A House is not a Home

So if 1/3 of homeless people are in shelter, and only less than 1% sleep rough, who else is homeless?  The bulk of people we would consider to be homeless are the ‘hidden homeless’, but what does this mean?  The hidden homeless are those who might have a bed and a roof, but it is not their own, and it is temporary, precarious, or down-right dangerous.

Take for example a person who is in an acute care psychiatric facility for an extended stay, and has no place to be discharged to.  They have a bed, heat, food, and a roof, but not a home.  Or, take a sex worker who is living with her pimp.  She has a space, food, even some income, but not a home.  Or, take a 16 year old who is kicked out of their house and crashing on a friend’s couch, they have the couch, a ride to school, and a Playstation, but not a home.  So, because people have a place to stay, does not mean that they have a home.

Next question, is this conceptualization useful, or is it simply a way to ‘stack’ the stats to make homelessness look like more of a problem than it is?  This is a fair question, because each interest area wants to find more funding, which requires public concern.  However, the reason that this definition is helpful is because research shows us that those who are the ‘hidden homeless’ encounter the same health and social concerns, and have the same negative trajectories as those who are ‘absolutely homeless’.  Therefore, we need to have adequate programs for all those who are homeless.

And, what is the first step in terms of programs?  It’s to make sure that everyone has a home.  This starts with enough buildings and units so that everyone can have a space of their own, with a lock and a key.

Homelessness Is Incredibly Expensive

In London, we spend $9.8M per year for the 1500-2000 people who are experiencing homelessness (the bulk of this going to the 600 or so who are ‘absolutely homeless’).  That means we spend between $4900  and $6533 per person/per year.  This is exclusive of even more costly modes of shelter, such as hospital and prison.  This is also exclusive of private and charitable spending, such as all the local food services.

An individual on Social Assistance currently receives $368 in shelter allowance.  To top this up to average market rent in London of $540 for a bachelor would cost $2064 per person/per year.  That means that if there were enough units available, it would cost us far less to put everyone in affordable housing than house them in shelter.  This is also a good argument for providing supportive housing services.  The cost to provide social and mental health assistance in affordable housing is again far less than having people wind up in shelter.

It’s these numbers that show us we need a systemic approach to addressing homelessness, rather than continuing with piecemeal activities, and time-limited projects.  We can end homelessness, and save the tax-payer money.

The Faith-Based Dilemma

I have had some fascinating conversations of the past few months regarding the challenges of faith-based organizations working in the social services, and the underlying evangelical mandate.  However, that is not what I want to discuss in the post, rather I would like to highlight another short-coming I have found in working with individuals in the community who identify as ‘people of faith’.

Tim Huff has written the classic book for the Christian community on homelessness, called “Bent Hope“.  The book outlines Tim’s process of becoming engaged in street outreach with people experiencing homelessness.  I read it a number of years ago, and was disappointed with what I call the asystemic perspective of the book.  The entire focus was on individuals and working with individuals, and included no critical analysis of policies related to poverty, housing, and homelessness.

This focus on individual issues and individual solutions runs rampant with individuals who approach homelessness from a faith perspective.  I imagine that this reflects the individualism that is currently prevalent in major world religions.  Now, this isn’t to paint all individuals with the same brush, because groups like the Sisters of St Joseph do some excellent policy advocacy, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  If faith communities and people of faith want to be allies in the process of ending homelessness, than they need to move their analysis up a level to systems rather than individuals.

Affordable Housing: From Crisis to Catastrophe

Currently, here in London we are on a cost cutting frenzy, attempting to meet the Mayor’s promise of 0% property tax increases over the next 4 years.  As reported by Gina Barber here, at the last Council meeting Councillors brought forward their suggestions for cost cutting measures.  Councillor Joe Swan suggested that $2.4M of unspent money from the affordable housing budget this year might be rolled into economic development.

To put this suggestion into perspective, it is worth reminding everyone that the current wait list for London Housing averages 8.3  years (as seen here).  I would suggest that this constitutes an affordable housing crisis.  To solve this problem, London has the London Community Housing Strategy which covers housing over the next 5 years, and has a target of 1200 new units.  However, in operationalizing this plan, Council has put together the funding process for the next 3 years, and it only includes 450 units.  That means that we need to do 750 units in years 4-5.  Is this possible?  Well, it will require large provincial and federal investment.

Which leads us to forecasts for federal investments in affordable housing.  The federal government is set to start making drastic cuts to affordable housing, starting this year, as shown below: