Homelessness solutions outlined at forum
By Murray MacAdam
“The way we build affordable housing is we get everyone involved,” housing advocate Michael Shapcott told a recent forum on the challenge of ending homelessness.
Mr. Shapcott, one of Canada’s leading experts on housing issues and a member of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Toronto, reinforced this theme throughout the event, organized by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC). It attracted 60 people from as far as Thunder Bay and London, Ontario, including representatives of faith communities, low-income people and service providers.
The forum opened with a powerful reflection by Imam Dr. Abdul Hai Patel, who noted that Islam’s central religious text, the Quran, affirms that the poor have a right to the wealth of the rich. Yet as Chair of Toronto’s Flemingdon Park Food Bank, he sees a growing hunger crisis, with 4500 families relying on the food bank.
Mr. Shapcott noted that affordable housing waiting lists for Toronto have soared 31 percent to 168,000 individuals in 2014, from 128,000 in 2008. “We’ve got a serious problem that’s gotten worse.” He linked the shortage of affordable housing with rising inequality along with cuts to social programs and tax cuts for affluent Canadians.
He zeroed in on sharp cuts by the federal government for affordable housing. The number of federal-subsidized affordable housing units is slated to drop from 626,000 in 2007 to 492,000 in 2017. Unless these cuts are reversed, faced with higher rents the tenants involved “are going to struggle for a few months, go to the food bank, then get evicted,” warned Mr. Shapcott.
A comprehensive housing strategy must include bold targets with sustained funding, new affordable and accessible housing units, and legislative changes. “It’s not rocket science,” said Mr. Shapcott. “We have the resources and technical ability.”
He urged faith groups not to be afraid when pushing for solutions to homelessness. “We need to be really bold, not just pushing for one-off measures. Groups like ISARC are mighty voices.”
The government of Ontario has pledged to eliminate homelessness as part of its next five-year poverty reduction program. However, it has not allocated additional resources to achieve this goal, nor has it set out a timeline.
Liberal MPP Lou Rinaldi told the forum that his government has not been doing enough to help the homeless. However, the government’s first five-year poverty reduction plan has led to real benefits, including 47,000 children and families being uplifted from poverty, with another 70,000 children in low-income families now eligible for free dental services though the Healthy Smiles program.
Frustration with the slow rate of progress flared up several times at the forum. “Why does your government seem blind to the realities some of us are living in?” Charles Nichols asked Mr. Rinaldi. “I’m losing patience. I’ve been living in poverty since I was 19, and I’m in my fifties now.”
An afternoon panel outlined how an innovative program called STEP Home in Waterloo Region has helped more than 500 formerly homeless people find housing, through collaboration among service providers, homeless people and outreach workers. The program also addresses the critical issue of loneliness among homeless individuals. Funding comes from municipal, provincial and federal programs. Besides improving people’s lives, a local study showed that this program is cost effective. For every $1.00 invested, there is a savings of $9.45 in reduced policing, ambulance, hospital and other costs linked to homelessness.
“If we come together with passion around a common goal, amazing things can happen,” said STEP Home outreach worker Katie McDougall.
The forum wrapped up with action suggestions, including urging participants to ask their local MPP to support a Private Member’s Bill introduced in the Ontario Legislature by MPP Peter Milczyn, called the Planning Statute Law Amendment Act. It would give Ontario municipalities the power to require developers to allocate some units in new housing developments to affordable housing. The measure, called inclusionary zoning, has been implemented in hundreds of U.S. municipalities.