No Place Like Home

City Hall’s handling of its homelessness crisis has lacked vigour and compassion. We will make it one of the key election issues this campaign and a priority for the next council term.

The unacceptable result of Toronto’s unacceptable approach to homelessness to date.

Even a casual reader of the news would have caught wind of the tragedy this past winter that was Toronto’s treatment of those experiencing homelessness. Even as temperatures plummeted, hundreds were left on the street exposed to the bitter cold. Some relief measures eventually made their way through the ensuing political morass, but for many they were too little, too late.

The intent of this piece is not to re-litigate many of the mistakes that were made — it has been more than adequately covered by the Toronto Star, the CBC, and others — but rather outline a vision for how we as a city move beyond mere short-term fixes to more permanent solutions.

We believe that the homelessness crisis is one of the most important issues for this upcoming election. It is particularly important for a community like Ward 21 which, with its large portion of the city’s shelters (see below), will be at the heart of any solution – or bear the brunt of any further failures.

Below are a series of actions I intend to advocate for in order to address this important issue.

According to the City’s website, Toronto has 44 homeless shelters (blue) and 12 respite centers (pink). Of the total, 14 are in Ward 21 or the surrounding area in Ward 22 and 23. (Source: City of Toronto, Sean Marshall)

1. Immediate Relief

The city has made progress in recent months to try to avoid a repeat of last winter’s crisis. The purchase of four temporary shelters is an important step to building greater capacity — which consistently hovers above the city’s target of 90% — though I continue to believe more is needed immediately.

As councillor, some of the additional steps I will advocate for include:

  • Improving Health — in the midst of the crisis this winter, one of the most eye-opening articles (also, gut wrenching) was NOW magazine’s portrayal of the terrible conditions inside Toronto’s homeless shelters for those lucky enough to get space. Despite best efforts of staff, these conditions often lead to outbreaks of disease — such as those experienced at Seaton House this past winter. The Ontario government announced its intent to bring more healthcare services into shelters, although the specifics of how it will be implemented are not yet clear. As councillor I intend to advocate strongly for greater access to primary care services — such as wound care or treatment & monitoring of chronic illnesses — and see that this program in particular moves from a pilot to reality.
  • Physical Security— another feature of many shelter is the constant threat of violence. Yet in the same way that adding police is not a way to solve gun violence (more on that in a future post…), adding physical security will not solve the problem either. In my conversations with individuals experiencing homelessness in the Moss Park area, physical security makes shelters less welcoming — particularly to those with previous interactions with law enforcement — and creates another focal point for confrontation and escalation. More passive and less intrusive ways of making shelters safer — for example, through the addition of security cameras — were cited to me as preferred options, and are worth exploring by the City.
  • Data Collection — one of the causes of the City’s mishandling of this winter’s crisis in the first place was poor collection and use of data. Shelter usage and capacity was obfuscated to a point where the scale of the crisis was not clear through the city’s reported statistics until it was too late. Efforts are underway to address this issue: for example, Councillor Wong-Tam succeeded with a motion to improve data collection at our shelters (I emailed her office for an update on its progress but have not heard back). More frequent Street Needs Assessments and support for innovative projects such as CivicTech TO’s ‘basecount’ are important as well.

While these steps are important, they are only part of an overall solution. Ultimately, the city must shift from simply managing the crisis through emergency services to true preventative measures. And at the top of that list is a clear need: affordable housing.

2. Addressing Affordability

In reading the most recent State of Canadian Homelessness in Canada I was struck by one quote in particular that summarizes our team’s view well:

Homelessness is not only a housing problem, but always a housing problem.

No matter what you do to improve the support provided through shelters, the only long-term solution to an overburdened and dispassionate system is making housing itself more affordable.

The topic of housing affordability itself warrants its own exploration on these pages — and will get it over the coming months as we continue to engage the community on this enormously complex issue. But in the meantime, there are a few clear areas where, as councillor, I will need to act:

  • Revising the city’s definition of “affordable” to reflect the realities of those experiencing homelessness or reliant on social assistance (as the mayor finally acknowledged is necessary) to ensure programs oriented around this definition actually target those most in need;
  • Taking full advantage of the new inclusionary zoning regulations to require developers to make material contributions to our affordable housing stock;
  • Improve the health of our rental hosing market through incentives to encourage development of purpose-built rental units and discourage vacancies of existing properties; and
  • Supporting other innovative approaches to create affordable housing alternatives, such as those underway by the St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society in the Kensington Market neighbourhood.

And much, much more. We will continue to explore this issue in more detail over the coming months through our discussions with the community and add to our arsenal of potential solutions as we do. But the overall point is again worth repeating: any serious strategy to address homelessness will have improving affordability of housing at its core.

3. Reducing Risk

If we can create a system that gives everyone a fair shot at affordable housing, our focus then shifts to ensuring they can achieve and sustain it. This will allow us as a city to be more proactive, and get in-front of homelessness crises like those we experienced this past winter.

The specific risk factors that lead to precarious housing situations are too innumerable to cover here. However, the approach I will advocate for is one that looks at the most common populations in the shelter system and designs specific solutions for them.

As just one example, an oft-cited group with unique needs are homeless youth, accounting for nearly 20% of the overall population experiencing homelessness in Canada. Support for “family connect” programs, access to harm reduction facilities, creation of safe spaces for LGBT youth, and enabling continued education and training are just some examples of the types of systems we need to create and enhance.

Clearly there are numerous other groups requiring their own targeted solutions, whether its indigenous peoples, those with mental illness, newcomers, and many more that we will learn about in the coming months. As councillor, I will commit to helping identify, design, implement, and refine such strategies to reduce the risk of precarious housing in the first place.

A Vision…and Obligation

This vision — where a community has the systems in place to prevent homelessness wherever possible, but also ensure that the ill effects of it are mitigated when it does occur — is a “Functional Zero” end to homelessness. It is achievable for a city like Toronto with the right level of commitment — something I intend to bring the next council term.

It is often said that societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable. If so, when it comes to the treatment of those experiencing homelessness, the verdict for Toronto would not be kind. But in this election, we can learn from our mistakes and become the more just and caring city that I know we can be. It is not just an opportunity for us to seize, but obligation for us to fulfill.

All comments, questions, or additions are welcome. For more information on Will Meneray’s campaign for City Councillor in Ward 21, please contact us or visit us at our website.