Report puts homelessness in provincial spotlight, professor says

One Western researcher says Ontario can end chronic homelessness within 10 years. But it will take a shift in policy and mindset for the entire province.

“If you think back, we did not always have a homeless problem in Canada. It is a relatively recent phenomenon,” said Cheryl Forchuk, Associate Director of Nursing Research at the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. “We used to have housing at the federal level, which has since been downloaded to provincial, and, in Ontario, to the municipal level. We got here through bad policy; we can fix it through improved policy.”

Forchuk was one of 14 members of the Ontario Liberal government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy panel. Released last week, the panel’s final report, A Place To Call Home, outlines the complexity of the problem and sets out recommendations that will inform both immediate and future provincial actions. As one of the first steps, Ontario has accepted the recommendation to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

Among its findings, the group called for prioritizing provincial action to reduce homelessness among four vulnerable areas: youth; Aboriginal; chronic homelessness; and those homelessness following transitions from provincially funded institutions and service systems, such as jails and hospitals.

Ontario has committed $10 million over two years in funding from the Local Poverty Reduction Fund.

FORCHUK

FORCHUK

“Do we believe that housing is a right or a privilege?” Forchuk asked. “We have to see housing as a basic human right, just as the right to food and the right to clean water. If we take that as a right then it’s not acceptable to say, ‘It’s okay.’”

Over the past several decades, homelessness in Canada has been on the rise. According to The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014, issued by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, an estimated 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night and 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year. Adult homelessness is estimated to be anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 people, which costs taxpayers each year up to $6 billion.

“This report provides a critical foundation for the government to build on,” said Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who also holds the title of Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy, and co-chaired the panel. “But we can’t do it alone. To successfully end homelessness, everyone has a role to play – the federal government, provincial ministries, municipal partners, community agencies and the private sector.”

While some homelessness data is available at the national level, the report says understanding homelessness in Ontario is a challenge. What data does exist, however, indicates a problem.

In Toronto, more than 5,000 people were counted on the streets in one night in 2013. In Hamilton, 3,149 people stayed in overnight shelters in 2014. In rural and Northern communities, there are problems as well with 720 people recorded as homeless during one week in Timmins in 2011.

“We need to understand homelessness from multiple lenses,” said Forchuk, who holds a cross appointment in Psychiatry. “There are so many specific groups that have been disadvantaged. My research focuses on how people with mental illness have been over represented and the issues that have led to that, and what needs to be fixed. Looking at the different perspectives, as to who has ended up in this situation, we need to understand what it is about the current system that created the problem.”

The province has allocated $44.1 million as part of the Investment in Affordable Housing Initiative to support access to affordable housing by Aboriginal peoples. As of Sept. 30, more than $9.1 million has been committed to build and repair 126 units and provide down payment assistance to 47 households. Ontario is also currently updating the Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy to integrate new research on best practices related to housing and homelessness.

But more needs to be done.

There is a need for preventative efforts, targeting the root causes of homelessness, to ensure people and families who are at risk remain housed. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, Forchuk added.

“You have homeless veterans and homeless youth, and the strategies to help them are completely opposite. It can happen in so many different ways. The youth and the vets are good examples of that,” Forchuk said.

Another focus needs to look at the feeders into the system, she added. What is it that brought an individual to the point of becoming homeless?

“There is no sense trying to address homelessness by only taking into account the people who are already there and not looking at how they got there in the first place,” Forchuk said. “Some of our work regarding preventing discharge into homelessness has shown that at least a couple hundred times a year in London somebody would be one night in psychiatric ward and the next night homeless.”

In total, the Expert Advisory Panel heard from 40 key presenters representing 15 subpopulations (e.g., youth, LGBTTQ, Aboriginal peoples, seniors, women and families), including representatives from nine municipalities/regions: Hamilton, Cochrane, Durham Region, Peterborough, Thunder Bay, Waterloo, Toronto, London and Peel Region.

“Once you hit a certain point it becomes more and more difficult to pull yourself out of it,” Forchuk said. “People being homeless for months on end, where it becomes a chronic situation, it is truly unacceptable.”