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Homelessness in Canada and the U.S: An International Context
by Lindsay Buset, B.A. Developmental Studies/Inclusion - University of Winnipeg 2009

A Term paper written for a class called 'The Child, Family and Social Policy'

It is estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 people are homeless in Canada . In the United States there is an estimated 750,000 homeless people. These numbers may show a drastic difference, however it proves that per capita the homelessness rate is lower in the U.S than in Canada. The homeless can be described as children, elderly, single or in families (Sheldon Chumuir Foundation, 2007, 15). Although everyone's circumstances may differ, the commonality they have is that they do not have a permanent home.

Currently in 2008, Canada is the only G8 country that does not have a national housing policy. The U.S is a part of the G8 countries, and they have a national housing policy; this is Canada's reality. To change our reality, the Canadian federal government along with provincial governments, municipalities, and all Canadian citizens need to embody an active role in constructing a comprehensive National Housing and Homelessness Policy. Canada needs a clear vision so that together as a country we can foresee an end to this national crisis.

In 1993 the national affordable housing policy that we fought so hard to get, was cut. All federal supports for housing were completely withdrawn. Social housing funds went from the annual level of 25,000 new units in 1983 to 0 units in 1993. This action has added to the rise in homelessness rates. In 1995 the federal government eliminated the Canada Assistance plan, forcing provinces to make cuts in social assistance payments. This action has also added to the dramatic increase in homelessness rates. Since the federal government has taken no responsibility in this matter, it is downloaded to the provinces and to the municipalities. Who is leading them?

In 1999 the federal government allocated $753 million dollars to the National Homelessness Initiative. Homelessness numbers still went up. The initiative did not in fact put money into sustaining and building affordable homes. Without any guidance from the federal government the provinces and municipalities were left to decide where it should be spent. As a result of national protests, the initiative was renewed again in 2007 but renamed "Homelessness Partnering Strategy". Homelessness is currently on the rise. For the past 25 years, all levels of government have taken a hands-off approach to housing and have instead relied upon the private sector to meet the demand across the entire housing spectrum. This policy vacuum explains the national homelessness and housing crisis we are in today.

As previously stated, Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing policy; however they are not the only country that still has a housing crisis. The United States, also has noteworthy challenges with homelessness and lack of housing. They too like Canada have had problems with drug addiction and mental health issues, adding to their homelessness crisis in their country. Although there seems to be one large difference between the two countries, it seems most notably in the way they cope with the homelessness crisis.

The federal government in the United States has introduced a nationally led housing strategy enacted through their Interagency Council on Homelessness. The big idea of their initiative is a "housing first" philosophy. This philosophy helps the homeless population move immediately from the streets or from homeless shelters into their own community-based apartments. They do not look at their addictions, or mental health issues first; they focus on getting these individuals off the streets and into housing. This is a stark contrast to former systems in the US and current systems that we have in Canada. The old US system and current Canadian system moves homeless individuals through different "levels" of housing. Each level moves these individuals closer to "independent housing" but is a long drawn out process which can cause many problems, rather than creating solutions.

The outcomes of the "housing first" approach in the United States are, from afar, looking really well. More than 300 locations are now participating in the federally led program with a number having accepted and developed their ten-year plans to end homelessness. This is another contrast seen between the two countries. Canada does not have a set plan, with a commitment to put an end to homelessness. The action plan to end homelessness in the United States within 10 years is business oriented, and seems to be results focused. The results for this plan are measured as an actual reduction in the numbers of people living on the streets. Perhaps this is something we can borrow from the United States. I believe this would benefit Canada to adopt the idea of making a "set end date" where we as a country commit to ending homelessness.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness which is a non partisan, mission-driven organization committed to preventing and ending homelessness in the United States; shows an example of how this program is being proven successful in the state of Philadelphia. Within the state of Philadelphia there has been a 50 percent reduction, as well in Miami with a 30 percent reduction in homeless populations. Dallas has a 28 percent reduction, Seattle with a 30 percent reduction, and San Francisco with a 26 percent reduction. These seem like large results that are being produced through the "housing first" initiative (National Alliance to end homelessness, 2008). A homelessness advocate Philip Mangano is passionate about his mission to end chronic homelessness in the US, within the next 10 years. When he talks about this mission, he emphasizes the four "killer Bs". By this he means that for any strategy aimed at ending homelessness to work it must include a business plan, baselines (a count of the homeless), benchmarks (the housing units or services needed to remedy the problem) and a clear understanding of budget implications. This is what the national housing policy is striving for. Philip Mangano has currently convinced 190 cities across the country to create 10-year plans to end homelessness in their own communities, and this seems to be proving results (Toronto Star, May 2008).

