people return to our shelter over and over. It became clear that we would never end homelessness without creating more affordable housing opportunities. Over time, the non-profit housing organization I founded built nearly 3,000 units of new, supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness and for low-income workers. But, homelessness continued to rise. Somehow this housing wasn’t putting a dent in the overall numbers of those experiencing homelessness in New York City, or reaching the most visible, ill and vulnerable people on the streets. We soon realized that all the affordable housing in the world wouldn’t reduce homelessness if we didn’t have a coherent housing system: a coordinated, user-friendly set of pathways to connect vulnerable people to the housing and services we already had. Our team shifted course, and since 2010, we have worked with more than 200 communities to design housing systems aimed at ending homelessness for good. We’ve learned a great deal in each place, and signs of progress are everywhere, including here in Canada, but it’s clear that the most successful communities are doing these four things differently from everyone else:
They focus their efforts toward providing housing first. When we ask people experiencing homelessness what is getting in the way of finding housing, we learn that many of our assumptions about what people need to escape homelessness are wrong. They don’t want elaborate programs and treatment plans, they want a safe place to live that they can afford, and to accept help on their own terms. Successful communities focus on housing first.
They pay for the outcomes they want. For too long, governments and regional funders have paid non-profits to deliver services, regardless of whether those services end people’s homelessness. This has created perverse incentives for non-profits to keep their programs running, rather than attempting to work themselves out of a job. That’s easy to change if funders are willing to renegotiate their housing and social service contracts.
They don’t just gather data in the aggregate. Successful communities coordinate across their shelters, service providers and street outreach teams to identify every person experiencing homelessness by name, assess and document their specific needs, and follow them all the way through to becoming housed. These real-time, by-name lists matter because as much as 70 percent of people who experience homelessness also escape it quickly on their own. Without a coordinated method for knowing who needs what, communities often end up over-subsidizing people who need only minor help, leaving less money for those with deeper needs.
They turn their by-name lists into multi-agency command centers. In most communities, a complex tangle of agencies and organizations own different pieces of the housing process. The best communities align those groups around a shared, measurable time-bound goal, and then using a by-name list to drive progress toward that goal every month.
These four strategies are concrete enough for any community to pursue, and they work in Canada, too. Canada clearly needs more affordable housing – which the National Housing Strategy should begin to address – but our learning suggests that new housing alone won’t end homelessness. Communities must also weave their existing resources and institutions into accountable, well-designed local housing systems that work for everyone. This can be at the heart of a revamped Homelessness Partnering Strategy. These are exciting times in Canada as the federal government steps back into a leadership role on housing and Canadian cities step up to the challenge of ending homelessness. Canadians have been very smart about applying lessons from around the world to preventing and ending homelessness here. I know the day will come very soon when the world will look to Canada for leadership and inspiration.
Rosanne Haggerty is president of Community Solutions. She previously founded Common Ground, which continues to develop affordable and supportive housing in New York City. The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction
Markholmgren.com, Feb 13, 2017
By: Mark Holmgren
As some of you know, I have written about and I am continuing to work on what I call a Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation. I have been asked about the difference between Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) and this game-changer approach I am working on with my colleagues at Vibrant Communities Canada. The game-changers we have identified are Housing, Transportation, Education, Health, Income and Jobs, Food Security, Financial Empowerment, and Early Childhood Development. All of these are aligned with SDoH, but there is, I suggest, more to what we are exploring than social determinants of health.
The Game-Changer Approach also is stressing the importance of avoiding the creation of “thin” strategies among a host of other “thin” strategies that, in effect, can lead to an overall poverty reduction strategy that is a mile wide and an inch deep. The notion of prioritizing our efforts is one that is often accepted as necessary but in practice not emphasized. One of the fundamental tenets of the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation is rooted in an old Taoist saying, For every yes there is a no. In other words, to have the degree and scope of impact we want to have in our communities, we must make hard choices in order to ensure that we have the time, resources, and capacities to achieve transformational impact. This is especially true for local roundtables addressing poverty in their communities because more often than not they are underfunded and under-staffed. A mile wide, inch-deep approach in such a case may not cut the mustard.
