Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
October 20, 2014
Categories: Solutions

There is a popular parable, especially in healthcare, that explores the benefits of “upstream thinking” —the need to look at prevention, rather than just solutions—if we want to end social ills. Each telling of the story varies but essentially:

“Two people are standing at the edge of a river. All of a sudden a drowning child floats by and one person jumps in to save her. Then another child comes floating by and the other individual jumps in to pluck him from the water. But soon, more and more children are in the river and drowning. People cannot keep up with the demand. Eventually, someone decides to go upstream to figure out why kids keep falling/being thrown in the river in the first place.”

The same is true with homelessness. We understand a great deal these days about the pathways in and out of homelessness. We know a lot about how to provide services to people while they are homeless and we understand effective solutions, such as Housing First, that can end homelessness. We often fail, however, by not paying enough attention to how homelessness can be prevented in the first place.

""The goal of primary prevention is to ‘work upstream’ to reduce risks, and typically involves universal interventions directed at whole communities, as well as targeted interventions for ‘at risk’ communities. With regards to homelessness, this could include information campaigns and educational programs, as well as strategic interventions designed to help address problems that may eventually contribute to homelessness, well before they arise. Poverty reduction strategies, anti-violence campaigns, early childhood supports and anti-discrimination work all can contribute to a reduction in homelessness down the road.

Eviction Prevention, including programs such as rent banks or tenant advocacy supports, is an example of primary prevention aimed at a specific population. Often the assistance of someone to help them navigate a rental tribunal or mediate with a landlord, or a loan/grant of a few hundred dollars can keep someone housed. Similarly, energy support programs for low-income households can help people facing energy poverty. In some climates the amount of money necessary to keep a home heated or cooled can mean the difference between staying housed or becoming homeless.

At-risk populations such as LGBTQ2S youth also need support: statistics show that 25-40% of homeless youth fall into this population group. By supporting families to understand sexual and gender orientation or by training/supporting foster homes to be LGBTQ2S positive, the number of youth who are homeless can be dramatically reduced.

Cities Centre, University of Toronto
October 17, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

Today, October 17, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The United Nations has focused this year’s theme on complete eradication of extreme poverty in poor countries of the global South, where—thanks to concerted global efforts led by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals—rates of extreme poverty have been cut in half since 1990.

The same cannot be said for Toronto, where rates of hunger, homelessness, and family poverty have ballooned in that same period, driven by economic and social trends of increasing inequality and polarization. Research by David Hulchanski’s Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership shows that our city is becoming so segregated by income and race that it could be seen as three cities: a booming “City #1,” well-resourced central zones of mostly white, upper-income households; the diminishing “City #2” of ethnically mixed and middle-income households; and a growing “City #3” of low-income neighbourhoods far from transit and services, where most residents are members of racialized communities.

My project, Family Homelessness in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs examined the housing conditions of families in the aging apartment buildings that are concentrated in City #3. What we found was striking: nine out of ten families have housing that fails to meet basic United Nations standards of adequacy. Their housing is unaffordable, overcrowded, unsafe, insecure, and in need of repair. Family homelessness is rampant in these neighbourhoods, but it is mostly hidden. Many families lose their housing due to violence, eviction, and unsafe conditions. When they do, they usually double-up with other families in their neighbourhoods instead of going to shelters.

In consultation with an advisory board of front-line agencies and tenant leaders in these neighbourhoods, we have produced a new research summary, released today. The flyer, which will be translated into multiple languages, aims to put this information in the hands and on the screens of tenants and front-line workers.

Toronto’s housing crisis is urgent, and it won’t be solved by research alone. Citizens need to stand up and demand that all levels of government uphold the right to adequate housing. We hope this flyer can provide evidence and information to strengthen tenants’ organizing.

At tonight’s Mayoral Debate on Housing and Homelessness, candidates will tell us where they stand. In our last election, the slogan Respect for Taxpayers won the day – and we all saw how that worked out. What about Respect for Tenants? Which candidate’s policies will improve the housing situation for low-income families in Toronto?

