Did Billions in Spending Make a Dent in Homelessness? Canada Doesn’t Know.
Tents at a homeless encampment at a park in Vancouver last winter as an arctic front hit Canada’s western provinces.Credit…Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters
While other Canadian cities are firmly in the throes of winter, Toronto, after months of balmy weather, finally surrendered to its first snowfall on Tuesday, with more on the way. Winters are a habitual stress test on Toronto’s infrastructure, especially public transit, but also on its constellation of social services for the homeless.
Most nights in Toronto, the shelter system is full and has to turn people away.
The city, like others in Canada, has received millions in federal funding in recent years to build additional housing, and it has adopted other measures to address homelessness. But after about five years, no one can say whether any of these federally funded programs are working to reduce homelessness, because no one seems to be tracking it.
That’s the conclusion that Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, reached in her latest report investigating chronic homelessness, saying that the “federal government does not know whether the efforts put forward so far have improved housing outcomes for vulnerable Canadians.”
The audit covers programs in the National Housing Strategy, which was started by the federal government in 2017, with plans to spend 78.5 billion Canadian dollars over 10 years in an effort to cut chronic homelessness by half by 2028, in part, by funding the construction of 160,000 homes.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a government-owned company that insures house buyers’ mortgages, is leading the rollout of the national strategy.
Ms. Hogan found that the organization, and other federal departments administering the program, had spent more than 4.5 billion dollars and had not collected data on how that spending had affected levels of homelessness, nor did they view themselves as accountable for addressing chronic homelessness or hitting the plan’s targets.
“This meant that despite being a federally established target, there was minimal federal accountability for its achievement,” the report states.
Tracking homelessness can be challenging. Most municipalities rely on counts at specific times to record the number of people using a service on a particular day, according to a recent report by Canada’s national census agency.
In Toronto, about 8,200 people use shelters each night, on average, which is 1,600 more people than last year. That’s a record high for Canada’s most populous city, which has continued to add new beds across its various respite centers to address demand. Throughout 2021, the city’s shelters served 18,500 people.
[Read: The Carpenter Who Built Tiny Homes for Toronto’s Homeless]
But that system does not always offer a full picture, given the nature of homelessness. It can be cyclical; the population is mobile and transient; and not all tracking measures use the same definitions. Some people may not identify themselves as homeless, or they may be among the “hidden homeless,” or those trapped in precarious arrangements. One example is a person with no housing options on the horizon who is staying with friends.
Affordable housing became harder to find after 1993, when the federal government froze spending on social housing, a move experts saw as a turning point leading up to today’s housing crisis.
“Those chickens have come home to roost,” said John Graham, a professor of social work who leads the Kelowna Homelessness Research Collaborative at the University of British Columbia.
Professor Graham said that modern housing was now widely viewed as an investment commodity, not a human right. “It’s disgraceful that any society of our economic means should have homeless people at all,” he said.
As my colleague Ian Austen reported last month, Canada’s housing costs are among the highest in the world, buoyed by a pandemic real estate frenzy.
[Read: Many Canadians Can’t Afford Homes Despite Cooling Real Estate Market]
And unless Canada builds a lot more housing to accommodate a planned increase in immigration, prices could go even higher.
The country has in recent years taken steps, such as the National Housing Strategy, to close the gap in affordable housing stock. But there’s still a long way to go, said Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The vast majority of the housing that’s been produced is not affordable to people in deepest need, which means it’s not solving homelessness,” Mr. Ritcher, who is based in Calgary, told me.
Even so, he said he was hopeful that the federal housing strategy would make a difference. “We just need to make sure to refocus and retool,” he said. “I think ending chronic homelessness in Canada is certainly achievable.”
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