Thousands of people across Canada experience homelessness. Between 2020 and 2022 more than 32,000 people across 59 communities were homeless on any given night. That represents a 12 per cent increase from 2018.
A host of factors play a role in Canada’s housing and affordability crisis. They include migration, with newcomers needing suitable places to live; restrictive zoning laws, which make building high density housing difficult; and changing demographics, which mean fewer people on average are living in a single household.
While efforts are being made nationally and locally to provide more housing, solutions are required to help those most deeply excluded from the housing market: people experiencing homelessness.
Understanding housing needs
Our ongoing research is aiming to understand how permanent supportive housing can help people experiencing chronic homelessness, particularly those who require support to maintain housing. People in chronic homelessness are those who have experienced at least six months of homelessness in the past year or who have recurrent experiences of homelessness of at least 18 months over the past three years.
While there is some new affordable housing being developed through the National Housing Strategy, this housing tends to only support those with less complex needs, such as those who can afford units at 70 or 80 per cent of average market rents or are able to live independently.
However, where we see rapid growth in homelessness is among people on extremely low social assistance incomes who need some degree of medical or social support.
This means current affordable housing systems are failing those with the highest needs and our current system design is actually deepening inequality. Those who are poorer, sicker and more chronically homeless are least likely to be able to find stable permanent housing.
Housing First is an approach whereby people are supported immediately with permanent housing, rather than being required to first access treatment for mental health or substance use disorders. However, Housing First programs, targeted to those with higher needs and more deeply marginalized, are vastly over-subscribed and bogged down by waitlists.
Permanent supportive housing
The concept of permanent supportive housing is based on the idea of affordable units where on-site supports are available — whether that’s support buying food and preparing meals or support for health care such as medication management and mental health-care.
This is a promising model that is backed by international research. However, it’s one that is hard to implement in Canada. Most government housing programs do not provide enough funding for these types of initiatives. That means organizations who want to provide support must struggle to find funding some other way.
The first phase of our ongoing research on permanent supportive housing was conducted over three years with Indwell, an organization that provides both affordable and supportive housing throughout southwestern Ontario. We wanted to understand how this organization was creating permanent supportive housing and the impacts this might have on tenants.
We found that having both affordable housing and staff on-site who could meet a variety of needs proved transformational for the tenants. Tenants had included people who spent decades in homelessness or many years in institutionalized mental health-care. Through permanent supportive housing they had finally achieved housing stability. This positively impacted both their health and their sense of belonging.
We also learned how difficult this was for the organization to fund and deliver. There is simply no straight-forward way for organizations providing this kind of housing to access public funding. The federal government funds capital expenses but relies on provincial governments to fund ongoing costs like health care. However, provincial governments are not forthcoming with funding.
Indwell’s example shows that if we want to address homelessness in Canada then we need to change our systems. For example, the current National Housing Strategy primarily supports developing more rental units at market rates and offers little affordability. What it doesn’t do well is provide genuinely affordable housing that provides support for those most at risk of chronic homelessness.
Unless the government addresses this issue, Canada will continue on its current path and Canadians will continue to experience homelessness. To address chronic homelessness, the federal government needs to include funding for longer-term supportive housing in its National Housing Strategy. And provincial governments must increase social assistance rates to provide more income towards housing.