Another key aspect of the Game-Changer Approach is that we need to see our work to end poverty within a learning framework more so than focus on data as the indicator of success. While data is important, just measuring LICO and LIM over time is not good enough. Why? First because too often the measures we use are not realistic. The poverty line is not reflective of reality, so to speak. Second, our historical desire to tie “our work” to results in a way that proves “our success” is more often than not a pipe dream. For example, we see this desire for “attribution” as a key driver for funding. This occurs often in programs. Employment programs is one example. It is not uncommon in my experience with such programs for a funder to want assurances that someone employed through the program will still be employed a year or two from now. The fallacy of such expectations is easy to discern, yet still many of us still attempt to attribute success to our work in ways that are unreasonable. If a person goes through an Employment program and gets a good job, attribution is easier to claim; however, there are too many factors (the economy, employer downsizing, a person’s health situation, not to mention disasters like the Fort McMurray fire, to allow us to really believe our program’s effect can be proven successful two years out. Besides, while funders may want this type of attribution, a key question is to what extent are they willing to pay for an intricate, long-term measurement system that still could produce unclear claims of success? The Game-Changer approach includes the calling to focus more on “Contribution” as opposed to “Attribution.” While the former may be criticized for being too subjective, in reality it is no less so than the latter. That said, significant change, in particular systemic change, does not occur because of one program, one agency, or even one collective impact effort. Such efforts, especially when linked together with the efforts of others, can and do contribute to big changes and there can be reasonable analysis provides that supports such contribution; however, clear and definitive attribution claims are, I suggest, more of a subjective reach than focusing on contribution.
As well, historically, we have tended to focus on measuring results within arbitrary time-lines, most often annual segments. This 12 month view of our work is embedded in budget processes and in funder forms that ask for comparative results from one 12 month segment to the next and the expectation, whether stated or subtle, is that these numbers will improve. This is risky business in terms of effecting transformational change in a Game-Changer area. For example, affordable housing in Canada has not received sufficient attention by the Federal Governments of the past. Our housing stock is aging, and wait lists for subsidized housing are more likely to motivate hopelessness for those on the wait list than result in being housed. We identify affordable and safe housing as a game-changer because the benefits of decent housing has a cascading effect beyond the procurement of housing. People’s health improves, mental health problems often decrease or stabilize, social inclusion becomes more real, children experience more stable access to schools, addictions often decrease, and people start thinking about their futures (getting job training, going back to school) because they no longer have the stress and experience the harm of inadequate housing.
Getting to a place where our country and communities have appropriate housing for persons of all incomes will take time and involve the efforts of innumerable organizations and leaders from all sectors. One cannot measure the progress of achieving more and better housing for Canadians by simply measuring the quantity of housing in 12 month segments. In fact it could take years to start seeing the growth in numbers.
Working across sectors to improve the state of housing in our country requires many contributors and will involve a lot of learning. Mistakes will be made. Barriers will surface, as well as great ideas, new policies, and so on. If we are serious about measuring the progress with this game-changer, we need to not only re-think our collective strategies but also rethink how we can evaluate this progress. I was part of a conversation a while back where one colleague expressed to a group of us that the only poverty reduction priority we should focus on is safe and affordable housing. Her view point was not well-embraced to say the least and I am not inclined to see housing as the sole priority. However, her perspective does tie to the idea that in order to move forward on major changes, we may have to leave some others in the background. We may still work on them, but not to the extent the priorities we commit to. Again, for every yes, there is a no.
I am going to continue to write about this. And I am keen to hear from others. When we work with change, all of us need to learn as we go. Any help you care to provide is welcome, and I hope you are getting the same from me.
Cambridge man camping out 90 nights for homelessness
CBC News, Feb 14, 2017
By: Kate Bueckert
Over the past week, Paul Tavares has camped out in snow, freezing rain, high winds and mild winter temperatures. Tavares has set up a small abode across from The Bridges shelter on Simcoe Street in Cambridge to raise money for the shelter and awareness about homelessness in his city. “I wanted people to say, ‘What’s going on? And then come here and ask me questions,” he said Monday on a cellphone outside his tent. He said he has received a lot of support; People honk as they drive past him, “complete strangers” and friends have brought him gift cards to get coffee at the nearby Tim Hortons, and he said he even received a call from a group in Wiarton, Ont. offering help. “I’ve kind of got my own little furnace going on inside me,” he said. “I do not regret what I’m doing and I doubt that I will ever feel any regret throughout this 90 days.”
