Finding a new home for the homeless

A national housing strategy would contribute to affordable housing, such as these units located at 100 Lower Ossington Avenue.

A national housing strategy would contribute to affordable housing, such as these units located at 100 Lower Ossington Avenue.

The Harper government has taken a significant step forward in Canada’s fight to end homelessness.

In the recent federal budget, funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the arm of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada tasked with addressing homelessness throughout Canada – and whose federal funding was set to expire in 2014 – had its funding extended until 2019. Its mandate was also expanded to include a focus on delivering housing first programs.

It should be noted that while the budget has been tabled it has not yet been approved by the House of Commons. However, given the majority government that is in place and the party whipping tactics that often come along with budgets, the chances this particular budget will be defeated are extremely slim.

The “Housing First” approach — a theory that allows for funds provided by federal and provincial governments to be streamlined through municipalities — is an innovative response to homelessness that sees a homeless individual placed into housing first without conditions before bringing forward a social service provider to work with the client to identify goals and create a support system. This will ultimately help clients to overcome the barriers that caused them to become homeless in the first place.

Housing First is unique because of the way it empowers program participants, said Wolfgang Vachon, a professor in Humber College’s School of Social and Community Services.

“[The] key to the housing first philosophy is this idea of non-coercion,” he said.

“It’s this non-conditional support and housing regardless of whether the person is using drugs, regardless of if they’re in school and all these sorts of things.”

Amélie Maisonneuve, media relations officer with the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, said in addition to getting people housed, implementing Housing First has additional economic benefits.

“Housing First can be an effective tool in solving chronic homelessness while reducing pressure on other shelter, health and justice services,” she said.

This was demonstrated by the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study, a Canadian research project that saw the Housing First model implemented and evaluated in controlled trials in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. Launched in 2009 and completed in March 2013, the study saw more than 1,000 individuals housed using the Housing First model, and was the largest trial of its kind in the world.

The At Home/Chez Soi trials found providing individuals with housing through the Housing First model saved thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in shelter, hospital and judicial bills, compared to those of individuals who remained homeless over the same period.

This can really add up, which is likely part of why the Harper government chose to endorse the approach in the new budget.

Dr. Tim Aubry, a professor at the University of Ottawa and researcher with At Home/Chez Soi in Moncton, said he was surprised by the budget’s endorsement of Housing First, especially the pace with which it happened.

“These things tend to be incremental in how they work, so the government taking the findings from a big study and applying them in this budget is wonderful,” he said.

“It’s not something that you see often — this quick response from research into policy.”

However, Dr. Stephen Hwang, chair of homelessness, housing and health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an investigator with the At Home/Chez Soi study, said he worries this may be a case of too much, too fast, with too much emphasis placed on Housing First. Hwang stresses it is not a universal solution to homelessness.

“It’s important that we not think that, because while Housing First is a spectacularly effective solution to a certain kind of homelessness, homelessness is also, in many cases, caused by a shortage of affordable housing,” he said.

Vachon also said that Housing First might not be the right fit for everyone, particularly homeless youth.

“Some youth see themselves as travellers or troubadours and have no interest in housing,” he said. “This push to housing can, at times, feel quite oppressive to young people.”

Another concern with the Homelessness Partnering Strategy’s new mandate is related to their funding itself.

HPS’ funding currently sits at $139 million per year but the extended funding, which will sustain it from 2014 to 2019, has been reduced to $119 million annually. Considering HPS funds homelessness initiatives in 61 communities across Canada, this is, as Aubry said, “a modest amount,” with which to pursue HPS’ Housing First mandate.

Vachon said he feels this reduction in funding may indicate the government is not quite as passionate about Housing First as it may appear at first glance.

“It’s wonderful that there’s money there, but I’m not sure that it is going to become embedded as a long-term strategy,” he said.

“A five-year commitment is good, but it’s not 10 years.”

