It’s hard to believe that in a country as prosperous as Canada, homelessness is such a widely pervasive issue. On any given night, 35,000 Canadians are homeless and at least 235,000 people experience homelessness in a year. For some, this reality is often difficult to rationalize. Because we live in a prosperous country (ranking #9 on the UN’s Human Development Index) and due to the social services we have in place for the very purpose of preventing forms of extreme poverty like homelessness, we are often left asking “How?”
On the other hand, when considering the decline of income and social assistance in Canada and its correlation with the rise of homelessness over the past 30 years, it is clear that our venerated social safety net might not be as reliable as we think.
Welfare in Canada
Many forms of government benefits fall under the umbrella term of “social assistance” including welfare, disability support payments, old age security and employment insurance. They are an integral part of our social safety net. In Canada, social assistance coordination is regulated by each province and territory, resulting in variations in procedures across the nation, while Indigenous populations have a separate, federally administered social assistance program altogether. Generally speaking, recipients are eligible for social assistance if they meet a strict set of criteria for individuals or families who have no means of financially supporting themselves. That includes temporary situations such as loss of employment and long-term situations such as disabilities and other health issues.
Recipients of social assistance often find it doesn’t cover basic living expenses, however. In fact, social assistance payments are lower than what people would have received 20 years ago - since the 1990s, social assistance benefits have consistently failed to keep up with inflation and rising costs of living.
For instance, a single recipient of temporary assistance receives $510 per month in British Columbia. This is clearly nowhere near enough to compensate for basic living necessities like rent, food and transportation. Moreover, research finds that:
- Between 1990 and 2009, inflation increased by 45.9% and most social assistance incomes did not keep up. As a result, many people receiving social assistance are worse off than the recipients of earlier decades. In several cases, social assistance incomes decreased by 20% or more.
- Social assistance incomes were consistently far below most socially accepted measures of adequacy across Canada.
- Amounts for basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, household expenses, transportation and personal grooming items are set by government regulations or policy directive. These amounts are often set arbitrarily and do not necessarily reflect the actual cost of necessities.
- Social assistance programs in Canada are designed as a measure of last resort, which means the recipients must exhaust their sources of income, including savings, before they may qualify. While certain types of exemptions of assets exist for RESP or RDSP, many are nearly destitute by the time they are eligible for social assistance. This is known as “asset stripping”.
Welfare & Homelessness
Homelessness is often not attributed to a single misfortune. Rather, it is a combination of personal factors as well as system and structural failures. The inability of social assistance to supply individuals or families with enough money or support for housing goes hand-in-hand with the lack of affordable housing across Canada. Moreover, minimum wage rates across the country (e.g. $11.40 in Ontario and $10.85 in BC) are hardly sufficient for many people to make ends meet.
State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 confirms that the rate of homelessness in Canada today is a result of austerity measures executed across the country since the 1990s. This includes cuts to our social safety net that have impacted lower-income Canadians. Ideally, individuals experiencing or who are at-risk of homelessness ought to be eligible for and recipients of social assistance as a measure of protection against job loss or increasing housing costs - more often than not, this fails to be the case.
Currently, 1 in 7 (or 4.9 million) Canadians live in poverty, while 1 in 8 Canadian households struggle to put food on the table. According to a McMaster University study, there is a 21-year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest residents of Hamilton, Ontario.
Contrary to popular belief, individuals experiencing homelessness are least likely to access or receive social assistance due to variety of barriers and facts that deter individuals from applying. Some examples are:
- Claims stating a decline in the volume of social assistance applications show that increasing level of Canadians are escaping poverty are misleading. On the contrary, the application process for social assistance has become more onerous and difficult to navigate, thereby discouraging applications altogether.
- Individuals who speak English as a second language, those with limited educational attainment or those with physical or mental illnesses often have the most trouble navigating the application system.
- Applying for social assistance generally requires reliable access to a phone or internet, which may prove challenging for those who are at-risk of or experiencing homelessness.
- Application criteria demands a copious amount of documentation required for social assistance eligibility. For those who are experiencing homelessness or fleeing abusive homes, such records may be difficult to retain, leading to ineligibility.
- In British Columbia, individuals turned away from social assistance programs on the basis of ineligibility are often directed by the BC Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance to food banks and shelters.
- To be eligible for social assistance, applicants generally must pass several administrative barriers such as a mandatory three-week job search period as well as having to prove they have earned an income ‘legitimately’ for two consecutive years. However, this does not acknowledge the informal economy that individuals experiencing homelessness are employed by and often limited to.
- Social assistance programs across the country are designed to ensure recipients re-enter the labour market as quickly as possible. However, this criteria fails to consider that many are not ready to work due to lack of transportation, addictions, young dependants, mental illness and/or other factors.
- For single mothers who are able to access social assistance, incomes are often too low to provide financial security and stable housing. Furthermore, single mothers receiving social assistance often face discrimination from landlords and/or employers, making returning to work and finding housing even more challenging.
- In Ontario, youth under 18 experiencing homelessness are ineligible for social assistance if they do not have a guardian or trustee. On the other hand, those over 18 and receiving social assistance don’t earn livable income. Furthermore, studies find that youth on social assistance also face discrimination from landlords, limiting their access to housing.
- Social assistance programs require recipients to find employment as soon as possible, regardless if their wages are sufficient enough to provide financial security or not. In Ontario, when individuals do find work, social assistance is often clawed back by 50 cents to every $1 earned. Under this set up, individuals are forced to exhaust all earnings on basic expenses and in the event of job loss, they are once again vulnerable to homelessness.
Despite the barriers that Canadians living in poverty often face, there are changes happening at the policy level. In July 2016, the federal government introduced the Canada Child Benefit, promising to lift approximately 300,000 Canadian children from poverty. However, given that in 2014 there were a reported 1.3 million Canadian children living in poverty, the positive impact of the Canada Child Benefit is somewhat limited. In light of this, we echo the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in imploring the federal government to address broader structures of inequality.
In fact, support for a basic income is gaining traction on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The function of a basic income would be to provide Canadians with a fixed income not contingent upon market swings, eliminating other forms of social assistance. A basic income also guarantees a reliable income source to buffer against times of financial insecurity, thus preventing more extreme forms of poverty like housing or food insecurity. The benefits of a basic income are encouraging, as one study found that based on the model of Old Age Security, persons aged 65 and older who transitioned from social assistance payments to a guaranteed income experienced increased mental and physical health as well as income and housing security. (For an in-depth consideration of the guaranteed annual income debate please see Dr. Nick Falvo’s piece.)
The implementation of an unconditional, basic income that considers vulnerable, in-need Canadians is a step towards combating homelessness. This is also known as a preventative framework. Much like the philosophy that governs “Housing First,” the provision of a basic income should not be subject to rigid, unrealistic and often discouraging eligibility criteria. Preferably, it should recognize access to social assistance and a broader social safety net as our absolute right and an uncompromisable part of our welfare state, rather than a last resort.