Who's to blame for rising homelessness?

June 14, 2004

There has been considerable reaction to federal NDP leader Jack Layton's comments linking Liberal government housing policy and the deaths of homeless people. While Layton's claim may be partially true, the answer to the question 'who is responsible for homelessness?' is more nuanced.

Back in 1993, the Conservative government's last budget limited federal funding for social housing programs across Canada to about $2 billion in annual operating subsidies. In 1994, the federal Liberals took power, with Paul Martin as the deficit-fighting, program-slashing finance minister. From 1993 to 2002, no federal money for new affordable housing was provided (even after the deficit was eliminated in 1997).

From 1993 to the early 2000s, British Columbia and Quebec were the only provinces that continued to fund the building of new affordable housing projects. Yet, even with the added new affordable housing in British Columbia, there has been a constant waiting list for affordable housing of roughly 10,000 applicants over the last eight years.

Although the supply of new affordable housing through Homes BC was increased from 1993 to 2004 (the provincial housing program is being wound down by the provincial government), the number of homeless people appears to have grown. The City of Vancouver's Social Planning Department estimates that anywhere from 500 to 1,200 people sleep out of doors on any given night. This is roughly double the number reported in 1998. These numbers are based on 'walkabouts' that may miss those who are sleeping in the rough in well-hidden locations. There is other evidence from the late nineties that homelessness has increased. For example, the number of patients at St. Paul's Hospital with 'no fixed address' increased by nearly 300% from 1994 to 1999.

Why did homelessness increase in BC? It could be due to migration of homeless people from other jurisdictions. An ailing economy, lower income assistance rates, and other social policies such as deinstitutionalization also played a role in increased homelessness. Whatever the cause, it is clear that the new supply hasn't been able to match growing demand.

In provinces with no funding for new affordable housing the outcomes were much worse. For example, the Toronto Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness notes a continuous and dramatic rise in homelessness. Its 2003 Annual Report Card found that 31,985 homeless individuals (including 4,779 children) stayed in a Toronto shelter at least once during 2002. The homelessness problem in Toronto was likely compounded by the lack of funding for social programs, such as welfare and social housing, from the Ontario government under Mike Harris.

Local governments in Canada have had to bear the brunt of the growing social deficit in our country, and many have done a good job of providing affordable housing. But they could do more to aid the supply of new social housing in an increasingly expensive urban land market, such as implementing development cost charges, special levies, and other charges on new development to fund affordable housing.

However, the senior levels of government in Canada clearly have to take the lion's share of the blame for the increase in homelessness. They are also ignoring the fact that it likely costs more to provide services to the homeless than it does to house them. Professor David Hulchanski, in a 2001 study for the BC government, found that it costs up to $40,000 annually to provide shelter, and social, justice, and health services for a homeless person, while it costs approximately $28,000 annually to provide housing and services to a formerly homeless person.

In 2003, the federal government finally took a few small steps towards once again becoming a partner in providing new affordable housing. In BC, they committed $89 million for 2003, and they may provide close to $40 million for 2004. The problem is that the BC government has chosen to direct all of these funds into assisted living units for the elderly and those with disabilities. This leaves those who require affordable housing as a result of economic circumstance with few options.

We need to address the issue of homelessness and growing housing insecurity as a nation. We should start by demanding that the federal government show leadership by fully funding and supporting a national affordable housing strategy that puts at least 1% or more of the federal budget into new affordable housing programs.

John Irwin is the public interest researcher at the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.