‘People are homeless now’
Tavares pitched his tent at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 and despite the “rollercoaster” of winter weather over the last week, he said he will press on. “I’ve had a couple of my friends ask me, why don’t I do this when it’s warmer or why don’t I do this indoors,” he said. “People are homeless now.” So far, Tavares said he has helped raise $1,200 for The Bridges shelter, which he says is bursting at the seams with people who need a place to stay. He knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle. While he has a home now, he said he has previously been homeless and he’s currently unemployed. He said he’s going to use the time in his tent to think about what’s next for him. “The overnight, in the tent, I’m on my own, but that’s given me some time to do some soul searching because at the end of this 90 days, my life has to go on,” he said.
Vancouver rental building part of federal plans to ‘innovate’ housing sector
CTV News, Feb 16, 2017
By: Jordan Press
OTTAWA – The federal government’s bid to find new ways to finance the construction of affordable housing is yielding its first results. A new $3.5 million, three-storey, 40-unit building that came about through a small federal fund that financially backstops projects that are innovative in their financing or construction techniques, is to be inaugurated in Vancouver today. The federally backed project could be scaled for use in other cities to help house homeless populations, provide disaster relief, or quickly house people displaced by construction in fast-growing cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal, says Luke Harrison, CEO of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency. The Vancouver housing authority received $1.5 million from the federal affordable rental housing innovation fund to complete the project that include movable, modular units and accompanying foundations that can be easily set up on undeveloped, city-owned land. The $200 million innovation fund, overseen by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., is expected to support the construction of up to 4,000 new rental units over five years. The fund is part of a two-pronged effort announced in last year’s budget to increase the supply of affordable rental housing in the country.
Stable housing critical to success of mental health treatment
CBC News, Feb 1, 2017
By: Adetayo Bero
A Wilfrid Laurier University professor hopes a new approach to deal with mental health and homelessness will change the way cities across the country look at tackling these issues. Geoffrey Nelson, a professor in the university’s psychology department led a four-year research project that studied the viability of using a “housing first” strategy in dealing with mental health in five Canadian cities. The program offers immediate access to permanent housing for individuals who are homeless and may be dealing with mental illness. “Having a stable home [and] a place you could call your own really provides a secure base for someone to begin to deal with mental health issues, and with one’s life in general,” he told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris Wednesday. Individuals in the program also have case management and support workers who help them secure the housing, as well as work on some of the unique issues they may be dealing with such as mental health and addiction. Aside from access to permanent, rent-supplemented housing, there are no requirements for eligibility in order to take part in the program. Where other programs, shelters, or transitional homes may place conditions such as sobriety or abstinence on their participants, the housing first project does not. They focus instead on things like harm reduction for people dealing with addiction. This means reducing the negative impacts alcohol or drug use might have on an individual. Allowing the participants to have their independence puts them in a better position to be able to focus on improving themselves, Nelson said. During the initial At Home/Chez Soi research project, 2,000 participants in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Moncton, N.B., took part in the program over two years. Nelson said the pilot was successful and about 75 per cent of participants are still being stably housed within the last six months of the project. Preparations are now being made to roll out the program in several other communities across the country.
We’re Losing What ‘SRO’ Hotels Can Do Right
The Tyee, Feb 13, 2017
By: Stefania Seccia
In a year from now, 59-year-old Tom de Grey could lose his home. That’s when his landlord will be released from a 15-year agreement with the city binding rents in his building to the welfare rate. De Grey lives in an SRO — a single-room occupancy hotel. To some, they’re synonymous with cockroaches, bed bugs and slumlords, but not all are so poorly managed. For the low-income or homeless, SROs provide an integral option on a short list of shelter choices. That, experts say, is why it’s not always a great idea to tear down SROs and build something new — even if the new structure is also meant to include some lower-income tenants. In fact, cities might do better to leave them in place — but insist they actually meet existing health and building standards. U.S. research shows that the loss of virtually any form of existing shelter for vulnerable populations leads to street homelessness. And that is true even if the housing is replaced — usually later, only partially, and often costing more. If de Grey’s rent is allowed to rise to market rates, the former film and construction worker says he’d face a “real crisis.” He fears winding up at another SRO hotel worse than the one he’ll have to leave. His current unit is well maintained, near a park, and has a big enough kitchen and washroom for him to live independently. Before moving two years ago into his clean room in a 100-year-old heritage building with 12 suites outside the downtown core, de Grey lived in the storied Downtown Eastside landmark Astoria Hotel for seven years. It was “what you call a real SRO,” he says. “And I certainly don’t want to go back.” De Gray lived on the North Shore for 20 years before circumstances put him in a cheaper apartment in Strathcona — until that too fell through and he wound up at the Astoria. “I only planned to stay three days,” he says. But after years of working and being able to support his family, a chain of events kept him there. “They used to call it the poverty trap,” he says. Despite their reputation, SROs are an important link in the chain of options that advocates say is necessary to address rising homelessness. Their demise in Vancouver, they say, is due to loopholes in their protection and not enough enforcement of SRO maintenance bylaws. And it’s putting even more people on the street. Particularly at risk are SROs like de Grey’s, where rents are limited by agreements between the building owner and the city, supported by federal funding.
