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‘The need is higher than ever’

November 11, 2022

Posted on: November 11th, 2022. By: Vawn Himmelsbach,, Original Article. 

The Greater Toronto Area is facing a housing crisis. Home prices are at record highs and rent is increasing at a pace that — combined with a steep increase in the cost of living — is making it difficult for many residents to make ends meet.

It’s that type of situation that leads to an increase in precarious housing and, in some cases, homelessness.

For many agencies under the United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) umbrella, the goal of reducing homelessness is two-fold. For those experiencing homelessness, the aim is to help them get back on their feet and make their stay in the shelter system a short one. But it’s also about preventing new people from becoming homelessness in the first place.

“The need is higher than ever,” said Michael Braithwaite, chief executive officer of Blue Door, the largest provider of emergency housing in York Region for children, youth, men, women and families at risk of experiencing, or are experiencing, homelessness.

“My emergency frontline team is seeing more and more people with jobs coming into the emergency shelter system. They simply can’t afford the housing — it’s growing faster than their income.”

In the GTA, you need a household income of about $90,000 to comfortably afford a one-bedroom home, but that’s not feasible for those on social assistance programs, or for other groups, such as international students on a tight budget.

“It’s forced us to be innovative,” said Braithwaite. “We’re acquiring social purpose real estate and the United Way plays a big part in that, giving organizations the resources so we can purchase homes, develop community land trusts, and they’re kept affordable.”

For example, Parks Canada has 44 vacant homes in Rouge National Urban Park, but it doesn’t have the capital to invest in fixing them.

“We raised the capital through United Way and worked together to refurbish a home and turn it into a duplex for two families,” said Braithwaite. “Parks Canada still owns that home, we’ve got two homes for families for the next 30 years, and it’s a training centre for the people who did that work.”

Another piece of the solution is providing deeply affordable housing with wrap-around supports. For example, in surveys with 2SLGBTQ+ youth, Blue Door found that services in emergency housing were not meeting their needs; they didn’t feel safe or supported.

So Blue Door opened INNclusion, where youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness in York Region can stay for up to one year while they work with a peer mentor to set and achieve their goals surrounding education, health, housing and employment.

“For the longest time our model of care in housing was to put all our money into emergencies — we were reacting. But if you do prevention and do wrap-around supports, it decreases the amount of people that are going to need emergency housing,” said Braithwaite.

Another example of this is the Social Medicine Initiative, a first-of-its-kind supportive housing facility in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. UWGT in partnership with the City of Toronto and the University Health Network’s Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine is opening a four-storey modular building that houses approximately 51 individuals from historically marginalized groups who are frequent users of hospital services.

What makes this facility unique, however, is that it incorporates a range of health and social services delivered on site; residents are also connected to primary care and other health services within the hospital’s Parkdale campus.

While housing affordability is critical, so too is culturally appropriate supports, which is often lacking. In Peel Region, for example, the South Asian community represents 33 per cent of the population. That’s where Indus Community Services, a not-for-profit organization and anchor agency of UWGT, fills a void.

“When you don’t have something culturally appropriate to support you, and the regular systems don’t fit that well, you see lots of possibilities of problems,” said Gurpreet Malhotra, chief executive officer of Indus Community Services.

For example, in the South Asian community, inter-generational issues can lead to homelessness. A teenager might come into conflict with his or her parents, or a senior who has yet to be diagnosed with a mental illness is acting in a way the family can no longer tolerate. That could lead to a situation where the youth or senior is suddenly homeless.

And in the South Asian community, “you wouldn’t talk about conflict in your household,” said Malhotra. “Everything’s ‘fine’ even if it isn’t.”

One program he said Indus Community Services is particularly proud of is Community Mental Health Support Services — Housing and Support Peel (HASP), which advocates with landlords, hospitals and others on clients’ behalf. By assisting in developing the skills to improve quality of life, it also increases independence and housing stability.

This comes back to the concept of wrap-around supports. HASP, in partnership with SHIP (Supportive Housing in the Province), delivers housing support services to clients residing in those SHIP units.

“We have staff who support South Asians who have a mental health barrier, and that barrier means they are at risk of being evicted unless someone is there to mediate that situation,” said Malhotra. “That’s done in a culturally appropriate way where language is helping to keep people from becoming homeless.”

Programs and services like these are also a solid investment. “Preventative measures and after-care housing not only saves lives, changes lives and prevents trauma,” said Braithwaite, “but they save billions of dollars.”