Professionals like Hwang note that Housing First will never solve homelessness in Canada. It is a response mechanism – one must already be homeless in order to take advantage of a housing first program.

Hwang said what Canada needs now is an affordable housing strategy; a national housing strategy, which could help to prevent homelessness through development of an adequate supply of affordable housing.

“It would be short-sighted to focus on treatment of the illness without addressing the underlying causes of the problem,” he said.

The obstacle is Canada doesn’t have a national housing strategy and doesn’t seem to likely to have one any time soon.

On February 27, bill C-400, the Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 129 – 153. It was the most recent attempt at establishing a national housing strategy.

A lack of housing strategy hurts Canadians who are housed, experts in the field note. Many of them find themselves paying too much for housing; upwards of 30 per cent of household income for housing is considered unaffordable housing. Housing First programs require a supply of affordable housing to be able to get individuals housed.

Gordon Tanner, manager of Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, said affordable housing is an essential part of his program, and is vital to the effectiveness of the Housing First approach in general.

“An important component of Housing First is the element of choice which consumers have to decide where and in what type of accommodations they would like to live,” he said.

Hwang said in defeating the most recent attempt at developing a national housing strategy, homelessness prevention has been effectively taken off the table.

“Housing First is not a substitute for a comprehensive affordable housing strategy,” he said.

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘well, now that we’ve decided to focus on developing better treatments to lung cancer and not tried to reduce smoking rates, what do you think we should do?’”

Ontario to lower cap on tuition increases

A new plan to make post-secondary education more affordable could spell trouble for Ontario colleges.

The Ontario government has unveiled a new framework that will see the cap on tuition increases lowered from five per cent to three per cent annually for each of the next four years.

Brad Duguid, the minister of training, colleges and universities, said this is good news for students, as they can expect to save an average of $300 per year under the new framework.

Duguid added that while the proposed cap will mean savings for students, it will amount to added costs for colleges.

“We have to be very straight up and honest about this: this decision will take revenue, future revenue, from universities and colleges,” Duguid said.

These changes are not expected to be problematic at Humber.

Rick Embree, associate vice president of planning and development at Humber, said Humber is relatively safe because strong budget surpluses and high student populations have meant they don’t typically budget for high tuition increases at all, meaning there will be little lost revenue.

The same cannot be said for other colleges.

“Smaller and medium-sized colleges could have a hard time because they don’t have the scale,” Embree said.

Orville Getz, president of Humber College’s faculty union, said these changes, though relatively small on a per-student level, can really add up and become major issues for colleges with small budgets or stagnant or declining enrollment numbers.

“To go from five per cent to three per cent is really going to affect a lot of the small colleges, almost to the point where they could have to close their doors,” he said.

Getz said he doesn’t expect the government to allow any such closures, but he worries this new framework could exacerbate some of the issues already faced by smaller colleges, related to funding, enrollment and space.

Getz said it is becoming increasingly difficult for small colleges to compete with larger institutions, such as those in and around the GTA, and that if small colleges are to survive, new models for funding and supporting colleges are needed, as well as for increased restrictions to be put in place regarding admissions.

“How do you persuade students to go to Thunder Bay or Timmins?” Getz said.

“You can’t do it. They’re not going to go all the way there, unless they can’t get in anywhere else, and right now, people are still getting in [to the larger colleges].”

Ontario promises summer job incentives

Brad Duguid, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, speaks with students at Harbourfront Community Centre on March 20 about their experiences with the provincial government’s Summer Job Strategy.

Brad Duguid, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, speaks with students at Harbourfront Community Centre on March 20 about their experiences with the provincial government’s Summer Job Strategy.

Students having difficulty finding summer employment can turn to the provincial government for support in addressing their work woes.

The province of Ontario’s Summer Job Strategy is returning for the summer of 2013 to help students between the ages of 15 and 29 find gainful employment for the months separating the fall and winter semesters.

