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Homelessness in Canada
Before the 80’s people in developed countries such as Canada had no clue of what it meant not to have a house to live in, it was not an issue (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang, & Paradis, 2009). At the time, the term ‘homeless’ meant not to have any emotional and social support from a family, it meant not to have a home, not necessarily to be without a house (Hulchanski et al., 2009). It is only by mid-1980’s when the meaning of homeless changed and people started learning about homelessness as an issue that needed to be addressed, an issue of housing and lack of financial and social abilities to keep up with living costs (Hulchanski et al., 2009).
Today, Canada has a strong economy and a good prospect, and yet unable to properly address the issue of homelessness in Canada. Over 150,000 households are using more than half their income to pay rent, and more than 30,000 using shelters, and many more on the streets (Blueprint to end homelessness in Toronto, 2006). The sad thing is that these numbers only represent Toronto.
"Housing is a necessity of life. Yet, after ten years of economic expansion, one in five households in Canada is still unable to afford acceptable shelter”
- TD Economics, Affordable Housing in Canada, In Search of A New Paradigm, 2003
Status Quo costs more than a change!
Poor housing conditions and lack of safe homes drive up the rates of poor health and death, and this in itself drives up the health costs for the whole country (Blueprint to end Homelessness in Toronto, 2006). What this means is that we are all paying big money for a solution that is anything but a band-aid that is only sustaining a problem (Blueprint to end Homelessness in Toronto, 2006). There is a need to change from the band-aid idea of the shelters to a more long-term solution – build more housing that is both safe and affordable.
Cost of shelters vs. rent supplements vs. social housing
Band-aid Solutions Don't Last
Moreover, there is the cost of criminalizing people experiencing homelessness. It seems obvious that someone that does not have money for food or rent will not have the money to pay fines for living in the streets, and yet many people are being criminally charged with living on the streets (in other words, for being poor). Here is where taxpayers’ money comes in again – “the monthly costs of jailing is $4,333” (Blueprint to end homelessness in Toronto, 2006).
For the last decade, the main response to homelessness in Canada has been to build shelters and emergency, short-term solutions. (Gordan Laird, 2007). There is nothing wrong with wanting to create shelters to help those out on the street in heat hikes and freezing days. However, if this is the way of operation, homelessness will only multiply, and not just in Toronto. The cost of keeping shelters as they are at the moment is around the $6 billion dollars annually, for the whole nation.
Band-aid solutions are not really solutions, they are just painkillers with short-term relief. Soon, we will see the poor neighbourhoods becoming more like those sad images that we all think of when someone says “third world” - whatever that means. The working neighbourhoods will become poor, and so on and on. If there is a gap between wealthy and working class now, imagine how that gap will look like in a few years.
Taking a look at the average monthly costs of social housing - $199.92 (Blueprint to end Homelessness in Toronto, 2006), it is easy to see that investing in social housing is a much more cost effective solution. What is more, if Canada developed a proper National Affordable Housing system, there would be fewer people in the shelters (which are supposed to be just temporary anyways), fewer people in the streets, and ultimately would give people opportunity to catch up with their financial situation. Social housing, contrary to what many think, is not about giving away houses for the lazy bodies. Affordable housing means that no household will pay more than 30% of its total income - allowing the rest of the income to go to other monthly bills and expenses that every household has in developed countries like Canada.
Many of the people in shelters and on the streets are actually working, sometimes more than one job! In fact, many people experiencing homelessness constitute what is called the "hidden homelessness". These are people that simply cannot afford rent anymore, maybe were just laid off, etc. and are "couch surfing" - living temporarily on the goodwill of family members and friends. Many are actually college and university students, who have to manage between school expenses, rent, and food - many of them have part-time/full-time jobs, but simply cannot keep up with the thousands of dollars in expenses. Anyone who goes to university in Canada, especially in Ontario - the most expensive in tuition and school related costs - knows how hard it is.
The issue of homelessness is deeply rooted in the society we live in, in our ideas and the way the social structures are operated. It becomes a vicious cycle, where we criminalize people experiencing homelessness and blame them for the lack of resources and abilities our society enforces on them. Often being on the streets is addressed as a specific group's laziness. We often stigmatize people for their life situation, without stopping to understand what exactly lead them there. Perhaps it is te ill way of thinking and behaving of our own social structures and services that allows or leads them to be in that situation. In hearing from individuals currently experiencing homeless in the streets of Toronto, a broken and pervasive system is often what lies underneath.
Sure some people simply wonder around and seem to do nothing to better their lives, or have any will do so for that matter. But is this really just pure laziness or did these people simply lost faith and hope for anything better in their lives? Many of them are lost - lost in cracks of society, drowning in the “No” and “Does Not Qualify” that flood our bureaucratic system. Very easily we get into the “us” versus “them” theme. But we hardly ever stop to find out and understand. “They are lazy, the pests that inundate our beautiful streets” - so we say. Do we stop to ask why and how?
About Homelessness in Canada
- Homelessness \'chronic\' in Canada: study - Canada - CBC News
Canada's homeless population is somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people, while another 1.7 million residents struggle with housing affordability issues, says a new report.
Who's Homeless? - Misconceptions
The other problem is people's perception of who 'is homeless' and who will never be. In a classroom activity not too long ago, this perception was so easily shattered. Seeing all the “people” who are or could become homeless, it was easily understood how ignorant we all can be about this topic. Men, women, children, teenagers, students, single parents, whole families – small or large, from different ethnicities and even financial status – anyone really. Especially living in Toronto - the most expensive city to live in Canada (Chai, 2011) - homelessness should not be a very hard thing to understand, but we don't!
Taking a serious look at it now, the “us” versus “them” thinking, comes across as more of a symptom of the fear syndrome. Because no one really wants to admit that the young kid on the streets is perhaps there as a result of an ill and unsupportive system, or that the next “homeless person” could end up being one of us.
Other resources about this topic
© 2011 Veronica Almeida