Gordon Laird - Homelssness in a Growth Economy: Canada's 21st Century Paradox
Two reasons for this report, since Canada isn’t lacking information or research on
First, the double standard Canada has maintained for more than a decade: throughout
the 1990s, when it came to debt and tax reduction we enforced ﬁerce ﬁscal discipline,
yet with homelessness, we simply neglected the public and human costs.
Second, much of today’s homeless population is needlessly homeless, for many
reasons, the most common being income insecurity. The phenomena of government
and policy-created homelessness posed major ethical and leadership concerns -- and
is a crucial aspect of creating solutions that avoid past pitfalls and mistakes.
Canada Median Household Income 1990-2005
Wellesley Institute, 2008
Homelessness in a growth
economy: Canada’s 21st century
Here’s our paradox: Canada is one of the world’s most robust economies, a country
that consistently scores top mark’s on the UN’s human development index, yet we
have a chronic homeless crisis.
Between 150,000 to 300,000 Canadians are homeless. And depending on whose
numbers you read, between 1.4 and 2.7 million Canadians face serious housing
My work on homelessness began almost by accident; I Came to Nunavut to research
climate change in February 2001 and to talk with Inuit hunters and elders about ﬂoe
ice, polar bears and weather patterns
I was interviewing Inuit hunters in Iqaluit; it turned out that some were also homeless.
Most hunters were just barely getting by, taking part-time jobs to supplement cost of
An estimated 19 per cent of Nunavut’s population was relatively homeless in 2003.
And approximately one in seven are without adequate shelter.
This is Insiq Shoo, homeless in Iqaluit at minus 30;
Insiq had been homeless for nearly a year when I had met him. Iqaluit’s men’s shelter has only 20 beds and
there are no areas for mats on the floor. Like others, he spent his daytimes wandering Iqaluit looking for
warmth and food, while trying to arrange education and social housing for himself.
After some jail time in Yellowknife and several years in and out of
Iqaluit’s drunk tank, Shoo was trying to cobble together enough money for his own snowmobile. He quit drugs
and drinking several years ago. But if he wanted to hunt independently again – to be a real hunter – he’d
have to finish filling out the Northern Affairs assistance application. And he needed help because he was still
learning how to read.
In the end, Insiq Shoo found housing and helped launch Iqaluit’s first food bank. A
happy ending, more or less. His life improved greatly once he was able to secure
Two lessons from the Arctic:
First, homelessness can be found nearly everywhere in Canada.
And second, housing insecurity and housing in-affordability is a primary obstacle
even for chronic, “hard to reach” homeless, who may be battling mental health,
addictions or educational barriers. The presence or absence of housing is arguably
the major determinant of success. Which has rightly inspired the Housing First
movement that originated in the United States.
• One-in-four Canadian households pay 30% or
more of their income on housing
• More than 300,000 Canadians experience
• Federal housing investments of $2 billion in
2008 are at their lowest level since 2002
• 2008 federal housing are at their lowest per
capita level in two decades
Wellesley Institute, 2008
We live in a house crazy society -- with crazy housing markets. In the United
States, an estimated 3 million homes will have been foreclosed by 2010.
Yet Canada is not immune from the effects of booming housing markets.
Especially here in Alberta.
Across North America, many middle- and lower-income households are
suffering: long-term erosion of housing affordability, increase in housing-
related debt, as well as income insecurity and underemployment.
New Housing Price Index (national)
53% increase in
new housing 160
1997 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
From real estate industry: Between 1997 and 2007, average home prices in
Canada almost doubled, from $154,606 to $307,265, Re/Max, February 2008
The number of homes sold nationally rose over 57 percent to more than 500,000
last year from about 300,000 in 1997.
2007 prediction by CIBC World Markets that average Canadian housing prices will
double by 2026
York rental vacancy rates, 2002-2007
2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
One of the problems of a this kind of housing market is that high house prices, high
rents, and low vacancy rates are increasingly connected.
According to most recent CMHC data, average rent in Alberta increased nearly 17 per cent
last year -- $913 per month in October 2007, up from $781 in the October 2006. Did Alberta
renters receive a 17% pay raise?
Across Canada, between 1991 and 2001, Low-end rents increased 20 per cent more than
low-end individual incomes. (FCM, 2008)
In Canada, renter households in the lowest income quarter have highly elevated – 18
times average – likelihood of housing affordability problems.