The homelessness situation in the United States that came before the move to a national housing strategy was very much the same as the current situation we in Canada are in. If the United States was successful at working towards and producing an action plan with commitments fir a national housing policy to end homelessness, I truly have confidence Canada can do the same.

Gordon Laird's report published by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership (2007), estimated that the current cost of homelessness in Canada ranges from $4.5 billion to $6 billion annually.

"Canada already spends as much as $6 billion annually attempting to manage homelessness across all governments and jurisdictions. Canada chooses to needlessly warehouse a growing percentage of homeless who are often already employed and merely require affordable rental accommodation"(pg.12).

Another example of a study showing significant cost savings potential of a new approach to housing the homeless include one by the government of British Columbia in 2001.This study compared the cost of maintaining a status quo approach. It would provide emergency shelter, and the requisite social and health services. Also it would provide permanent housing and the requisite social and health services. The study showed that the cost of service usage in the first approach was 33 percent higher than the cost of housed individuals. This included the cost of housing, the study showed that the second approach would still save the government money (The Cost of Homelessness in BC, 2001, pg 28). Therefore, this shows evidence that it costs more to support the homeless then it does to invest in solutions like affordable housing. There is no disputing the numerous cost-benefit analyses of decreasing rather than managing homelessness.

By thinking that simply providing housing to the absolute homeless is just a "miracle potion" that is going to solve the myriad of problems associated with this population, is not forward thinking. However what this does accomplish is that housing provides the platform from which other services, which are already funded, and can be implemented more effectively can be used to help. Clearly, we need a far more aggressive approach in Canada if we hope to overturn the worsening trend in Canada and achieve the sort of positive measurable outcomes being realized in some parts of the United States.

If you just look at Canada's housing policy 25 years ago, we could learn a lot from ourselves. We are a prime example of why a country needs a national housing policy with commitments. While shadowing the United States full philosophy to end homelessness may not be ideal for Canada; I am suggesting we be reflective within. Le us take the areas of opportunity and turn them in to solutions. We have the tools, we need the action. The following are recommendations I feel would benefit Canada on its plight to end homelessness.

1. The Federal government along with provincial governments, municipalities and all Canadian citizens need to embody an active social role in constructing a comprehensive National Housing and Homelessness Policy that works for Canada.
2. Affordable housing must become a priority for all levels of government and they must work together to create a clear housing policy that ensures social justice for all Canadians.
3. A home is one of the most basic human needs yet there has been almost no policy guidance in the housing market for the last 20 years. The Federal Government needs to implement a fully funded national housing strategy, with a focus on "housing first". The federal government needs to lead by example in a socially responsible way.
4. Finally, we need a holistic vision for all of Canada. An action plan with an end day needs to be set. Canadians need to envision an end to this national crisis of homelessness.

Although comparing Canada to the United States might not be the most idealistic perspective of how to create more affordable homes and put a stop to homelessness; it does however, shine light on the absence of Canada's Federal involvement on eradicating homelessness.

It is only in Canada that the national government has completely withdrawn from social housing. Who would have imagined that a system fought so hard to get, could quickly vanish. If we continuously download responsibility on to others, we will only create more problems and more homeless people in our nation.

It is imperative that the Federal government along with provincial governments, municipalities and all Canadian citizens have an active role in constructing a comprehensive National Housing and Homelessness Policy that works for Canada. Give us the holistic vision so we can foresee an end; an end to homelessness in Canada.

Anemkii, Personal Interview, November,

Canadian Urban Institute. November 28. 2008.[]

Dupis, Jean. "Homelessness: The US and Canadian Experience". 12 September 2000 Economics Division.

Eckholm, Erik. "New Campaign Shows Progress for Homeless." New York Times 07 June 2006. New York Times. 18 Dec. 2007.

Homelessness Causes & Effects: The Costs of Homelessness in B.C. Febuary, 2001.
[ ]

National Alliance to end homelessness. November .30.2008. []

National Anti-Poverty Organization. 2007. October. 10.2008

Sheldon Chumir Foundation 2007 for Ethics in Leadership. 2007. Canadian Policy Research Network Inc October 17. 2008.

United States Urban Institute. November 28. 2008.[]

Y-File, York University. December 01. 2008 []