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?’”

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.”

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.

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.