SROs getting fewer, costlier
A single adult on welfare in British Columbia receives $610 a month, and has a budget of $375 to pay their rent. Yet in 2015, the average of the lowest rents in Vancouver SROs surveyed by the Carnegie Community Action Project was $517, up from $398 in 2009. Average rents in the “eight fastest-gentrifying hotels” doubled over the same six-year period, from $444 to $905 a month. One hotel advertised a unit on Craigslist for $1,500 a month. The Carnegie report calculates that for every eight units above welfare rate slated to be built from 2014 until February 2016, there was only one built to rent at the welfare rate. In all: 205 units that low-income people can afford, 1,663 they can’t. De Grey is fighting back by becoming active in the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, which aims to preserve units and make them more habitable. The group wants the city to better enforce existing bylaws aimed at slowing the loss of the hotels. “That’s all we’re asking for,” says Wendy Pedersen, a longstanding advocate in the Downtown Eastside now active in the same group. SROs, she says, are “a pretty inadequate form of housing, but there is nothing else. We can’t afford to let them go.” In 2015, the city changed its Single Room Accommodation bylaw in an effort to stymie landlords from using “renovations” as small as fixing a sink as excuses to evict tenants. Landlords now need a city permit for any renovations. The fee to convert a single SRO room to another type, like student housing or a hostel, jumped from $15,000 to $125,000. The city also fines landlords when they break health and safety codes and don’t meet maintenance standards. According to a media release late in 2015, Vancouver City Hall issued “over 150 compliance letters and 75 orders” under the SRO bylaw that year. In the previous year, it levied penalties totalling $6,800 against landlords in what it calls “standards of maintenance” cases. But some SRO owners, critics say, continue to use legal loopholes — such as forcing tenants to sign fixed-term agreements — that allow them to hike room rents significantly, forcing tenants out. And according to a city staff report, a new trend finds investors buying SROs in strategic locations not to operate as low-cost accommodations, but as gentrification projects. After upgrading rooms they attract tenants with deeper pockets to up-and-coming locations where they can also earn revenue from renting commercial and retail space. “These renovations, although helpful in enhancing the quality of the rooms,” the city report states, “are resulting in the displacement of tenants due to their lack of affordability, which has negative impacts on the individual but also the community as a driver of homelessness.” The Carnegie report and other critics say that Vancouver can do more. They urge the city to give itself the power to impose non-profit management on hotels with outstanding maintenance complaints, and to limit incentives like renovation subsidies to owners that agree to keep units at the welfare/pension rental rate afterward. The province, the Carnegie report adds, could provide more effective rent control and higher welfare and disability benefits.
‘Affordable’ — in whose eyes?
Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Chicago have all toyed with permitting new SRO-style micro-units to be built. But merely loosening zoning to allow for smaller rooms hasn’t always increased affordable choices. Many new micro-units aren’t built for lower income brackets, let alone those on welfare. Vancouver already requires 30 per cent of units in new rental housing to be affordable to tenants with incomes low enough to qualify for BC Housing apartments. That works out to no higher than $912 for a bachelor. It’s also nearly two and a half times what provincial welfare provides a single person for rent in the city. Vancouver has a separate definition for the Downtown Eastside. There, a bylaw stipulates that a building within the neighbourhood’s borders must rent one-third of its units at the welfare rate, another third at the BC Housing rate, and the final third at what it vaguely calls “affordable market rents.” There are about 8,500 people living in the community on welfare and disability cheques, the Carnegie report states, and 4,000 more on seniors’ pensions. That’s roughly two-thirds of the neighbourhood’s more than 18,000 residents who have between $375 and $403 a month for rent. According to critics, building one-third of the housing for two-thirds of the people isn’t enough. BC Housing says the province increased its total number of homeless shelter beds by a quarter between 2012 and March 2016. However the number of independent social housing units barely rose, by less than one per cent. The number of transitional, supported and assisted-living units actually fell, by about the same amount. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 names still languish on the BC Housing waitlist for housing, and at any one time an estimated 15,000 people in the province have no secure shelter at all.
