In 2005, the federal government estimated 150,000 homeless in Canada. Non- Governmental sources estimate the true population of homeless to be from 200,000- 300,000 people (Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007, 15). Ponder those estimates; these members of our society, and of our communities, do not live in a home, and are considered homeless. The homeless can be children or elderly, single or in families, economically disenfranchised, the poor, temporarily or chronically unemployed and underemployed, or socially marginalized and even the working homeless. They also include people who are, physically disabled, mentally ill and chronically ill. What segregates people who are homeless is not so much the presence or absence of shelter, but the lack of a home. Homelessness is a reality for Canadians in 2008, which not only violates their human rights, but is a national crisis. Currently, the federal government has adopted a decentralized policy of offering funding for housing, and letting provinces decide how best to spend the money but disregarding the reality of the national homelessness crisis we live in today. The federal government needs to develop a National Homelessness and Housing Policy that is sensitive to each provinces issue. Both levels of government need to work as partners to develop long term plans and begin to establish a socially responsible role.
In the past years, the federal government has attempted twice to deal straightforwardly and be involved directly with municipal affairs, seemingly to adopt more of a socially responsible role. The first intervention was in 1909 with the creation of the Commission on the Conservation. This was a way to deal with the dilemma of the poor and pushed the provinces to adopt a planning legislation. However not one of the provinces did, and this Commission was thrown away in 1921. The second attempt to deal with municipal affairs was in 1971, the federal government created the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs to coordinate federal activities in public works, transportation and housing as they affected the cities; while providing policy advice to the government on urban issues. However, again the provincial governments did not think this was part of their responsibility, and objected to the ministry. Therefore, before the 1979 election it was taken away to mollify them. Consequently, this ended the federal government's direct involvement in urban matters.
From 1940 to 1963 the federal government has had an extremely small social housing program that only created 850 units a year throughout all of Canada. The following year in 1964 the National Housing Act (NHA) implemented a public housing program that completed approximately 200,000 units over a period of 10 years. Nine years later, in 1973 additional changes to the NHA introduced a neighborhood improvement program, a housing rehabilitation program, a native housing program, a home ownership program and a nonprofit co-op housing program. All of which seemed to be positive changes to eradicate homelessness (Hulchanski 16). Unfortunately, these programs only lasted until the mid- 1980s when a new political party came to power, the Mulroney Conservatives. Almost instantaneously when this party came in power, cuts to housing programs and ensuing budgets somehow allowed governments to recoil from the housing crisis entirely. The end came in 1993, when all federal support for housing was completely withdrawn. They decreased the amount of social housing and made it fall from the annual level of 25, 000 new units in 1983 to zero in the 1993 budget. Adding to which in 1995 the federal government eliminated the Canada Assistance Plan which forced provinces to make dire cuts in social assistance payments. In turn, this has had an excruciating affect on the lives of those living in poverty, while not helping the homeless. If you compare our current homelessness crisis, to the 1980s where very few people were homeless, it is starkly different. Currently, according to the National Poverty Organization it states the odds of an Canadian citizen experiencing poverty and homelessness in his or her life are one in three; this illustrates a national crisis.
The fact that the federal government of Canada does not have a long term plan set up in collaboration with the provincial governments to tackle homelessness, produces a national crisis that needs to be addressed. According to a report published by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership states that "Canada's decade of relative inaction on homelessness in 1993 to 2004, cost Canadian taxpayers an estimated $49.5 billion across all services and jurisdictions" (p.12). The Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007 goes on to note that this problem is not disappearing regardless of the hopes it might. As Canada continues to provide temporary accommodations and support for the homeless we are not making any headway. The Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007 makes a point by stating that clearly it is more costly to provide temporary and emergency relief, rather than investing in solutions. Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007 notes, in other words, it is ultimately more expensive to house homeless people on a temporary, emergency basis than it is to invest in solutions. "In 2006, the Wellesley Institute determined that Toronto taxpayers pay two and one-half times as much for homeless shelters as for rent supplements" (Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007,12). Currently, there has been new "investment in affordable housing and homelessness has been introduced since 2005, but without a national strategy on homelessness and housing affordability, there are no guarantees that this money will be well-spent" (Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007, 18).
Now that seems like a no-brainer, but other homelessness advocates think developing a national policy for eradicating homelessness, is the worst idea possible. A new Canada West Foundation report noted in the Calgary Herald states that if the Federal Government implements a "one size fits all" homelessness policy, it would be a setback rather than a solution: We don't need a national strategy that would take the different things that the provinces are doing and water it down," said Robert Roach, the group's research director) Calgary's key need may be more newly built housing units for its 4,060 homeless, he explained, while Winnipeg may need dilapidated housing to be upgraded, and Regina's problem is overcrowding. Provinces, with more spending power than cities, are best positioned to offer leadership, Roach said (Markusoff, Guttormson 2008). While this may be accurate, why can't a national homelessness policy include all levels of government to work together in collaboration? All levels of government becoming partners in a socially responsible approach that is sensitive and recognizes the demands of individuals and families face in the 20th century. All while sharing responsibility to raise our generations. Canada is the only one of the Group of Seven countries without a national strategy for homelessness; it is time we had one.
