01/16/2015 12:52 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT

The Homeless Will Keep Dying Until Affordable Housing Is a Priority

Mitchell Funk via Getty Images

The deaths of four homeless men in Toronto in the past eight days has shed light on the lack of affordable housing in Toronto and the strained shelter system. Freezing temperatures, combined with shelters operating at capacity rates well over 90 per cent each night, have resulted in individuals spending the night on the streets, in vehicles, or makeshift structures -- with tragic results.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has promised swift action to assist the city's homeless. On Thursday, the Community Development and Recreation Committee voted to open up shelter space by renting 90 motel rooms, which will be available to long-term shelter clients waiting for permanent housing, freeing up more drop-in beds. The committee also approved a motion to develop an Integrated Mental Wellness Strategy to expand supports for vulnerable shelter residents.

While these are positive -- and necessary -- measures to address the shelter crisis, they offer a short-term solution to a much deeper problem. Homeless individuals, particularly those who sleep outside, are the most visible part of a much larger group of people struggling with insecure housing. Toronto's 2013 Street Needs Assessment counted 447 homeless people sleeping outdoors, nine per cent of the 5,253 people who are estimated to be homeless in Toronto.

Any initiative that gives people the option not to sleep outdoors, particularly in freezing temperatures, is a positive step. But increasing the number of shelter beds is a stop-gap solution that will only benefit a small number of vulnerable people. Ontario is currently facing an affordable housing crisis: one in every three renter households is living in housing that is unaffordable, inadequate, or in serious need of repair. The vast majority of these households spend more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter-related costs, like rent and utilities. The problem is especially acute in Toronto, where a combination of high, and rising, housing costs and low vacancy rates means that more than 40 per cent of renter households live in unaffordable housing.

The main reason people become homeless is because they cannot afford the cost of housing. The number of households waiting for affordable housing in Toronto is over 77,000, with an average wait time of nearly seven years. At the same time, nearly 9,000 individuals' with mental health challenges are on waiting lists for supportive housing across the city, many of whom may not be able to use emergency shelters due to their complex needs.

Emergency shelters play an essential role in the housing spectrum. The respite they offer, however, is temporary, and must not be viewed as a replacement for permanent housing. Giving people a warm place to sleep is necessary for their survival, but individuals and families also need a secure place to call home where they can take the next steps that will help them break the cycle of poverty.

Ontario's 2014-2019 Poverty Reduction Strategy recognized the importance of increasing access to affordable housing, promising $801 million over the next five years in federal-provincial contributions through the Investment in Affordable Housing Program and the creation of 1,000 new supportive housing spaces. While these commitments are positive signs, they are inadequate to meet the need for affordable and supportive housing in Toronto alone -- much less across the entire province.

The four homeless men who lost their lives in Toronto over the past two weeks have brought much needed public attention to the city's affordable housing crisis. While the swift response of Mayor Tory and City Council are welcome indications of progress to come, it is crucial that we do not fail to see the forest for the trees. Emergency shelter systems in Toronto and across Ontario must receive more funding and supports, but permanent solutions to housing insecurity require an increased supply of affordable homes and secure supportive housing spaces.

Despite the best efforts of government and community groups, the number of homeless people living in Toronto has consistently totaled more than 5,000. For many of these families and individuals to transition fully out of homelessness, they need a permanent place to call home. If we fail to invest in long-term housing solutions now, there is little to prevent the same tragic outcomes from taking place next winter.


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