Research Matters Blog
A common misconception that pervades discourse about causes of homelessness and poor households is the belief that individuals live in poverty because they choose to be unemployed. Time and time again, research has shown that this is simply not the case. Perhaps a more important question to ask is: does poverty persist in households where individuals are employed?
The infographic above, published by the Citizens for Public Justice, answers this question. A job alone does not guarantee freedom from poverty. In fact, in 2012, at least one member of the household was employed in a staggering 44% of all poor households. Even in situations where an individual is employed, there may still be the need for income supplements, as well as educational and employment supports.
This is partially because of the monumental changes that have occurred in the Canadian marketplace. The growing trend that continues to emerge is precarious employment: a decline in the number of well-paid jobs, and an increase in both lower-paying jobs and temporary employment. The infographic provides an example of how an individual working part-time, at minimum wage, falls below the poverty line. Temporary employment, by its very nature, often results in incomes that are unpredictable, making households more prone to suffering from fluctuations in income. In households where families and individuals are living paycheque to paycheque, these trends are direct contributors to family poverty.
Income supplements are essential to lifting families above the poverty line. While the idea of implementing guaranteed annual incomes (GAIs) has been around for decades, it has recently resurged as a result of the rising costs associated with dealing with the symptoms of poverty rather than its causes. GAI refers to various proposals that look to implement a guaranteed minimum income for Canadians, related to the concept of a negative income tax. GAIs will provide struggling Canadians with some security from income shock. The most common criticism associated with GAIs is that such models would act as a disincentive to work. Emery, Fleisch and McIntyre argue that this doesn’t mean a GAI scheme for Canada should be rejected, instead this only means that the uncertainty over GAIs should be “used to guide a phased-in introduction of a GAI with the intent of determining the extent of the ultimate coverage of the scheme."
Educational and employment supports work hand in hand to support communities across Canada. Educational supports can help provide individuals with specialized skills that are easier to market. Employment supports, in turn, can help these same individuals improve their chances of finding a well-paid stable job.
It's important to keep in mind that employment percentages on their own are unlikely to be a clear indicator of what causes homelessness. Details about the nature of employment, and the income generated from employment are far more useful metrics. A recent paper, published by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, posits household food insecurity as a useful consumption-based indicator of both poverty and lack of insurance against income shocks. Just as the causes for poverty in Canada are multidimensional, solutions in turn have to be multidimensional and have to account for more than just one metric.
The Yukon Government recently announced that it will not proceed with a plan to disburse $11.7 million in federal housing dollars to for-profit developers, which would have helped build approximately 100 new rental housing units in Whitehorse. In justifying the surprise decision, the Pasloski government used the pretext that proceeding with the plan would be unfair to other for-profit developers struggling to develop housing without the help of government funding.
Here are 10 things to know about this situation:
1. Historically in Canada, very little affordable housing―that is, housing that very low-income households can afford―has been built without federal funding. However, when the federal government does provide financial assistance targeted to housing for very low-income households, such housing gets built (typically with matching funding from provinces and territories). In periods when the federal government has not provided financial assistance (especially during the mid- to late-1990s) such housing usually does not get built.
2. Since roughly the 1980s, for-profit developers across Canada have generally not found it lucrative to develop rental housing—this is the case even for housing for middle income tenants (never mind for very low-income tenants). Indeed, when purpose-built rental housing was developed in earnest by for-profit developers in Ontario throughout the 1960s and 1970s, this was done was with the help of federal tax measures such as the Multiple Unit Residential Building tax subsidy, the Assisted Rental Program and the Canadian Rental Supply Program.
3. Once upon a time, a Yukon Member of Parliament had a major role in recommending that the federal government terminate financial assistance to for-profit developers. In the mid-1980s, at the onset of neoliberalism, the Task Force on Program Review (chaired by the Yukon’s own Erik Nielson) recommended that the federal government do away with rental assistance for for-profit landlords. This advice was heeded, and since that time there was been very little federal assistance provided to for-profit landlords in Canada.
