Deputation to the Community Services Committee February 28 2023

Watch the deputation here.

I want to start today with a reminder that homelessness is a solvable issue. We have seen communities across the country and the world reduce homelessness. Waterloo Region has almost eliminated chronic family homelessness, Edmonton, Alberta has reduced homelessness by 43%, London, Ontario has ended chronic veterans homelessness. And of course, the most significant example - Finland has virtually eliminated homelessness and core housing need. 

Ottawa can do this too, but we need to invest in preventing and ending homelessness as much as we invest in managing it. We spend $30 million a year on emergency shelters, because we do not have enough affordable housing for people in our communities. We spend over $15 million a year on families staying in hotels. In contrast, housing almost everyone staying in hotels with rent subsidies would cost about $3 - 4 million. Homelessness related policing costs in Ottawa account for about $25 million dollars every year, when community-based interventions provide a far cheaper, more effective option. In other words, we’re already spending the money, but it’s not invested in the right places. 

Ending homelessness means investing in both prevention and rehousing people. Ottawa has taken a housing first approach towards homelessness since 2015. This simply means that a person is provided with safe, affordable housing before resolving other challenges such as mental health issues. Or as one writer stated, “When you’re drowning, it doesn’t help if your rescuer insists you learn to swim before returning you to shore.”

Since this approach has been adopted, Ottawa has housed thousands of people, and yet our homelessness numbers barely budge. In fact, Ottawa hit an all time high of people experiencing homelessness in 2018 - three years after housing first was introduced. 

This is not because Housing First does not work. We have heaps of research that it does. But it requires that people have both housing and the supports necessary to stay in their housing. And that means staff. Community-based agencies and staff support are often the lifeline that keep people from falling back into homelessness. 

We cannot reduce homelessness if we do not turn off the tap of people becoming homeless. We can house as many people as we want, but if we never stop people from becoming homeless in the first place, we will not get ahead. 

Community-based agencies are the places that can help to stop the flow of people entering homelessness. Agencies and supports that provide food, clothing, counselling, income support, eviction prevention services, and more are often the only thing between a person staying housed and becoming homeless. 

And these agencies are hurting. In a survey to our member agencies, the three most critical needs that were identified were funding for new staff, funding to keep existing staff, and funding for non-profit housing. 

At the last Planning and Affordable Housing Committee, I asked for an increase in the capital budget for non-profit housing in Ottawa. I continue to urge this Council to double the capital budget for affordable non-profit housing to $30 million to demonstrate the level of urgency needed to tackle this crisis.

Today, I ask that you invest on the other side of the system - the prevention of homelessness. The majority of people who become homeless do not need significant supports - and in fact, prevention-focused efforts would be far more valuable in reducing homelessness. 

However, a small portion of people who experience homelessness do need significant supports. These folks account for about 15% of those who experience homelessness, but typically use 80% of the system resources. These include Emergency Medical Services, policing, emergency shelters, hospitalizations and jail. None of these systems offer long-term stability like housing with supports. And all of these systems are exceptionally expensive. 

In comparison, funding for more staff at community agencies able to do prevention work pays off far more in the short and long-term. Many of you are well aware of the challenges brought about by COVID to the housing and homelessness sector. One of the biggest challenges facing agencies is that there have been record levels of burnout. At a time when need is increasing, agencies have limited resources to attract new staff and retain those already working. 

I urge you to increase the amount of money for community services. For $7.2 million, you could provide support to 1200 households in social housing. For $200,000, you could provide funding for staff to prevent people living in rooming houses from becoming homeless. There are opportunities to make different investments that will have a greater impact on preventing and reducing homelessness in our communities. 

Budgets reflect values. I know that this Council wants to end homelessness in our community. I know that there are many important things you are being asked to invest in this budget. And I also know that housing and preventing homelessness are the backbone of dealing with so many other challenges we face as a city. By investing in housing and the services that keep people in safe, stable housing, we are choosing the more cost-effective and compassionate way of making our city a better place.

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