Brad Duguid, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, said summer jobs are important because the lessons and skills students learn will follow them throughout their careers.

“The workplace is a great teacher, and we’re committed to helping more young people get to work where they can learn, and earn, to everyone’s benefit,” he said.

“You look back at those jobs, and maybe you’d have wanted to spend that time on the beach, but those jobs were great experiences.”

Last year, the summer job strategy helped more than 100,000 students find work and Minister Duguid said he is confident that 2013 will see similar results.

At the core of the strategy is a $2 per hour incentive that the province offers to employers who hire students who will be returning to school in the fall.

Dr. Eric Hoskins, Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, said that summer jobs represent more than just paycheques.

“It’s the opportunity, in many cases, to get your foot in the door,” he said.

Karen Fast, manager of Humber North’s Career Centre, said that while students should approach their job search with an open mind, not all jobs are created equal.

“Where I see students go wrong is they just take any old thing just to get money and they don’t try to get the related experience that’s going to help them build their resume,” she said.

Students determined to find a job in their field of study might find themselves tempted by unpaid, or voluntary, internships, Fast said, adding she is wary of these positions, likening them to a form of student exploitation.

“I’ve heard so many employers say, ‘Oh, but it’s such a good opportunity for them to gain experience,’ and all this,” she said. “’Yeah, blah blah blah, you’re getting a free employee.’”

Fast said she often reminds students that, instead of pursuing an internship directly linked to their studies, they can often learn applicable skills elsewhere in positions where the student would be paid for their efforts.

Frankie Lombardo, 20, a second-year business management student, is currently looking for a summer job and said he values flexibility above relevance to his program and wages.

“I have a lot of things with my family, so if I need to go see my grandmother, I’d need Saturdays and Sundays off,” he said.

Mayor Ford a hot topic at Humber media panel

A Humber Lakeshore panel discussion on March 19 consisted of city hall reporters (from left to right) Robyn Doolittle, of the Toronto Star, and Matt Elliott of Metro, as well as Humber media studies professor John Northcott, and John McGrath, a reporter for Novae Res Urbis.

A Humber Lakeshore panel discussion on March 19 consisted of city hall reporters (from left to right) Robyn Doolittle, of the Toronto Star, and Matt Elliott of Metro, as well as Humber media studies professor John Northcott, and John McGrath, a reporter for Novae Res Urbis.

Humber’s Lakeshore Campus became a hotbed of political discussion on March 19, when a pair of expert panels explored all things Rob Ford and city hall.

The event, organized by Prof. Dan Rowe, program coordinator for Humber’s bachelor of journalism program, brought together six journalists from across Toronto who discussed Ford’s legacy and how his time in office has affected journalists and the people of Toronto.

“Regardless of what you think of Rob Ford, there’s been a lot of attention paid to him, more than there often is to mayors,” Rowe said.

“Does that mean people will, regardless of what happens in the next election, maintain their level of interest in municipal politics and what goes on at city hall?”

Hamutal Dotan, editor-in-chief for the website Torontoist, said part of the reason why we are drawn to what happens at city hall is because it is so authentic.

“The thing about city hall, especially compared to Queen’s Park or Ottawa, is that it’s a form of government that is actually happening in front of you,” she said. “There’s a carnival aspect, but it’s real governance happening in real time.”

Edward Keenan, a senior editor with The Grid, a free weekly publication owned by the Toronto Star, argues we are starting to see a Toronto that tires of the sideshow.

“I feel there’s fatigue,” he said.

Keenan said interest peaked on the day the Ontario appeal court announced the mayor had won his conflict of interest case in which a previous court ruling had stripped him of the mayoral chair.

Keenan said that reaching a peak of attention for Ford might actually be in city hall’s best interests.

“Some of that interest that then leads to fatigue rubs off into more interest,” he said, suggesting that people may then turn their attention to issues around city hall, such as transit or homelessness, instead of focusing on scandals.