‘Help’ that (also) hurts
B.C.’s path of supporting housing for those in need selectively, and not the full spectrum, has produced unintended consequences in U.S. cities. Los Angeles, for example, shifted city funds away from transitional housing with the admirable motive of building more permanent units. But the result left more people on the streets. Although the estimated number of homeless living in the City of Angels didn’t change from 2015 to 2016, its “unsheltered population” rose by 1,400. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority blamed the rise on the disappearance of transitory beds to planned permanent housing — and cuts to funding for shelter programs in order to pay for the new construction. The 220 low-rent rooms in the Panama Hotel in the city’s infamous skid-row neighbourhood, for instance, were recently vacated and gutted. It’s expected to reopen as permanent supportive housing. But there will be only 79 new units. L.A.’s shift was encouraged by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development under former president Barack Obama. The agency bet on more permanent housing to solve America’s homelessness crisis. To help pay for it, HUD cut funding to some 2,000 transitional housing beds across the country. But it takes time to build. People who lost beds mostly didn’t have an interim place to go, or a guarantee they would be able to get an upgraded unit when replacements were built.
No single ‘happy home’
That’s why it’s important to understand what “affordable” housing means to different people needing support, says Alina Turner, who played a role in eliminating long-term street homelessness in Medicine Hat, Alberta. “The reality is that people vacillate through different housing types throughout their lives, depending on their experiences, situations, contexts,” she says. “So it’s unrealistic to think that one solution is going to solve all your problems.” An architect of Alberta’s provincial framework for defeating homelessness and a former vice-president of strategy at the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Turner knows what it means to be homeless herself. Her family were refugees from communist Romania, lived in a refugee camp in Germany for two years, and when they came to Canada she was eventually removed by child-care workers and lived in a basement suite by herself until she aged out of government care. Turner’s experience leads her to stress the importance of listening to those living without a home. “If you listen, you’re going to know it’s not going to be this ‘one size fits all’ [answer],” she says. The best outcomes happen, she says, when the type of shelter — a temporary bed, transitional, or permanent — is well matched to an individual’s needs. And, more surprisingly, when they’re free to say, “No thanks.” Turner contests an argument influential in the United States: that transitional housing isn’t as “cost-efficient” as permanent housing. While efficiency is desirable and worth improving, she says, “That doesn’t mean that we should do away with an entire sector.” Vancouver lawyer DJ Larkin agrees. The housing rights advocate says the province needs to stop simply reacting to events. Policy gestures in response to “a fuss” over symptoms, like the appearance of tent cities last year in Victoria and Vancouver, Larkin says, are “never going to solve the problem.” Rather, they prompt the province to “over-focus on one aspect of the housing spectrum to the detriment of others.” Over the years, Larkin says, a shift of government focus to supportive housing has meant that other types “fall off the map a little bit. “If we focus on permanent housing, there are going to be people who need transitional housing, who need shelter, and who are getting pushed out of those spaces where they currently exist,” Larkin says, as happened in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, “people living in poverty end up being quasi-institutionalized in supportive housing where they may not need it.”
Canada: money, but no plan
Canada’s 2016 federal budget promised more money to address homelessness. There was $111.8 million for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy; $208 million to the newly created Affordable Rental Housing Innovation Fund; and $30 million to assist with upkeep of existing rent-geared-to-income housing units. But neither Ottawa nor Victoria have presented thought-out plans to keep all the necessary doors on the low-income/homeless housing spectrum open to those in need. And they haven’t asked for the valuable input from those who would benefit from that shelter. As for de Grey, he continues to work with the SRO Collaborative hoping to preserve affordable units like his. “We’ve been crunching numbers, and half of them are gone — and by gone I mean they’re over $500 a month in rent. They’re no longer low-income,” he says. Another “550 rooms, I believe, are being rapidly gentrified, renovicted, by any means possible.” The small rooms may not seem much to others. But to many seniors he knows personally, they’re a locking door and a place to call home. “Poor people have to live somewhere.”