Can a National Housing Strategy Prevent Homelessness in Canada?

Can a National Housing Strategy Prevent Homelessness in Canada?

On Wednesday, Nov. 22, the federal government released their long-awaited National Housing Strategy (NHS), marking a return of federal leadership to the housing sector after a four-decade absence. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness welcomes the strategy, including its critical investment in the affordable housing and leadership in articulating a right to housing for all Canadians.

While program details regarding the renewal of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy have yet to be revealed (this will happen sometime in the new year), the NHS already contains some critical tools to prevent and end homelessness in Canada, if properly designed and sufficiently resourced.

“The announcement of a National Housing Strategy should be seen as a critical investment that can have a significant impact on homelessness in Canada, through working upstream to reduce the vulnerability of many Canadians, and providing resources to support people to exit homelessness in a sustainable way,” comments Dr. Stephen Gaetz, President and CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

The Government of Canada announced a $40-billion commitment over the next 10 years, which will leverage partnerships with provinces and territories to achieve results. While the new NHS has been proclaimed as Canada’s first, it is important to note that the federal government has invested billions of dollars annually to support private home ownership through tax relief in the form of capital gains exemptions for a primary residence and the Registered Home Ownership Savings Plan, for instance (Gaetz et al., 2014). Spending on affordable housing and supports for low-income Canadians has declined considerably since the 90s, and this has contributed dramatically to the current affordable housing crisis, as well as the rise of modern mass homelessness. So how does the new NHS help?

Advocates have long argued that ending homelessness in Canada requires a human rights-based approach to housing in Canada. A welcome surprise on Nov. 22 was the articulation of a right to housing in the NHS, to be embedded through legislation. Depending on how this right is protected and enforced in the Canadian legal system, a legislated right to housing could play a huge role in preventing homelessness by ensuring that people at risk of, or who experience homelessness, are assisted to get access to safe and affordable housing. In practical terms this will result in greater supports for evictions prevention and early intervention to ensure that no one need experience the damaging consequences of homelessness for any significant period of time.

Particularly crucial is the new Canada Housing Benefit Program. Among the 1.5 million Canadians in core housing need, many are one illness, one accident, or one paycheck away from becoming homeless. The Canada Housing Benefit (CHB) Program, to be designed in partnership with provinces and territories, will help prevent homelessness by providing crucial and portable financial support to those who are vulnerable to homelessness because of their low incomes and the lack of affordable housing. The new CHB promises to provide 300,000 Canadian households with financial assistance to offset their housing costs. In communities with high housing costs, these benefits will need to be stacked with other forms of rent relief and income supports.

Preventing and ending homelessness also means building more affordable housing for low-income Canadians. Fortunately, the announcement signaled that the federal government is back at the table. The NHS’s commitment to build 100,000 units of new affordable housing, and repair 300,000 units of social housing is very promising. This commitment could be a turning point for addressing housing need in Canada, as long as we make sure that these investments support the most marginalized people in our communities.

Among those investments will be a federal commitment to addressing the severe housing challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples across Canada, in partnership with affected communities. Indigenous Peoples continue to face the worst housing conditions in the country, conditions that are directly linked to centuries of colonial violence. As new federal policy emerges in this area, we must ensure that investments in Indigenous housing minimally match, on a per capita basis, the commitments outlined in the NHS.

Finally, the NHS contains a commitment to a permanent homelessness strategy with 10 years of sustained funding at a spending level that is double what the federal government has committed in the past. We hope that the government will show bold leadership by embracing prevention and prioritizing youth homelessness, in addition to its strong commitment to Housing First.

With significant financial backing, the NHS could powerfully support the prevention of homelessness in Canada.

“Low-income Canadians, especially those who experience homelessness, have been left behind for too long,” says Gaetz. “The policies outlined in the NHS lay a new foundation for housing in Canada, recognizing that everyone deserves a safe and decent place to live.”

Learn more about the National Housing Strategy

Source: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/The Homeless Hub