We ask all levels of government what they think; we ask people who fight for the rights of homelessness individuals their opinion, but what about those who are homeless, what are they thinking? There is a man named Anemkii who sits by my apartment building outside the entrance door to Portage Place Mall, most Sunday mornings. Subjectively, he appears to look disheveled, extremely skinny, dirty and perhaps homeless. Every Sunday I walk by him and do not make eye contact and walk around him. Three weeks ago I decided I was going to look him in the eyes and say hello. To my surprise he looked back and said hi dear, have a beautiful day. For some reason I wanted to ask him why he sits outside here every Sunday, I wanted to ask him why he was dirty; I wanted to ask if he was hungry and ask him if he had a place to call home. I was too scared and I feared the unknown, I continued walking. The next Sunday, I put a granola bar in my purse before I left and pondered the idea of giving it to this man, as I guessed he might be hungry. I walked outside and said hello to him again, and this time I asked him how he was; to my amazement he said "hungry" but good. I replied by telling him I had a granola bar if he wanted it. He smiled and said thank you, and I continued walking. As I have been doing more and more research on the topic of homelessness my curiosity grew deeper and I was determined to talk to this man as I felt he had something to tell me.
On Sunday, October 15th, I was truly enlightened by a stranger. I sat on the curb where I see this man sitting every Sunday and we had an extremely intelligent conversation as to why he thinks he is homeless. I told him that I was researching information on homelessness and I was honest in telling him that before I started on this journey, I wouldn't have likely felt the inclination to know his story. He laughed and said he wasn't offended but is glad I was educating myself. I asked him if he had an opinion about the federal government, and their responsibility with the homelessness crisis. He seemed quite upset at first as his body seemed to tense up. He stated that he feels "the big guys don't want dirty people in the streets, especially in the provinces capitals" He said that's why the government just wants to shove us all under the rug during the day and make everyone else deal with the problem". I asked him if Canada had a National Homelessness Policy, just like our healthcare policy if that idea would help his current situation. He paused, looked me in the eyes and said "dear, anything other than what they are doing now is a promise of hope. If it makes all those big guys work together, then yeah we should work on that because right now there ain't a plan for our future, it's sad because you know, home is where your heart is".
All opinions are different, yet seem to have a common theme. We all essentially would like to eradicate homelessness. But how do we do this? Canada needs to implement a National Homelessness Policy. There needs to be leadership by the federal government while exemplifying and role modeling a socially responsible role to all provinces. The provinces need to fully be included in this national policy, because they after all know their own provinces best. Adding to which, I believe the important action needed to end homelessness in Canada is to implement a fully-funded National Housing Program. Together with all levels of government working sensitively and collaboratively developing a long term plan to implement a fully funded housing program for all of Canada.
We have come a long way, but times have changed. Today most men and women work for wages, family structures have changed radically and many of our policies and institutions have not yet changed to take account of these realities. The result is, among other things, unsustainable expectations of modern families and increasing inequality in the ability of Canadians to thrive in a changing environment. To have a home, is a basic right which is being violated. The federal government needs to adopt a National Homelessness Policy that will work towards eradicating this national crisis. After all, like my friend sitting outside of Portage Place Mall said, "Home is where the heart is".
Anemkii. "Conversation about homelessness." Personal Interview. October 15 2008.
Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007 for Ethics in Leadership. 2007. Canadian Policy Research Network Inc October 17. 2008 [http://stophomelessness.ca//wp-content/uploads/2008/09/SHELTER_slides.pdf].
Hulchanski, J. David. Canadian Policy Research Network Inc. December 2002. Family Network. Housing Policy for Tomorrow's Cities. October 18, 2008 [http://www.cprn.org/documents/16886_en.pdf].
Markusoff , Jason Guttormson, Kim. The Calgary Herald. "National housing strategy sought Long-term vision needed to tackle homelessness" September 24, 2008. October 12.2008 [http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/story.html?id=dd8f6f31-ccbc-47f3-b962-c5930e0061a4].
National Anti-Poverty Organization. 2007. October. 10.2008 [http://english.napo-onap.ca].
The Checklist For Evaluating Government Policy. Family Service Association of Toronto (FSA). October 16 2008 [http://www.familyservicetoronto.org/programs/social/Checklist.pdf]