However, Keenan said shifts in interest do not mean people will, or should, cease paying attention to Ford and it is important to distinguish between the man and the office, and the actions of each.

“The mayor of Toronto can be a very important person in the city. Despite our weak mayor, the office can make a lot happen. The mayor controls the agenda, there’s just not a lot on the agenda right now.”

Ivor Tossell, moderator of the panel and a professor in Humber’s School of Media Studies and Information Technology, gave a four-legged analogy to illustrate how all mayors may not be created equally.

“Sometimes a dog park issue is a seething cauldron of politics and intrigue, a microcosm of the very essence of life itself. And sometimes it’s a dog park.”

Hudak puts colleges, three-year degrees first

Leader of the Opposition, Tim Hudak believes college training a strong option. Courtesy: Progressive Conservative Party

Leader of the Opposition, Tim Hudak believes college training a strong option. Courtesy: Progressive Conservative Party

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is hoping to raise the profile of Ontario’s colleges with a strategy he calls ‘college first’.

In Paths to Prosperity, a white paper released early last month, the PCs outlined their strategy for reimagining college education.

Rob Leone, the PC MPP for Cambridge who co-authored the white paper with Hudak, said they want to make colleges a much more viable choice for students, one that leads to good job opportunities.

“We want to make sure our colleges are supported in a way that maximizes their contribution to society,” Leone said.

The Conservatives want to change the way students think about college, recognizing the role experience-based education plays in finding a career.

Bhalinder Bedi, president of the Humber Students’ Federation, said changing the way people think about colleges has to begin early, at home and in high school.

“What picture is painted of college and university to you by your caregivers at a young age will determine what you strive to become,” Bedi said.

The Conservatives’ strategy also calls for an overhaul of the credit transfer system and a limit on the number of four-year degrees offered at the college level, encouraging colleges to offer three-year degrees instead.

This would link back to the party’s overarching goal of getting students educated faster, and with less accumulated debt, while also putting a system in place that would allow students to transition into university or graduate school.

Rick Embree, associate vice president of planning and development at Humber, said he supports the improved credit transfer system, but worries the depth of content allowed by a four-year program may not easily transition to a three-year model.

“We’re concerned the three-year may, if we’re not careful, not allow the transfer into the university system,” he said.

Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges and universities, said he worries some of the other ideas put forward in the white paper, particularly the proposal to eliminate the Ontario Tuition Grant, will limit choice for students.

“I don’t think the way to build a strong attraction of people into skilled trade or college opportunities is to take away opportunities at the university level,” he said.

Duguid said increasing promotion of college education and the resulting job opportunities may be important, but it should not be done at the expense of access to universities.

“That piece makes some sense, and we’re keen to do that, and we’re doing that, but you have to leave the choice to students themselves,” Duguid said.

Paramedics urge more assault protection in law

Toronto paramedics are seeking to be classified in the same way as police officers while on the job.

Toronto paramedics are seeking to be classified in the same way as police officers while on the job.

The Toronto Paramedic Association is calling for changes to be made to the Criminal Code to better protect paramedics from assault.

Association president Geoff MacBride said that, ideally, he would like to see the code amended to include paramedics, not just police officers, in the definition of peace officer.

Doing so would afford paramedics access to stricter, peace officer-specific protections under the code, which MacBride said he hopes will act as a deterrent against future assaults or abuse.

“There already exists a charge for assaulting a police officer, and paramedics and other emergency workers are simply looking for parity in that,” he said.

MacBride said their proposal will be simple, for now, as fire services lobbying for similar reforms failed in 2001 and 2011. MacBride said those proposals were not successful because they became too complicated and tried to include too many elements.

“This has never really been tried for paramedics,” MacBride said.

“It’s a standard approach to changing legislation, but the focus is unique.”

Stephen Slessor, a communications officer with the Department of Justice, said that currently police see no special treatment or protection when it comes to offences related to assault, nor are their assault cases treated with any more seriousness or urgency.

