THE BLOG

It's Time to Tackle Canada's Rooming-House Paradox

07/26/2013 12:09 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

On any given night, thousands of Canadians languish in ramshackle housing, line up at shelters, or sleep in our streets and alleyways. This situation is not limited to our big cities, with the Homeless Hub estimating that on any given day, 30,000 Canadians are without homes.

How can it be that in such a prosperous country, we continue to struggle to house those most in need?

How, too, can we have a contest in Winnipeg that asks folks to name and photograph the worst place to live? Not surprisingly, "the winners," which were drawn from no shortage of entries, were rooming houses located in the inner city. Sadly, this same contest could be replicated across the country with similar "winners" easily identified in every major Canadian city.

Is there a simple solution to such poor quality housing? Perhaps we could start by shutting down as many of these godforsaken places as we can. But, as others have pointed out, closing rooming houses and other marginal forms of shelter -- even the poorest quality ones -- might cause more harm than good. Here's why.

For more than a decade, the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies undertook several projects exploring rooming houses and single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs). What we found was an industry rife with contradiction, comprised of Samaritans and villains willing to help or exploit. In an initial estimate, we contended that there are as many as 10,000 people comprising the hidden homeless population of Winnipeg alone. As well, the Homeless Hub conservatively estimates that there are 50,000 Canadians who are part of the "hidden homeless" population on any given night.

Many of these "hidden homeless" live in rooming houses, SROs or "sofa-surfed" from temporary place to place.

How did we get here?

In Canada, we allowed our affordable housing stock to spiral downward in two fundamental ways. First, the federal government significantly diminished its role in the provision of and funding for affordable housing, off-loading the responsibility to the provinces, which have not been able to build enough units.

Second, most provinces across the country allowed what remained of affordable housing to decline, leaving many to scramble for the worst of the worst, including rooming houses and SROs.

To tackle the problem of poor-quality housing, a practical solution would be for provinces to better enforce building codes, occupancy standards and the licensing of rooming houses and SROs, with the mandate to close the worst offenders.

This swift action would effectively shut many down. However, in doing so we would have to realize that for a heavy handed approach, a hefty price would be paid, as many of our "hidden homeless" would be plunged into crisis, ending up on the streets and putting increased pressure on our already burdened shelters.

Herein lays the paradox. While we know it is critical to have all Canadians living in safe, affordable housing, closing thousands of rooms would put massive pressure on an already strained system. Yet, perhaps this course of action is exactly what is needed, since the excuse of having no alternatives is simply not good enough any longer.

Perhaps such action would not only provoke a strong tri-level government reaction -- but they would be forced to find alternatives, including not only building new affordable housing units but also offering the right supports to keep people housed.

Through working on the At Home Chez Soi project over four years, we learned much about keeping people securely housed. The solution was never about simply providing housing; it was also about creating a strong network of individualized supports that included mental health, addictions, employment and quality of life. This ensured the right resources were made available to keep people stably housed. The Housing First approach used in the project provides strong evidence that supports along with housing go a long way to changing lives -- and saving the system money in the long run.

As we move forward, we have to realize that we need to invest in all of our citizens. We have to work hard to make available the right types of resources and services to help those in need find their own pathway to success. But success must include a safe and secure home.

Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and Director of the Institute of Urban Studies, and co-principal investigator for the Winnipeg site of the At Home Chez Soi Project.