Families, Housing and the Risk of Homelessness in Toronto's Rental High Rises

York University; The Homeless Hub
October 15, 2014

It’s true that the challenges Canadians face with food insecurity are different from the challenges felt by countries in the global south. However, the call to reduce hunger resonates. On this World Food Day, let’s take a look at how housing affordability and the housing market are related to food access. The below infographic, published by the Daily Bread Food Bank as part of their 2014 Who’s Hungry report, illustrates the gap that exists between social assistance and the costs of food and shelter in the Greater Toronto Area.

42% of survey respondents who receive social assistance as their main source of income did not eat for an entire day due to lack of money.

Problems with food access are largely caused by rising housing costs in the GTA.  One survey respondent recognized that “(the focus should be on) affordable housing because almost all our money goes to putting a roof over our heads.” The graph below shows how the divide between the cost of rent and shelter allowances has grown over the last two decades. Shelter allowances for single parents with two children have actually shown a net decrease; meanwhile the cost of rent has practically doubled. Rising housing costs mean that individuals are often only one accident or unexpected expense away from becoming homeless.

Shelter Gap: Single + 2 Children, 2 Bedroom Apartment. Adapted from Pay the Rent Feed the Kids, "Raising the Shelter Allowance: Evaluating Income Geared to Rent in Toronto", 2002

The average monthly income of a Daily Bread Food Bank client was reported to be $750 per month. This number “falls far below any standard of income or poverty measure”. After paying for rent, an individual has an average of $6.13 remaining for additional expenses. That’s $6.13 to cover three meals a day, transportation, necessities and any unexpected expenses. It’s no wonder over 40% of survey respondents receiving social assistance stated that there were times when they didn’t eat for an entire day. People in the GTA don’t go hungry because there is no food available. Their hunger is caused by a lack of funds to purchase food. Services provided by food banks, employment services and shelters are absolutely essential in lessening the burden on families and individuals.

As affordable housing becomes increasingly scarce, more funds need to be allocated to subsidize the cost of renting to bridge the above gap. Alternatively, governments can take a systems-based approach towards the issue and get involved in coupling a Housing First policy with constructing affordable housing units.  Opting for the latter shows a long-term commitment to providing affordable housing, and can prove to be cost-efficient in the long run. The Calgary Homeless Foundation has taken this approach in the past, building 3,000 housing units over the course of a three-year project to respond to rising rental costs.

This trend of rising housing costs and the growing gap that exists between access to affordable housing and shelter allowances is not unique to the GTA. Similar trends can be observed in the US and other urban centres across Canada. It’s no wonder that food bank use has shown an overall increase over the past decade across the country. It’s unrealistic to attempt solving problems associated with food access in Canada without first talking about the need for more affordable housing. While we would like to think of Canada as being a country with a strong social safety net in place, these infographics illustrate that current efforts and funding for existing programs fall short of providing struggling individuals and families with their basic needs.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
October 10, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

This week, 27 Canadian community foundations released their Vital Signs for 2013/2014. These reports gather statistics on how various communities are faring in key quality-of-life areas, such as housing, economic health, wellness, education and more.

The report on our largest city, Toronto, is particularly noteworthy. While there are plenty of statistics to celebrate, like the city’s low rate of police-reported crime and vibrant arts and culture scene; several very serious issues were also highlighted. Unsurprising to many of our regular readers, two of these issues were affordable housing and income disparity.

Toronto is Canada’s second most unaffordable housing market

Key housing trends from the Vital Signs report

Toronto received its worst affordable housing rating ever, and was the only market in Canada “that saw deterioration (albeit mild) in affordability at the end of 2013 in all housing markets.”

One reason is that the city simply hasn’t built much new affordable housing. There were only 260 rental units opened in 2013—a 77% decrease from 2012 (and 66% from 2011)—and only 7 units built for affordable ownership were made available in 2013, 98% less than in 2012.

The city will be getting more affordable housing after the Pan Am Games—787 market value housing units and 253 affordable rental units—but Toronto’s commitment to building 1,000 new units every year between 2010 and 2020 is clearly not being met.