“These maximum terms of imprisonment are the same in all cases, whether the victim is a police officer, a paramedic, or any other person,” he said.

The Association’s call for stronger legislation comes in the wake of a Jan. 17 assault that left Toronto paramedic Aron Sperling with a broken leg.

A 2011 study by St. Michael’s Hospital found the abuse of paramedics is a relatively common occurrence.

The study showed more than two-thirds of paramedics experience abuse, often in the form of verbal abuse, intimidation, physical abuse, sexual harassment or assault.

Blair Bingham, an advanced care flight paramedic for York EMS and provincial air ambulance service ORNGE, and lead investigator on the study, said that while legislation can be helpful, it is one of many angles that must be explored.

“It’s a complex problem and no two violent episodes are the same. One episode might best be managed by legislation, others might not,” he said. “You have to take a very broad, interdisciplinary perspective to address the problem. You’re not going to have a one-solution fix.”

Craig MacCalman, a professor in Humber’s paramedic program, said that much of the abuse that paramedics face is spontaneous, making it difficult to adequately address through legislation.

“I don’t think a law will change entirely violence against paramedics. I think it will make some people think about it twice, but I think most violence against paramedics is because of the psychology of the situation.”

The paramedic association is still in talks to name a politician that will champion their proposal.

NDP calls for lower insurance premiums

The possibility of lower insurance premiums has Humber Students revving in anticipation.

The possibility of lower insurance premiums has Humber Students revving in anticipation.

Students who drive themselves to class could find themselves with more bank for their tank if a new NDP proposal finds traction.

In a Feb. 6 letter to premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath called on the provincial government and Federal Services Commission of Ontario to instruct insurers province-wide lower insurance premiums by 15 per cent.

If implemented, this means Humber students who drive to class could see premiums reduced, on average, by more than $200 per year.

Pete Karageorgos, manager of consumer and industry relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said it is great the NDP is recognizing auto insurance costs are high, but their proposal lacks long-term vision.

“Saying we’re going to cut, without a plan, that’s irresponsible,” Karageorgos said.

Rather than simply forcing a decrease, he said a more sustainable approach to lowering insurance rates would be to address total costs, such as those associated with insurance fraud.

Jagmeet Singh, the Ontario NDP’s consumer affairs critic, said shifting the focus to fraud is, “ridiculous and ludicrous,” and, “a politics of distraction.”

“There’s no reason we need to wait for the implementation of any anti-fraud measures. You can go ahead and do those,” said Singh. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t cut down on fraud,but we’ve already cut down costs incurred by insurance companies astronomically.”

Singh said the Liberal government’s 2010 insurance reforms have fostered a climate of declining costs and rising profits, making it only fair that the consumer sees reduced rates as a result.

In a Jan. 21 statement, the Ministry of Finance said for 2012, auto insurance rates in Ontario actually decreased an average of 0.26 per cent.

Darcy McNeill, director of communications for the Ministry of Finance, said it is important any changes to insurance policy are made with industry input.

“It’s easy to just throw out a number, but the devil is in the details,” he said.

McNeill said the province’s anti-fraud taskforce is a key example of the government working alongside the insurance industry to cut costs, and as in 2012, their cooperation is expected to lead to lower rates over the long term.

Premier Wynne’s office was unavailable for comment.

Nurses association calls for hire of 9,000 new workers

In their report, Why Your Health Matters, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario calls for the hire of over 9,000 new RNs to meet needs around the province.

In their report, Why Your Health Matters, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario calls for the hire of over 9,000 new RNs to meet needs around the province.

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario is urging the Ontario government to hire 9,000 new, full-time employed registered nurses by 2015.

During a press conference at Queen’s Park on Jan. 30, the RNAO unveiled Why Your Health Matters, a new report that focuses on policy reform in the areas of poverty, the environment, nursing care, and medicare.