4. The federal funding that is currently being discussed (i.e. the $11.7 million) was born out of a ‘budget deal’ made between Paul Martin and Jack Layton. In 2005, with the federal Liberals in a minority situation in the House of Commons, the federal NDP caucus agreed to support the Liberal budget provided it met several conditions, including $1.6 billion for housing; Yukon’s share was a lump sum of $50 million. In 2006, most of the $1.6 billion was transferred from federal coffers to provincial and territorial finance departments. In the intervening years, the Yukon Government has spent most of its $50 million (on housing). The plan for the Yukon’s remaining $11.7 million would have required that the for-profit developers receiving it maintain rent levels at 95% of median rent levels for at least 10 years. That would have helped middle-income tenants; it would not have provided direct assistance to very low-income households (for example, households receiving social assistance).
5. A lot of people in Yukon lack affordable housing. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers a Canadian household to be in “core housing need” if, out of necessity, it is either: a) paying more than 30% of its before-tax income on housing; b) living in housing that requires major repairs; or c) living in housing that has too few bedrooms. In the Yukon, 16% of households are in core housing need; though this rate is lower than in both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, it is higher than in every Canadian province.
6. Federal funding for social housing in the Yukon is declining. The Yukon Housing Corporation receives funding from the federal government to operate social housing (mostly for very low-income households). This funding covers the operation and maintenance of each unit, including the cost of power, fuel, and water. The funding is subject to operating agreements, most of which were signed several decades ago. About one-third of the government subsidy needed to operate each unit is covered by the Yukon Government, while the other two-thirds comes from the federal government. This funding will soon run out. In fact, as things currently stand, by 2031 there will be no federal operating subsidies at all. What’s more, the Pasloski government has no plan in place to keep current social housing units operational after these funding agreements expire.
7. When the Yukon Housing Corporation (as opposed to a for-profit firm) develops housing, the key difference is that now a non-profit entity owns and operates the housing. A key advantage of a non-profit entity owning and operating is that there are very few incentives for those who operate the housing to turn a profit (and therefore few incentives to ‘jack up’ rent levels over the long term). Staff and board members of the Yukon Housing Corporation, for example, are forbidden from personally profiting from the housing under their purview. The Yukon Housing Corporation, which has a mandate to provide housing to very low-income tenants, has an incentive to keep rent levels low. If rent levels were to rise too high, that housing would be put out of reach of its tenants and the territorial government would (rightfully) face a political backlash. For reasons that remain unclear, the Yukon Government was not planning to have the Housing Corporation own and operate units built with the $11.7 million in question.
8. The Harper government may try to use this recent decision as a political football. Prime Minister Harper has made it clear that his government would like to both tax less and spend less going forward. In last fall’s throne speech, the federal government noted: “once the budget is balanced, our Government is committed to greater tax relief for Canadian families.” With this recent decision by the Yukon Government, the Pasloski government has given Mr. Harper an early Christmas present. Indeed, when asked by members of opposition parties and advocacy groups what the federal government plans to do improve the housing situation of hundreds of thousands of low-income Canadians, the Prime Minister can simply point to this decision as proof that there is questionable take-up on the federal dollars that have already been put on the table. This could cause considerable embarrassment for other territorial and provincial governments when they attempt to lobby the Harper government for more housing dollars.
9. One sensible way forward would be to build the units and ‘stack’ some of them with rent supplements. This $11.7 million can still be spent. It’s not going anywhere for the time being. One approach that the Yukon Government could take would be to give this $11.7 million to for-profit developers (as originally planned); allow the for-profit developers to own and operate the units; and ‘stack’ one-third of them with rent supplements, which would be financed by the Yukon Government. For example, a $350 monthly rent supplement would allow a “single employable” adult on social assistance to live in an $850/month rental unit without exceeding the maximum shelter rental allowance to which they’re entitled. (Incidentally, a similar approach was recently used with the world-renowned At Home/Chez Soi project, which I’ve blogged about here.) Yukon―along with Alberta―has no public debt, meaning the Pasloski government could hardly claim it can’t afford to do this!
