Wednesday, June 27, 2007

'Canada can no longer afford homelessness'

That's the correct conclusion that Gordon Laird of Calgary's Sheldon Chumir Foundation reached in his piece about how much homelessness costs our country.

The coldest, deadliest nights of the year are now behind us. But the cost of homelessness isn't. According to a new report from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, Shelter: Homelessness in a Growth Economy, homelessness is costing Canadian taxpayers $4.5 billion to $6 billion a year.

Canada in 2007 collectively spends more managing homelessness than it spends on international development ($4.1 billion) or on annual debt reduction ($3 billion). In fact, the cost of homelessness in Canada is comparable to the cost of the $4.35 billion 2006 GST tax cut and the entire 2007 environment plan on climate change, fresh water and wildlife conservation.

Since the early 1990s, Canada's main response to homelessness has been to build new emergency shelter beds and fund front-line services to help contain and warehouse a growing pool of homeless Canadians.

It hasn't worked. Welfare services, municipal services, provincial health-care systems and the non-profit sector have been left to take up the slack for the estimated 300,000 homeless people as well as the upwards of 2.7 million low-income Canadians who now face housing affordability problems.

This nation's decade of relative inaction on homelessness, from 1993 to 2004, cost Canadian taxpayers an estimated $49.5 billion, across all services and jurisdictions.

All levels of government have shown a lack of leadership. Most provincial governments, for example, inadequately fund welfare, making it difficult, if not impossible, for recipients to find a place to live in our soaring real estate markets. Some of these same people then wind up in homeless shelters funded by all three levels of government. Taxpayers are paying at least twice and still we have homelessness.

While Canada's economy is booming, poverty is actually increasing. It was assumed that the economic boom would benefit all Canadians, but the evidence shows that the income gap is actually growing and affordable housing is harder to find. CIBC World Markets predicts that the average Canadian housing price will double by 2026.

Poverty is now the leading cause of homelessness in Canada, trumping substance abuse and mental illness. Canada's "new homeless" – families, women, students, immigrants, aboriginals – are simply low-income Canadians who need affordable housing.

Many governments, both here and abroad, are championing the notion of "Housing First," that is, immediately addressing housing needs through rent supplements. It has finally been recognized that homeless shelters are effective only as a short-term measure.

When I started working with the homeless in Calgary back in the early 90s after the last oil boom and bust, I suddenly realized how well hidden they'd been - stashed away in shelters, treatment centers, jails, short-term programs, hospitals, church basements, motels, or in parks or other areas where I had not ventured often, sleeping on someone's couch for a nite or a week, staying with family temporarily - very much invisible. And the stereotypical homeless person - the bottle picker or alcoholic - was definitely in the minority but was and is the most visible.

The number of homeless people who were working homeless back then hovered around 45% - a stat unfamiliar to most Calgarians at that time, I suspect. I haven't looked at the latest numbers here but considering the availability of low-wage jobs available here which, unfortunately, are the type of jobs that suit many homeless peoples' skill sets or stage in life, I'd guess that number has risen. The disconnect comes between the cost of living and those low wages.

Then there are the sick. I had a homeless client who went in for kidney dialysis regularly, another one with severe gout, several diabetics and epileptics, one with "wet brain" (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) and then there were the mentally ill, of course. People who were or should have been receiving government disability benefits. But those payments are not enough anyway, leaving too many housed sick people (and I know this firsthand) at an almost constant risk for homelessness because landlords typically ask for the first month's rent and a security deposit. (Here's an idea of how much that can cost at this time.)

It should come as no surprise that the poor are hardest hit during boom times: the cost of everything skyrockets because of "supply and demand". And, as we saw with the failure of Reagan's Trickle Down economics theory, the fact that more people are making more money definitely does not end up helping the disadvantaged.

Laird is right, the more homeless there are, the more services they need and that does cost more money - obviously. There are the problems that led to people becoming homeless along with the new problems caused by ending up homeless - a huge load for some people to deal with before they can reclaim any sort of "normal" life again. Those services, in this province, have mainly been surrendered to the private sector while the PC government stubbornly refused to raise welfare rates during the 1990s or to provide any extra services at all. (At that time, the allotment for a single, employable person was ~$400/month - unconscionable).

Along with increased homelessness over the years, the NIMBY (Not in MY Backyard) attitude grew here - even in the dead of the coldest winters when the City of Calgary needed to make more emergency shelter beds available to avoid having homeless people dying from exposure. I recall an interview with one fearless campaigner who absolutely refused to consider allowing a local empty building in her neighbourhood to be used because she feared for her safety. Last winter, when another community was petitioning the city not to open such a shelter in their area, she actually spoke in support of emergency shelters after realizing that her worst fears were never realized - she had continued to be safe in her neighbourhood, despite the fact that the shelter had opened contrary to her wishes. The lesson: not all homeless people are dangerous. And I think if the public actually took some time to educate themselves about who is homeless - including the families on the street - they might develop more compassion. But we're not there yet.

We saw the blowback in Alberta recently when the Stelmach government staunchly refused to impose rent controls. Let the market decide, was the mantra. The problem with that attitude in these times in this province is that soaring housing costs are no longer only affecting the poor and homeless: they're hitting the middle class as well. And, when that happens, the voices speaking against the market-based economy (which really means "whatever homeowners/landlords can get away with charging") become much louder - especially when other costs are rising as well, like gas prices. Suddenly, more people are "disadvantaged" and the gap between the homeless and the middle class narrows - especially when some realize they may be one paycheck away from actually being homeless too. Stelmach's response was to only allow landlords to raise rents once per year. Not enough Ed. Sorry.

Tory governments are in love with "task forces" here - talk til you drop and wait to find out that they're not going to do much of anything anyway. It's their addiction so they claim they're "listening" to Albertans. They may be listening but they don't exactly hear anything other than the sound of their own voices most of the time. In fact, they can be so out of touch that former premier Ralph Klein even admitted that his government had no plan for how to deal with the latest oil boom. They are always trying to play catch up and it is always years too late.

Alberta's year end surplus was $8.5 billion, "more than double the original estimate." Mind you, they've continually low-balled the surplus estimates so they can come out in front of the cameras like proud peacocks to proclaim "look how wonderful we are!" while using their so-called surprise as a justification to not properly fund services in the meantime. And, every year, it's "let's stash this away for a rainy day". Well, it's been pouring and they haven't even noticed - or they just don't care. Just how much have Albertans benefited from these windfalls? Ask around. Not much.

And so they'll continue to place small bandages on major issues like homelessness hoping nobody will notice that they have no willingness to seriously tackle the problems. Ostriches with tiny first-aid kits. That's what they are.

The only booming that's not happening here is the voice of Albertans coming through loud and clear in parliament on behalf of people who are suffering as the tory MLAs prefer to cover their ears and sing "la la la...I can't hear you" just like the spoiled children they are.

So no, you won't see homelessness wiped out in this province any time soon. However, if more people knew about how much it really costs to keep so many people homeless, maybe they'd actually give a damn. For that to happen, they'd actually have to start really caring about how this government spends its money instead of continuing to act like doormats. And, if they did that, fewer of those Tory MLAs would be headed back to Edmonton after the next election.

Shelter: Homelessness in a Growth Economy report (.pdf file) from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation

CBC Calgary Forum: Blueprint Alberta: Rent

Average cost of a one-bedroom apartment:
In 2003: $661
In October, 2006: $780

Rental vacancy rate in Calgary:
In 2003: 4.4 per cent
In October 2006: 0.5 per cent

NPR's special about Housing First.

h/t to The Progressive Economic Forum for highlighting The Star's article.

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