The group said health care in Ontario is in a precarious position as a declining number of registered nurses have adversely affected its RN-to-population ratio, making it among the lowest in Canada.

This declining work force negatively impacted nurses’ workloads and the outcomes of patients, said RNAO CEO Doris Grinspun at the conference.

She highlighted that in the last year, Ontario lost over 1,000 RN positions, and that as Ontario’s population ages, the need to reverse this decline will become increasingly vital.

“The most urgent thing is to put the focus on not attracting RNs, but employing RNs,” she said.

Nursing and health care reform in Ontario requires a critical reevaluation of the roles of RNs and particular attention to be paid to preventative care, said MPP France Gélinas, the NDP’s critic for health and long-term care in Ontario.

Speaking to the NDP’s priorities and perspectives, Gélinas said, “I don’t see an NDP government going out to make our hospitals bigger. An NDP government is a whole lot more committed in bringing forward a strong and robust health promotion and disease prevention strategy.”

The office of Deb Matthews, the provincial minster of health and long-term care, was unavailable to comment.

One way the RNAO proposes changing the roles of RNs is by allowing them to prescribe medication and order medical testing, practices currently being considered by other provinces.

Looking at how these proposals could affect Humber’s nursing students, Dr. Kathleen White-Williams said she welcomes what an increased number of available positions would mean for graduating students, but cautioned that a reexamination of the role of RNs would cause a fundamental shift in the way nurses are educated.

“For a new graduate to be able to do those types of things, then the scope of practice for registered nurses will have to change, and the educational component related to becoming a graduate will also have to really have a good look at it,” she said.

Grinspun said acting decisively, effectively, and quickly is important.

Channeling former health minister George Smitherman, Grinspun said, “the time for pilots is over; we know what the health care system needs.”

New toolkit follows housing fund cuts

Residents of affordable housing units, such as those at 100 Lower Ossington, relied on the provincial housing benefit before it was cut.

Residents of affordable housing units, such as those at 100 Lower Ossington, relied on the provincial housing benefit before it was cut.

Recent changes to provincial funding for housing and homelessness has led one policy group to develop a tracking tool to monitor their effects.

The Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based research and policy institute, in partnership with the Income Security Advocacy Centre, released on Jan. 21 a research tool looking into the loss of Ontario’s Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit.

Before the province discontinued CSUMB on Jan. 1, it provided funding to individuals or families receiving social assistance that found themselves in financial emergencies related to unexpected housing expenses.

Funds equal to 50 per cent of CSUMB’s total funding were given to municipal governments with the directive of establishing similar initiatives. With the provincial monies the City of Toronto created the Housing Stabilization Fund to help operate its own housing support programs under the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative.

This significant decrease in funding is one of the primary reasons why the tracking tool was developed, said Steve Barnes, a policy analyst with the Wellesley Institute.

“The real problem is that they took the provincial fund and cut it in half and only gave half the money they spent on CSUMB to the municipalities,” said Barnes.

Toronto’s 2013 operating budget shows an allocation of $23.9 million for the housing stablization fund, a $14.9 million decrease from what was available under CSUMB. The city estimates approximately 49,000 households will be seeking assistance from the fund, similar to the numbers when funding was provided by the CSUMB.

Charles Caravan, manager of research development and reporting for Toronto Employment and Social Services, pointed out the province has also allocated $42 million to municipalities to ease the transition and act as a buffer while long-term strategies are refined.

“For 2013, the City is focused on ensuring service system stability and limiting service impacts for vulnerable residents,” he said.

Housing maintenance continues to be a critical element of Toronto’s overall affordable housing strategy, and the city fund will play a role in that, said Patricia Anderson, a manager in the city’s shelter, support and housing administration.

“The easiest way to prevent homelessness is to keep the housing you’ve got,” she said.

The Wellesley Institute is in the process of verifying the data obtained through their tracking tool, and will be releasing reports on the impact of the end of CSUMB in the coming months.