10. If no for-profit developer is willing to build units on condition that one-third of them be ‘stacked’ with rent supplements, the Yukon Housing Corporation could always develop the units itself. Some for-profit developers would likely not want to own and operate units if there were a requirement that one-third of them be occupied by very low-income tenants. And in fairness, many for-profit developers lack the expertise to work with vulnerable populations. If that turns out to be the case (and there is no take up on such a proposal), the Pasloski government could simply direct the Yukon Housing Corporation to use the $11.7 million to develop housing of its own―units that it would then own and operate. Ideally, units would go to households from a variety of income groups, a feature known as “income mix.” Some of the units could be rented out at the full $850/month, without additional subsidy. Others could be stacked with rent supplements (making them affordable to very low-income tenants, including social assistance recipients). There could even be a third category of units that would receive a more modest rent supplement (possibly in the range of $200-$250/month)―this third category of units could be targeted to ‘working poor’ households.
Postscript: A) Several individuals―whose anonymity I wish to preserve―have provided very helpful input into this blog post. B) In 2012, under the supervision of Dr. Frances Abele, I wrote a policy report on poverty in the Yukon which can be found here.
 Two things are worth noting here. First, rent supplements are usually easier to implement when vacancy rates are relatively high (because landlords are usually more eager to rent out their units in such a context). With Whitehorse vacancy rates currently just above 3%, now would be a relatively favourable time to try such an approach. Second, with this rent-supplement approach, for-profit developers who are not recipients of this money might not feel as disadvantaged as in the previous scenario, as now the funding would come with some conditions.
This post was republished with permission from Northern Public Affairs.
Photo credit: “Whitehorse looking southerly 1924″ by WanderingWhitehorse under a creative commons license.
Homeless persons often struggle to obtain and maintain access to reliable and stable income. Access to income, alongside other factors such as education and health, can contribute to cycling in and out of homelessness.
Support is often needed to assist homeless persons with finding formal employment. Those who work informally (as undocumented workers who are “paid under the table"), can be at greater risk for safety issues in the workplace as well as unfair treatment with regards to pay by employers who assume these workers lack access to resources required for retribution.
Once they have acquired employment, many homeless persons also require support in gaining access to both government identification and financial institutions in order to safely secure their money. Without this support, many homeless people are at risk of violence and theft, especially those who do not have stable shelter.
Support may also take the form of assistance with accessing social services. In a study of shelter users, “only 20% were receiving any welfare support.” It was also reported that homeless persons “recommended that the welfare system be better designed to provide immediate assistance to those in crisis and to simplify the application process.” Services are needed to help homeless people navigate the system and aid with the application process.
Photograph by Carissa Rogers.
This week’s infographic, titled Help for the Homeless: How to Survive the Street and Work toward Employment and a Home, was created in order to help people currently experiencing homelessness by providing useful suggestions on planning for the future. Additionally, it seeks to advise those who wish to aid the homeless on how they might assist in helping persons experiencing homelessness in their pursuit of a better life. The contents of this infographic were put together using Kylyssa Shay’s article What to Buy if You are Homeless.
The infographic identifies steady employment and housing as important goals for homeless people. To meet said goals, persons experiencing homelessness must maintain their appearance and health, meaning that they need to be "clean, well-groomed, rested, [and] fed." More specifically, in order to demonstrate upkeep of good appearance and health, and in general, to progress toward the goals just mentioned, one must have access to "nutritious food, clean clothes and a place to bathe, a way to stay clean when they sleep, [and] a phone and a mailing address.” The infographic reminds us that these things are necessities as they can be integral to the process of getting off the streets. For example, "a cell phone and a mailing address" can be crucial to securing a job.
