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ROAD HOME: Views are mixed on whether homelessness can be solved

January 29, 2024

Posted on: January 29th, 2024. Posted by: Michael Braithwaite, Original Article.

In this month’s column, Blue Door CEO discusses strategies to tackle homelessness with experts from around the world

Striking the headlines daily, the housing crisis has become top of mind for Canadians, putting pressure on politicians to make it a priority.

Whether you are a renter, a current homeowner, or looking to purchase your first home, the cost of housing continues to occupy space in most of the minds in our community.

Hard to miss, you likely also noticed the growing number of encampments — a result of the cost of housing and the lack of affordable and supportive housing, which has forced many people and families outside.

So, with housing costs high and an increase in people experiencing homelessness, many have asked the question: Is homelessness solvable?

While many organizations are focused on preventing and ending homelessness, including Blue Door, I reached out to some of our community’s and nation’s top experts to gather their views on this question.

Carolyn Whitzman, a well-respected voice on housing and homelessness and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, states, “Ending homelessness is possible with sufficient co-ordination, new, low-cost housing supply, trained and supported service providers and, most of all, political will.”

“Homelessness is, in its most basic form, the absence of a home,” she continues.

But it is impossible to look at ending homelessness without considering two other aspects of a basic social safety net: income and health care.

A systems approach to ending homelessness requires addressing what income is necessary to pay for housing and have enough money left over for other basic needs like food and transportation.

Others believe homelessness can be solved but spoke about changes that need to be made before it can happen.

Ray Sullivan, executive director for the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, says, “Homelessness is solvable if there is the political will to solve it. Public support creates the political will, and political will leads to resources.”

Leilani Farha, global director for The Shift, believes it can be done but doesn’t believe it will.

“Not only is homelessness solvable, but there’s also a human rights imperative to do so,” Leilani states. “Despite this human rights imperative, I am not convinced Canada — governments and civil society — will ever manage to solve homelessness if solving it includes preventing it from occurring as well as adequately housing those without.”

Mark Aston, executive director of Covenant House Toronto, who has spent decades in the field, agreed.

“In truth, I am not so sure that I believe homelessness can be solved anymore. I think that we need a completely new and enhanced level of societal effort to reverse this tragedy. Yes, we need political will and leadership, but we also need them to lead in the right direction — reconciliation, housing as a human right, duty of care, the prevention framework, etc.,” Aston says.

Nick Falvo, a well-known researcher and housing consultant, believes we can do it, but we’ll need heavy investment to do so.

“Personally, I think Canada needs to increase public social spending very considerably, on such things as housing, income assistance, wraparound supports and homelessness services,” he says.

Throughout conversations, Finland’s ‘housing first’ approach was brought up often. It is the country that is closest to ending homelessness.

Because of this, I reached out to Juha Kahila from the Y-Foundation in Finland to get his thoughts on the topic.

“The homelessness sector can’t solve homelessness by itself, no matter how much effort we put into it,” he says.

“Maybe we should talk about a bigger problem, a broader systemic change that includes housing, health, social benefits, prevention, and employment. The homelessness sector could be the start of a larger movement to eliminate inequality in all its forms. And remember, homelessness is caused by human-made, failing systems — but humans can fix them and set things right again.”

Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, reminds us homelessness hasn’t always been this way.

“Homelessness, like we see it today, hasn’t always existed. Modern mass homelessness only really emerged in the mid-’80s and exploded in the ’90s,” Richter says.

He spoke of the pieces that need to be in place to end homelessness, including reconciliation, government reform, public support and systemic change at the provincial and federal levels.

To Richter’s point around public support, Coast Mental Health CEO Keir Macdonald, in British Columbia, agrees, saying, “Above all else, it demands a commitment to human dignity in that we no longer accept that it is OK for some people to be left outside without adequate shelter.”

“Complex issues require comprehensive solutions, and solving homelessness is a great, albeit tragic, example that fits into this description,” says Sheldon Pollett, longtime executive director of Choices for Youth in Newfoundland and Labrador.

So, what do I think?

I absolutely think we can solve and end homelessness.

During the pandemic, when the government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), it was an unintentional basic income pilot. When people were receiving $2,000 per month, core housing needs dropped, as did food bank usage. People were able to access more of the housing that was available and to choose and buy their own food.

Governments provided millions of dollars in support to organizations in an effort to give everyone access to safe housing. The sector responded by housing thousands of people rapidly.

We had investment and government will during those times, and that went a long way toward solving the issue at hand. While the same level of support is no longer there, CERB demonstrated what can be done when we all work together.

Jeff Dyer, CEO of Trellis, a large organization in Calgary that supports youth experiencing homelessness, said it well: “The truth is we have witnessed the end of homelessness for countless Canadians and, in so doing, have had the privilege of seeing people re-rooted in community, where their hopes, aspirations and dreams return to the forefront of their lives and the bewildering journey of homelessness fades into the distance. We have ended it one after another after another.”

While there are many hurdles to clear, changes to be made and investments needed in order to end homelessness, it can be done.

“It is within our power to ensure every citizen has a place to call home, for, in the end, the true measure of our progress as a society lies in caring for the most vulnerable among us,” says Macdonald.

Hearing from experts across Canada that together we can end homelessness, it is my turn to ask you: Will you join us and rally together to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home?

Michael Braithwaite is the CEO of Blue Door, host of the housing and homelessness podcast On the Way Home, board chair of the youth homelessness-focused organization A Way Home Canada, and a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.