“Fewer than 9 per cent of all housing
units completed in Canada’s largest
cities between 2001 and 2006 were
- Federation of Canadian Municipalities, January 2008
Housing is a continuum. Housing insecurity affects everyone: owners, renters and the
homeless. This is what we are learning.
Despite Canadaʼs housing boom, weʼre failing to create housing, publicly and privately, that
meets the needs of Canadians. Housing starts in 2008 continue to reﬂect this decade-long
shortfall in rental supply, continuing under 10 per cent of all new housing.
Canada continues to abandon many homeowners and renters to inaccessible markets by
choosing a hands-off housing policy – arguably the root cause of todayʼs sub-prime crisis in
Rising cost of shelter, water & utilities, 1997-2006
Part-time labour growth 1997-2006
grown twice as fast as
1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Housing insecurity is tied to income erosion in many households. In Canada, part-
time employment has grown twice as fast as full-time employment since 2001.
And this is what happens: Canada has a growing population of working homeless
In 2007, at the Calgary Drop In Centre, one of Canada’s largest homeless shelters
40.2 per cent of all residents reported that they work more than 32 hours a week. A
majority of these employed homeless reported that they still could not afford
accommodation in a city whose average 2006 rent was $851 per month.
$10/hour is no longer a living wage in many Canadian cities
This reality is economic entrapment: pushing people to choose between food and
shelter, with just one rent increase away from homelessness.
In this report, we attempted something that many of our governments have not: to
estimate a national cost to homelessness and try to place the issue within a 21st
century context. It’s not an original idea, as the US and EU nations have been
looking at the costs of homelessness for a number of years.
• Street counts of homeless people across
Canada have increased, sometimes at triple-
• In 2005, the federal government estimated
150,000 homeless in Canada
• Non-governmental sources estimate Canada’s
true homeless population, not just those
living in emergency shelters, ranges between
200,000 and 300,000
In 2006, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urged Canadian
governments to “address homelessness and inadequate housing as a national
BTW, the feds erased their “official” count sometime last fall
The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Miloon Kothari, issued the following statement today:
“The Federal Government needs to commit stable and long-term funding and programs to realize a comprehensive national housing strategy, and to co-ordinate actions
among the provinces and territories, to meet Canada's housing rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur also noted that Canada needs to once again embark on a large
scale building of social housing units across the country.”
• Homelessness costs Canadian taxpayers
between $4.5 and $6 billion annually, inclusive
of health care, criminal justice, social services,
and emergency shelter costs
• Helping homeless people is not inherently
expensive. The high cost of homelessness in
Canada results from the role of homelessness
as a proven multiplier of societal ills
So, what does our status quo cost?
Homelessness costs Canadian taxpayers between $4.5 and $6 billion annually,
inclusive of health care, criminal justice, social services, and emergency shelter
Much of this expenditure represents the status quo cost of sustaining a growing
population of homeless people in temporary shelters, hospital wards, welfare
offices, non-proﬁt organizations as well as the criminal justice system and mental
health institutions; expenses are systemic and range well beyond the hundreds of
millions spent on front-line homeless services. It’s about pushing folks with mental
health issues and addictions into extreme environments. It’s about systems failure.
It’s not because homeless services are inherently expensive. The high cost of homelessness in Canada results from the role of
homelessness as a proven multiplier of societal ills: malnutrition, unemployment, addiction, mental illness, family strife and
lack of income security are all intensiﬁed when an individual or household becomes homeless
• Canada’s decade of inaction on homelessness, 1993
to 2004, cost Canadian taxpayers an estimated
$49.5 billion, across all services and jurisdictions
• Despite improvements, Canada continues to
warehouse homeless people in shelters on a
temporary basis, often at a greater cost than rent
subsidy or affordable housing
It is ultimately more expensive to house homeless people on a temporary, emergency
basis than it is to invest in solutions. For example: the daily cost of maintaining a bed
in some shelters (transition beds for substance abusers, for example) is comparable
to some of Canada’s low-security prisons.
In 2006, the Wellesley Institute determined that Toronto taxpayers pay two and one-
half times as much for homeless shelters as for rent supplements.
FCM 2008: Costs of emergency responses to manage homelessness are four-to-ten times
higher per day than the cost of providing transitional or supportive housing.
Poverty is now the leading cause of
homelessness in Canada
• The 2005 Greater Vancouver Regional District
found that 66 per cent of all homeless people
surveyed cited “lack of income” or “cost of
housing” as the main cause of homelessness
• Canada’s “new homeless” population is diverse:
families, women, Aboriginal Canadians, new
Canadians, students and children – a broad
demographic whose common trait is poverty.