Home ownership

For most people living in Toronto, home ownership is becoming more difficult to achieve. A standard two-story home required a qualifying household income of more than $139,400! And while overall incomes have increased in the GTA by 18% (in 2012), housing costs have grown by 80%.

  • According to the report: “The average price of a standard (1,500 square-foot) 2-storey house in the Region was $691,300 at the end of 2013, meaning that 65.3% of a household’s average income would be spent on housing.”
  • As such, homebuyers are being “priced out” of the desirable “location-efficient” areas of Toronto. 70% of GTA residents live where they do because they can afford it, not because it’s where they truly want to live.

Renting

  • Population growth means there’s more demand for housing. Vacancy in Toronto remained at 1.7%, and rates under 3% have been linked with rental price increases.
  • Renting is particularly hard for young full-time workers between 15 and 24. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto requires more than 40% of the average wages earned. (Affordable housing is considered to be less than 30%.)
  • 77,109 families were waiting for affordable housing at the end of 2013, 4,413 more than in 2012.

More people are frequenting shelters

“An average of 3,017 single people and 948 members of families occupied shelter beds in Toronto every night in 2013 (an increase from 2,952 and 925 respectively, in 2012 and 2,879 and 856 respectively, in 2011).”

In terms of solutions, the report discussed the positive results of the At Home/Chez Soi project; and highlighted the importance of moving away from dependence on emergency services and toward the Housing First approach

Read the housing section of the report

Toronto has the second-largest income gap in Canada

Key trends on the gap between the rich and poor in Toronto

Of course, no discussion about affordable housing and homelessness is complete without addressing poverty, which continues to be an epidemic in Toronto (and across Canada, as Tanya wrote back in August).

Family poverty is on the rise, and housing quality is poor

The authors of the report note that: “After a six-year decline between 2004 and 2010, Toronto’s child poverty rates were on the rise in 2012. Almost 1 in 3 children (17 and under) were living in poverty in 2012. In 14 Toronto communities, the rate was over 40%.”

They also reference Emily Paradis’ research on Toronto’s aging high-rise buildings, which found that many families live in unaffordable, overcrowded and unsafe apartment high-rises in the inner suburbs, and are at risk of homelessness and other housing issues. According to her study, 9 out of 10 families in rental high-rise buildings live in apartments that are unaffordable, unsafe, overcrowded, insecure, or in bad condition.

New research from the Alliance for a Poverty-Free Toronto, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change, Ontario Campaign 2000, and Social Planning Toronto confirms that poverty in Toronto is racialized. Residents of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Latin American background are more likely to live in poverty.

Food bank use is on the rise

The report highlights research from The Daily Bread Food Bank, which found: “For the 6th year in a row GTA food banks have seen over one million visits, with an increase of nearly 40 per cent in Toronto’s inner suburbs since 2008.” Here are some more statistics about our city’s food bank visitors: 

  • 49% have a disability (in the core, this number is closer to 60%)
  • 49% were born outside of Canada
  • 45% are single-person households
  • 31% are children
  • On average, they spend 71% of their income on rent and utilities
  • 59% gave up a meal to pay for something else in the last 3 months

Furthermore, people are using food banks longer: 1.5 years in 2014 , as compared to 10 months in 2012.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s 1% richest residents have more than ever

Statistics Canada used voluntary data to capture information about Toronto’s richest citizens (rather than in quintiles from the census) so the data’s quality is not comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is reported that “the average incomes of Toronto’s richest 1% have risen by over 80% since the 1980s—faster than the Canadian rate.”

In Toronto, the 1% holds 18.1% of the total declared income. (In Calgary, the city with the largest gap, the top 1% shares 26%!)

You might be wondering how such a gap could be created. The authors of the report state: “Increasingly regressive taxation policy at all levels of government has been a significant cause of growing income disparity since the early 1990s when the federal tax-benefit system offset about 70% of inequalities in the market place. That offset is now less than 40%.”