Essentially, what this infographic makes clear is that although it may be very difficult depending on the circumstances, there are certain things one can potentially do as a person experiencing homelessness to plan for the future. For example, people experiencing homelessness can:
- Reach out to peers or a local church in order to obtain a temporary mailing address, or even rent a mailbox for approximately 30 dollars per month.
- If possible, obtain a pay as you go cell phone to assist with job hunting. (Solar-powered cell phone chargers can be convenient.)
- Save money where possible to put toward a future housing rental and use a bank account “or have money orders made out to yourself so people cannot steal your money from you.”
- Be conscious of the end goal of securing your future, and refrain from substance use and spending money on “one day hotel stays [and] entertainment. Save only for your goal to rent a safe, lockable room.”
- Apply for any assistance, “you may qualify for money, food, housing or other aid.” (“Homeless shelters or other non-profit aid organizations” are great places to ask for such assistance as many typically have access to and are familiar with relevant resources.)
- Sleep in shelters whenever possible.
- Bathe frequently (i.e. in sinks of locked gas station bathrooms, using damp paper towels in regular bathroom stalls), and attempt to stay cleaner by laying a tarp on the ground to place bedding on.
Additionally, there are many ways for others to assist, starting from things as simple as acknowledging those experiencing homelessness as fellow members of society by pleasantly greeting them, to donating inexpensive, yet necessary items for addressing some of the health issues that may arise for those living in poverty, most of which can typically be purchased from dollar stores, discount stores, and second-hand stores. Some key items identified in this post that are recommended for those experiencing homelessness to carry in a backpack are:
- Hygiene items - bar soap, antiperspirant, toothbrush, hairbrush.
- Clothing - pants and shirts, underclothes, lightweight socks, hats and gloves (ideally silky and polyester material items as they are fast-drying).
- Food - cheap high calorie foods such as ramen noodles, canned beans, peanut butter, etc.
- Shelter - mylar emergency blanket (which is useful for both warmth and cooling), plastic tarp.
More and more the narrative around addressing homelessness is finally changing from one of “addressing homelessness” to “ending homelessness”. This is an important shift as our language establishes the outcomes we expect and anticipate. So much of our work from the 1980s until today has been band-aid solutions, providing comfort measures to those while homeless, food and shelter, yet has not necessarily addressed the root issue – lack of a home.
But indeed, you now see this shift in the language of service providers, funders, and governments. Plans to end homelessness, programs that end homelessness, and solutions focused around housing and housing first. This is a common goal and I believe it is a realistic one, and the right one to target. The issue is, what exactly do we mean when we speak of “ending homelessness”. Recall, of course, that the definition of ‘homeless’ itself is quite complex. We can all agree that someone sleeping under a bridge is homeless, and most understand shelters as still being homeless, but what about couch surfing? What about living with one’s pimp? Therefore, when we assess whether homelessness has been ended, we need to be clear what type of homelessness we are talking about.
For the most part, when we are talking about ending homelessness, we are talking about eliminating rough sleeping, reducing shelter usage (particularly chronic usage), and making affordable housing with supports widely available, reducing other forms of temporary stay such as cells or hospital. This idea of ending homelessness is well represented in the recent article of the work of London CAReS in London, Ontario. The article speaks to moving 100 individuals from states of chronic or persistent homelessness to being housed, permanently. This still requires high levels of service and support, but is far less costly than cells, hospital, or shelter. Also, most of these individuals were not rough sleepers, but were still considered homeless by any recognized Canadian definition.
This is why I believe ending homelessness is possible. Yes, we will always need emergency shelters as a point of transition for people who are de-housed, but these should only be needed for a few hours or days of other, more desirable (and less expensive) forms of affordable and supported housing are available.
This post was republished with permission from Abe Oudshoorn, RN, PhD.
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