Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto needs a real strategy for the homeless, and a simple one is available

By: Metro Canada Published on Fri Jan 16 2015

You could be forgiven for assuming that Toronto doesn’t have a real, long-term strategy for supporting the city’s homeless.

Over the past few weeks, it’s looked as if the city is operating shelter services on an ad-hoc basis…like they were caught off guard. You wouldn’t think anyone would be surprised by the fact that Toronto has a homeless population and that it gets cold in January, putting that population at risk.

But here we are.

First there was the kerfuffle over opening emergency shelter spaces when the temperature dropped. Instead of just doing it, we watched a mini-drama play out over arcane details like who was responsible for declaring an extreme cold weather alert and when such an alert could be declared and, hey, how radical does the cold have to get for it to be “extreme” anyway?

Once that was cleared up, there came the realization — again — that there just isn’t enough safe shelter space for the homeless population. This seems to be a regular thing in Toronto when temperatures get cold. And so this week we got word that the city will rent motel rooms to temporarily provide shelter — a hasty, probably pretty expensive fix to a totally foreseeable problem.

But, sure, it’s better than the alternative.

What's most frustrating is the city has the data and the tools to do so much better. Thanks to the Street Needs Assessment — which surveys the city’s homeless every few years — we have a pretty good idea of the size of the homeless population. In 2013, staff estimated there 5,2353 people living on Toronto's streets. Of those, 39 per cent said they had slept outdoors at least once during the six months prior to the survey.

The survey tells us a lot about the demographics of homelessness. In a properly funded and functional system, this data could be used to develop services that can reach out to these populations.

For instance, the city’s homeless population is getting older. The share of homeless people 61 or older doubled between 2009 and 2013. So let’s talk about how that relates to the city’s overall seniors strategy. And more than one in five people staying in youth shelters identify as LGBTQ, so maybe we should circle back to the push for an LGBTQ-specific shelter. And we know that a third of the homeless population identifies as aboriginal, which should prompt real questions about systemic discrimination.

Mostly, though, the data we have emphasizes that the best way to help a homeless person is to help them find a home. Some 93 per cent of respondents to the city’s street needs assessment indicated they want permanent housing. And here’s the thing: providing housing is way cheaper than the alternatives.

Toronto has a Streets to Homes initiative which helps the homeless find housing. While I guess this kind of thing could be decried as a left-wing bleeding heart program, the reality is that it represents savings to governments as a whole.

For example, a 2009 staff report on the program noted that six of the individuals who found housing through the program were previously using about $36,000 each in various social supports each year.

“Had they not been housed through the Streets to Homes program,” the report notes, “over the next 10 years these six individuals alone may have cost the system more than $2 million in health and emergency services.”

Here’s a chart from the same report comparing the daily cost of providing housing versus an emergency shelter or other social service. Housing comes out way ahead.

Despite the success of the Streets to Homes program, it hasn’t seen significant investment in recent years. At the same time, the city’s wait-list for affordable housing continues to grow. And, of course, the city’s 2014 gross operating budget for Shelter, Support and Housing Administration declined by $36.5 million, a 5.4 per cent drop from the previous year.

While homelessness is often presented as some kind of nebulous, unsolvable social ill, there actually isn’t any mystery to it. We know a lot about the homeless population. We know that certain groups are overrepresented. We know that the vast majority of them want affordable housing. We know that providing housing in an efficient and transparent way is the cheapest way to support a homeless person.

We also know that the current approach — emergency shelters, motel rooms and a slapdash strategy — isn’t nearly enough.

This post was originally published at on 2015-01-16T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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