Looking ahead

As the authors of Vital Signs noted on page 89, we have seen some progress in Ontario in reducing some rates of poverty: the number of families living under the low-income cutoff decreased by 10.5% in the first three years (2008-2011) of the government’s first Poverty Reduction Plan. And in 2013, the government invested in a number of education, social assistance and nutrition initiatives. We have yet to see any concrete evidence that these changes have been effective.

The Ontario government recently announced its new poverty reduction plan, Realizing Our Potential, which showed commitment to ending poverty and described a promising, comprehensive approach; but as Raising the Roof pointed out, the strategy lacks any solid timelines or targets, and is missing some crucial information.

When it comes to Toronto, the city clearly has a long way to go when it comes to affordable housing and poverty. Fortunately, Toronto City Council plans to develop its own poverty reduction strategy in the 2015 budget. We’ll share information as soon as it’s available, along with our latest report on the state of homelessness in Canada.

Read the full report on income inequality. (Page 102 has a list of community agencies working to reduce poverty.) 

York University; The Homeless Hub
October 08, 2014

Homelessness is commonly misunderstood as being a problem that only affects adult men and women. In actuality, the range of groups experiencing homelessness is very broad and includes youth and young families. Homelessness, and factors linked to homelessness, strongly impact the ability of children to be successful in their studies. The below infographic, created by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, illustrates how homelessness and poverty can directly impact a child’s ability to gain a good education.

The graphic shows that in the United States in 2008, the dropout rate for students living in homelessness was 4x greater than that of students from high-income families. While it may be assumed that the quality of education between both groups might be dependent on family income, this doesn’t explain why homeless students were more likely to drop out of school. The reality is that students living in critical housing situations have pressures and stressors that their housed peers may not experience. Some youth may struggle to have continuous access to education or have difficulty with attendance as a result of their housing situation. Others may be unable to stay in school due to financial constraints because they need to obtain some sort of income to meet their day to day needs. It’s difficult to look ahead and invest in one’s education when you don’t feel like you have the time, or supports in place, to get you through today.

The graphic also states that children who are homeless are far more likely to have learning disabilities or an emotional disturbance compared to children who do not live in homelessness. One potential source for this discrepancy is poor nutrition. Proper access to nutritional food plays an important in role in all of our lives. The importance of access is emphasized when we’re talking about young children as they are in a vital stage of their physical and mental development. A lack of access to nutrition can result in stunted growth. Poor nutrition, which the vast majority of homeless youth suffer from, significantly increases the likelihood of infection and is also a cause of impaired functioning. Access to nutritious food is just one example of several factors that are strongly linked to, and often result from, poor housing conditions. Other factors that may contribute to learning disabilities and emotional disturbances include prenatal substance abuse, being a victim of domestic abuse, and witnessing violence as a child.

Several researchers and organizations have created lesson plans and toolkits targeting different stakeholders in hopes of addressing the educational needs of homeless youth. There are many different ways to approach the issue. This includes using resources that focus on preparing teachers to work with homeless children. Alternatively, there could be programs that focus directly on children outside of the classroom setting, perhaps offering extra out of class support. Interventions that may not seem directly linked to education at first glance should also be considered. For example, past research has shown providing free and nutritious meals to children in poverty has helped break down barriers associated with poverty and education.

As I mentioned earlier, homeless children are often more likely to slip under the radar compared to groups that we easily identify as being homeless. It can be difficult to identify who is homeless; the term “hidden homeless” is used to refer to this subset of the homeless population. People often go to great lengths to hide their status as homeless individuals. In fact, up to 80% of homeless Canadians who are homeless may not be living on the street. This may be why the general population seems to be unaware of the unique barriers and difficulties faced by these groups. It’s completely understandable why people may want to avoid being labelled as homeless, as individuals living in homelessness are still framed as being dangerous, often referred to as threats to public safety. Once again, we find that the everyday stigma associated with being homeless can be a powerful barrier − and detriment − to the well-being of homeless populations, including homeless children.

How the Stress of Homelessness and Poverty Impacts Children's Academic Performance

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.