Affordable housing is not cheap. At up to $145,000 per unit, and with 3005 families on the wait list, it would cost over $400M to meet London’s affordable housing need. That said, the system-wide costs of not housing people are exponentially greater than this investment. From 2010 statistics, housing an individual in shelter costs $1,450 per month, jail costs $140 per day, psychiatric acute care costs $650 per day, and acute care inpatient over $885 daily. That means that for every homeless person who spends a year in psychiatric care, we could build almost two units of housing. The local economic gains of building housing are also extensive. Short term gains include job creation, development fees, and matched funding from the province and feds; long term gains include assessment growth, community revitalization, and urban intensification.
Apart from the economic argument, there is the value in terms of optimizing our social systems. All the research that has been coming out in the past 15 years on addressing homelessness has been pointing to the essential role of ‘housing first’. This means that the best outcomes for people with multiple vulnerabilities are achieved when people are moved first into housing before dealing with addictions, education, employment, health care, etc. In a municipal context with an average affordable housing wait list of 8.2 years, and ‘fast-track’ list of 1.3 years, we are far from being able to make housing first a reality. This means that we are knowingly working in a sub-optimal system trying to deal with complex health and social needs for people who do not have housing stability.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the human argument. Homelessness is not only a housing issue, but it is always a housing issue. In the past number of years in researching and working in the area of homelessness, what has been most dismaying for me is that with an issue that is so complex, the solutions are so simple and within our grasp. We could eliminate homelessness tomorrow with two steps: 1) create an adequate stock of affordable housing, and 2) provide supports to help people maintain their housing. They have done this in Norway, and have a per capita rate of homelessness that is less than 10% of ours, representing those who are simply in transition between housing. And, unfortunately, where are government has relinquished its responsibility to provide for those in need, citizens and non-profits have needed to step in and fill the gap. This is happening in London, with faith communities, social services, developers and others engaging in building affordable housing, but we are currently only on track to build 500 units of our 1200 unit goal over the next 4 years. Something needs to happen in London, or the problem will only grow.