This is the last in a three-part series on the cost of living in Waterloo Region
BY LAURIE SNELL
Each year Canada spends $7 billion on homelessness – a figure that shocks many but means little to the thousands of homeless who have fallen between the cracks. The disparities between the upper class and lower class speak volumes of our capitalist society, but fail to identify the increasing gap between the low-income and subsistent poor. A significant number of people are in a constant state of survival – unsure of where they will find their next meal, have a safe rest or receive appropriate care.
The $7 billion that is spent on emergency shelters, social services, health care and corrections is not enough. About 2,880 people are classified as unsheltered – meaning they sleep in cars, parks or on the street. Almost 15,000 homeless people stay in emergency shelters each night and 7,350 stay in violence against women shelters. Another 4,464 homeless people are provisionally accommodated in hospitals, prisons or interim housing.
A report released to Waterloo Region Council on Sept. 6 indicates that Ontario’s insufficient minimum wage and rising housing costs in the region are increasing the harsh reality of homelessness and causing the standard of living to decline. The number of overnight stays in emergency shelters in Waterloo Region has increased by 45 per cent – from 63,277 in 2008 to 91,697 in 2012.
Another shocking revelation from the regional report is the 300 per cent increase in children from families using shelter services. In 2008, 105 children used these resources, and in 2012 there were 420. The number of women at emergency shelters – who often use these resources out of poverty or violence – has increased by 33 per cent, jumping from 596 in 2008 to 795 in 2012.
There are more than 30,000 homeless in Canada each night, according to the report, The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 – the first extensive Canadian report card on the issue by Homeless Hub. Because the report is the first of its kind, it relies on certain approximations – including an estimate that almost 200,000 Canadians access shelters each year. Less prevalent situations, such as hidden homeless, are difficult to accurately include in these figures.
The Homeless Hub estimates that nearly 50,000 Canadians are among the hidden homeless. Couch-surfers or individuals who reside in very temporary locations, such as a hotel, would fall into this category. The needs of the hidden homeless are less prevalent because they often avoid social assistance – another barrier to collecting accurate data.
Kendra Foord, services manager at Reaching Our Outdoor Friends (ROOF), has seen a rapid increase in demand for their resources. ROOF is a Kitchener-based program for youth between 12 and 25, providing outreach, drop-in, essential services and shelter to those experiencing or are at-risk of homelessness. The shelter accommodates 15 at capacity, where the average occupancy was seven to eight youth per night a few years ago, and has since reached peaks of 13 to 14 occupants each night. While some people only use these facilities one night, the average shelter stay lasts about 50 days.
“(Homelessness in the region) has a lot to do with the financial downturn that happened a few years ago … usually it takes a few years for us to see the actual impact of a financial crisis in the emergency shelter sector,” Foord said.
“The region has a vacancy rate that is very low and then a lot of the new housing that’s being built is in the high-end price range … (and are) now remarketed to a different group … So (it’s) been pretty tough on young people and families looking for affordable housing on the rental market.”
Vacancy rates measure the health of the rental housing market – which is significant because renting provides a less expensive housing option for people who cannot afford their own homes. The region’s current vacancy rate is 2.4 per cent, but a rate of 3 per cent is required to ensure the market is competitive, something that hasn’t been up to par in years.
Melissa Small is a community support worker for the House of Friendship, where she allocates tenancy for community housing programs from the Region of Waterloo’s wait lists. Small witnesses first-hand the frustrations of co-ordinating housing for low-income persons with a short supply and high demand for these accommodations. “If we don’t start building more affordable housing for people, things are going to get worse in the community overall,” Small said.
Getting into supportive housing in the area takes about seven years, and Small understands how easy it is to be overlooked while you wait. In that seven-year span, many applicants become hidden homeless, becoming nearly impossible to contact when spaces come up.
“The thing is, it kind of goes back to money. The money isn’t there to do anything more than what we’re doing – these are the people who really need support and are probably costing us a lot more in the long run,” Small said, calling the current solution a bandage approach to this multi-faceted problem.
The current housing crisis in the area and a general minimum wage of $10.25 are propelling homelessness in Waterloo Region. Relational attributes – such as traumatic events, domestic violence, mental health or addictions – often coincide with everyday finances, increasing the risks. Without proper support for these causes, individuals leave even the most stable of homes.
The causes can be further broken down into structural and systemic failures, with the lack of co-ordination between government bodies as a main attribute. Housing affordability and inadequate wages, combined with lsporadic economic shifts, are some of the structural factors at play.
The system failures are the result of unsuccessful transitions through mainstream support resources – such as child welfare, improper hospital discharge, lack of funding for mental health, poor rehabilitation, addictions or misguided immigrants in employment services. It is often a compilation of both individual, structural and systems failures that work against the individuals, causing homelessness.
However, it is not a shortage of resources, the Region of Waterloo has ample amounts services – such as the House of Friendship, the food bank and the working centre – and has even won a national award for the Support To End Persistent Homelessness program. But the problem lays in structural and systemic issues that are deeply rooted and require a strong, collaborative effort from politicians. There is a lack of forward thinking from the government, where the range in perspectives on the issue allows a great deal of suggestion, but little action. The response to homelessness should be proactive and permanent, rather than reactive.
Marty Green, a Waterloo Remax Realtor and landlord, takes a different approach to the housing crisis. “It all comes down to supply and demand. I’m a big supporter of capitalism … (but) it needs to regulate itself,” Green said. “If they would just give a little bit on the tenancy act’s restrictions, there would be so many more landlords who can afford lenience here and there (to) price their units accordingly.”
Any region can have all of the resources possible, but without a co-ordinated system, many people will lose one of the most basic human rights – shelter. The current and consistent approach lacks depth and sees many people falling through the cracks.
“We need to focus on building affordable housing … and then beyond that we need to increase mental health services because that has so many ripple effects of people holding jobs, (and) keeping their home, and then doing better things to secure food for people. Food and shelter are basic rights and there’s a number of people in Waterloo Region who go to bed hungry or go to bed without a solid roof over their head – and that is unacceptable,” Small said.
To eradicate homelessness, the problem needs to be addressed with permanent solutions in mind, rather than the repetitive cycle of unco-ordinated public systems. The Homeless Hub suggests that managing public resources effectively would make factors of homelessness disappear – such as affordable housing, sufficient wages and improving awareness of support programs. If all levels of government combine their efforts and implement clear plans to end homelessness, the standard of living will improve dramatically.