Poverty is the leading cause of homelessness in Canada
In 2005, the GVRD found that 66 per cent of all homeless people surveyed cited “lack of income” or “cost of housing” as the
main cause of homelessness
Of course, addiction and mental health issues still ﬁgure highly as contributing causes of homelessness, but given the surge in
Canada’s “new homeless,” it is hardly universal. Family breakdowns and single motherhood are major causes of poverty in
Canada and, I would wager, will be recognized as major homelessness causes in the future.
In many homeless shelters across Canada, a signiﬁcant percentage actually have jobs...
Who are the homeless?
Canada’s “new homeless” population is diverse: families, women, Aboriginal
Canadians, new Canadians, students and children – a broad demographic whose
common trait is poverty. And they can be found almost everywhere – towns, cities,
Inisiq, Iqaluit - because homelessness is not simply an urban issue
Rob & Alison, Toronto - homeless youth, with children
Whiz, Surry - it’s in the suburbs too
Mary, Ottawa - it’s national, women over-represented
David & Wanda - it happens to families
This is one of Canada’s largest homeless shelters.
Canada’s main response to homelessness during the 1990s? We built homeless
shelters. What began as short-term emergency shelters became long-term.
Income insecurity remains Canada’s greatest national challenge
Over 32,000 people stayed in Toronto 's emergency shelters in 2003; nearly 5,000 were
Federal Housing Expenditure per capita 1989-2008
Wellesley Institute, 2008
For the past quarter-century, successive federal governments have slashed housing investments,
cut programs and downloaded housing to the provinces and territories. There was a one-year
surge in spending in 2007 as the government allocated $1.4 billion authorized by Parliament in
2005. By 2008, investment had dropped by 5% from 2006 – a cut equal to the biggest cuts during
the mid-1990s. Per capita federal housing spending is at its lowest level in two decades.
Federation of Canadian
Municipalities “National Action Plan”
• End chronic homelessness in 10 years
• “An average $3.35 billion annual
strategic investment in housing could,
in fact, improve Canada’s fortunes
Canada’s leading urban and not-for-profit agencies have offered viable strategies and solutions. In January
2008, for example, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched a National Action Plan on Housing
and Homelessness, and estimated that an average $3.35 billion annual strategic investment in housing
could, in fact, improve Canada’s fortunes significantly.
By re-investing in existing social housing, as well as committing new resources to rent subsidies, assisted
home ownership, and transitional and non-market housing, Canadians could see significant relief within a
decade. Even better, perhaps, is the fact that Canada spends much of this money already.
Calgary Committee to End
Homelessness “Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to
“In the future, [Calgary] could have as many as
15,000 people homeless on our streets on any
given day. ...If nothing is done to address this
problem, we estimate that the cumulative
economic cost could be more than $9 billion in
the next 10 years.”
... In fact, we estimate the 10 Year Plan can deliver
a cumulative cost saving of over $3.6 billion.”
elimination of family homelessness in
retirement of 50 per cent of Calgaryʼs emergency shelter beds within ﬁve
an 85 per cent reduction in the chronic homeless population within ﬁve years with
the complete elimination of chronic homelessness in seven years, and a reduction in the
maximum average stay in emergency shelters to less than seven days by the end of 2018.
New Investment, New Challenges
• Federalism: at least three levels of government to
• Evidenced in America: non-housing agendas can
inﬂuence policy -- NIMBY, political inﬂuence, lack of
leadership, policy conﬂicts
• City-based plans raise concerns about further
downloading of responsibilities and funding
• Serious concerns about delivery of funding and
quality of housing
• Income insecurity remains one of Canada’s greatest
Governments, non-proﬁt agencies and citizens face many new challenges. And
speciﬁc to Canada, the unclear division of responsibility on housing between various
governments – or, as some argue, the unwillingness of the federal government to take
strong leadership – complicates the dissemination of solutions and has often left
municipalities largely responsible for homelessness within their own communities.
Income insecurity remains a major challenge: example of Alberta’s
from alms to asset
• As the foundation of civil
society, shelter is an
indispensable asset and
source of well-being
• Housing iscommodity
• Incremental improvements
could realize large gains
Housing and housing security are not a question of alms, charity or assistance. Safe,
affordable and healthy housing is a holistic and preventative tonic that, like nothing
else, can keep people from slipping into the nether-world of deep poverty, addiction
In the end, we must act on homelessness not only because it is the right thing to do,
but also because it makes sense.