10/13/2015 05:18 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT

We Need a National Housing Strategy

The Washington Post via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - AUG 08: A rat scurries along the sidewalk as a homeless person sleeps on a park bench in McPherson Square in NW Washington. August is the big month for rats in the District. Where ever there's any kind of exposed trash, especially in alleys and parks, they will be on the hunt for food that's easy pickings. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I've known Justin for a few years now. We met a few days after he had been discharged from hospital and was sent to my clinic to get connected with a family doctor. He was in hospital for yet another manic episode like many times before. Bipolar disorder has severely impaired his young life, preventing him from holding down a steady job, leading him to drugs and gambling, and wearing down the strained relationship with his family.

I've watched him go in and out of hospital, always urging him to take his medication, but also knowing that it is hard for him to do so. But there was something about this visit that was radically different. A few months ago, when Justin came into my office, he was on time for his appointment, he answered my questions coherently, and spoke for the first time about a plan for his future. I was baffled -- we hadn't changed his medications, but then I realized what had occurred. After over a year of bouncing between shelters, Justin had finally gotten housed. The transformation was remarkable, and he told me himself that he felt like a person again, simply because he had a stable place to stay.

Justin reminded me that day of something that I have always known -- access to housing is not just a matter of rights and justice, it's also a matter of health. After all, imagine not having a place to safely store your medication, or living with the anxiety of being attacked, harassed, or robbed at any point, as people frequently are in shelters. For this reason, many make the difficult choice of sleeping outside, which comes with its own health risks. On any given night, 35,000 Canadians are homeless, and in any given year, 235,000 Canadians have been homeless.

If you're wondering why we allow that to happen as a society, it's a good question. Many people just like Justin end up homeless due to difficult life situations -- whether it be due to a mental illness, losing their job, or a breakdown in their relationships. But once in the shelter system, getting access to safe, affordable housing is a challenge.

In Toronto alone, we have over 78,000 individuals and families on the waiting list for affordable housing with an average wait time of seven years. In Ontario, that number is over 168,000. Even after waiting for years to get access to affordable housing, when it finally arrives, often people find it unsafe and in a state of disrepair. This situation continues even though we know the cost of one night in affordable housing costs us much less than one night in a shelter, a hospital bed or jail. Unfortunately, those who are experiencing homelessness are much more likely to end up in all of those other scenarios if they can't access the housing they need.

In fact, it is estimated that homelessness costs the economy about $7 billion a year in shelter, healthcare, and correctional services that could otherwise be avoided. Despite all this, Canada is the only G8 country that does not have a national housing strategy. The situation is so bad that in 2007, a UN committee called the situation in Canada a national emergency. This is not surprising considering in the past 25 years, while Canada's population has been increasing, the investment in housing has only been decreasing.

We have heard much about the economy in this election, but barely any talk of the financial and social costs of having such high rates of homelessness. That is why people across Canada held a National Week of Action on Housing from Sept. 23-30. We continue to call for a national housing strategy, the recognition of housing as a human right and federal re-investment in housing. While in Canada, we hold the notion of universal health care to high esteem, we often forget that factors such as housing, income, education, race and ethnicity are what determine our health status more.

When Justin's mental health deteriorates, he can indeed access the hospital care he needs, but if providing him access to housing can help keep him healthier, costs us less, and is the right thing to do, then why not do it for everyone? This federal election, when we vote, we must vote for housing for all, and no matter who is elected, we must call on them to take action immediately.


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