Communities are reducing homelessness all over this country and showing that it can be done. Just two weeks ago, London, Ontario ended veterans' homelessness. Ottawa City Council declared a Housing and Homelessness Emergency last year in January, and while many of the key ingredients to reduce homelessness are outlined in the work plan, there is not enough urgency.
Many of the work plan items use language such as “analyse, review, consider, explore “ etc. We need more terms that start with “implement, do, develop, create.” We have all of the data, examples, and models needed to prevent, reduce and end homelessness in Canada, because other communities are already doing it. Ottawa is behind the rest of the country in reducing homelessness and there is no reason that we should be. We have the same resources, talent, and skills as communities seeing reductions. We lack urgency.
I’d like to outline three recommendations to move forward with immediate action for reducing homelessness that build on the steps named in the work plan.
Recommendation 1: Invest in long-term solutions now.
The fastest, most effective, and cheapest way to reduce homelessness dramatically is to rapidly re-house people through rent supplements. During COVID, we have seen communities do this almost overnight. Within the first month of COVID, there were stories circulating across the country of moving entire shelters into housing or hotels in order to stop the spread.
One area where we could make a significant dent is to focus on the fastest-growing homeless population - families. Currently, on any given night, there are between approximately 350 - 400 households in Ottawa who are homeless. In motels alone, this costs between $12 million -$14 million every year to simply maintain a state of crisis. For less than $3 million per year, every one of those families could be rapidly re-housed today through rent supplements. Instead, we are choosing to keep families without proper lease agreements in unlivable conditions as is the case with Tabor apartments.
Stories of children getting bitten by rats, mold, and bedbugs are all too common. It doesn’t have to be this way. The current re-housing rate for families every month is between 20 - 30, just from the waitlist. In other words, our own data shows us that not only can we house the families staying in the Tabor apartments, we can house a lot more if we expanded our current rapid re-housing toolbox.
Shelters and transitional housing do not work. People want permanence. They want a home. If you knew you were going to be forced to leave after a certain period of time, would you be able to feel secure and thrive? If we resource things that we know don’t work, why do we think we will get a different result? The intention to build a new family shelter is moving backwards. Building shelters does not reduce homelessness, it enables a system to keep using band-aid solutions.
Recommendation 2: Prevent homelessness.
Homelessness is made up of comings and goings, inflow and outflow. Rapid re-housing is key, but preventing homelessness upstream is perhaps even more critical. Right now, we have designed a system that rewards crises. A person cannot access resources until they are in crisis. Diversion isn’t really diversion if you have to be homeless to be “diverted”. Evictions prevention doesn’t really work if the Sheriff is about to be at your door. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Changing our existing mechanisms, including diversion strategies that happen before people become homeless work. They are working elsewhere, and they can work here. It requires us to change our mindset.
Recommendation 3: Take down the silos.
The housing and homelessness sector is a collection of silos that often do not have clear feedback loops and communication to provide effective support for people experiencing homelessness. Looking at the work plan, it is evident that we are still thinking of ending homelessness as a program-based response, rather than a systems-approach.
We can’t end homelessness program by program. We have to see the sector as an ecosystem that is dynamic and changes every day. There are positive indications of this in the plan, but few go far enough. Developing robust coordinated access and building comprehensive real-time data is working across the country. We are not there yet.
Getting to that point requires sector-wide shared governance in partnership with the City. Again, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The key is to act. We can rapidly re-house families now. We can prevent homelessness through existing mechanisms, done better. And we can take down the silos of our sector with effective governance, planning, and data. We have the tools needed to make real reductions in homelessness now, which are cheaper, faster, and more compassionate than our current trajectory. However, it requires us both changing the way we think about homelessness and believing that it can actually happen. I assure you preventing and reducing homelessness can and is being done. Let’s be the next city in Canada to do it too.