Homelessness Needs Multifaceted Approach

Homelessness. It’s a common sight in large Canadian cites. On most days, a walk down Spring Garden Road reveals at least three or four homeless people panhandling in front of Park Lane Mall or by the McDondald’s next to the bus stop. If one advocacy group has its way, however, sights such as this one could be a thing of the past.

On Jan.28, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report which outlined a plan that it says can eliminate chronic homelessness in Canada in ten years if implemented. The Federation is calling for the continued funding of current affordable housing projects across the country. If implemented the plan would result in the expansion of affordable non-market housing by 15 per cent each year. In addition, the Federation is also calling for a reduction in the backlog in core housing by 25 per cent as well as the construction of 20, 000 new affordable housing units per years across the the country.

The Federation argues that these measures are necessary ones, citing the fact that housing is a basic necessity in today’s society and lack of easy access to affordable housing can have detrimental effects on both the individual and the community. The Federation’s argument for the continued funding of current affordable housing projects is that a home is often a family’s largest financial asset and often the one upon which personal wealth is based. Central to this argument is the belief that the cost of housing can consume up to one fifth of a family’s financial resources.

Michael Poworoznyk, the director of Halifax’s Metro Turning Point Shelter, approved of the Federation’s efforts, but said that the problem isn’t quite that simple. According to Poworoznyk, the key issue that must be dealt with in tackling homelessness is one of support. One of the aims of the Metro Turning Point Shelter is to provide that support.

The shelter offers a trusteeship program to homeless men, which is designed to get them out of the shelter and into affordable housing quickly. The program teaches them money management and other basic life skills, in addition to covering their rent and other necessary expenses. The program also has another benefit which is that the prospective tenant is represented by a trustee, who assists them in dealing with the landlord should problems arise.

The program has a budget of $25,000, which comes mostly from private donations, severely limiting the number of people that Metro Turning Point can help, however. The prospect of funding from the province would allow Poworoznyk’s shelter to help significantly more people.

“Housing is critical for community development,” said Poworoznyk. He believes that building affordable housing an important aspect in building sustainable communities, arguing that affordable housing attracts businesses which bring employment to people that might otherwise have difficulty finding jobs. Poworoznyk, cautions, however, community support is key if grass roots affordable housing projects such as Metro Turning Point’s trusteeship program are to be successful and points to the privatization of mental health services in Nova Scotia as example of what can happen when promises of community based social support networks go unfulfilled.

Metro Turning Point’s 65 beds are filled 95 per cent of the time, according to Poworoznyk. He added that most of the men who use the shelter suffer from mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse. Some have also spent considerable amounts of time in prison and as a result don’t know how to do simple things. “We’ve got guys who have never cooked a meal,” said Poworoznyk. He went on to add that due to the social isolation of being homeless, many of the people who use homeless shelters have difficulty managing personal relationships, which can also have an impact on their ability to get out of their situation.

Ultimately, Poworoznyk believes that a broad-based approach to dealing with homelessness is the one most likely to be successful. “It’s a chicken and egg thing,” he said, adding that people who suffer from mental health problems and end up on the street often receive no support at all.

People struggling with substance abuse and mental problems aren’t the only one who must deal with the problems associated with homelessness. The average cost monthly rent for a bachelor apartment in Halifax is $606. In comparison the same apartment in Toronto is $760 per month and $626 in Vancouver and $450 in Montreal.

According to Jillian Ratcliffe, a spokesperson for the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, renters in Halifax must contend with the lack of rent control. She said the lack of rent control allows landlords raise their rents as high as the market will allow. This forces tenants on a fixed income to move the outskirths of HRM where rents are cheaper, but farther from available jobs, thus making it harder to make ends meet and eventually resulting in homelessness.

Halifax has seen a sharp increase in property values, particularly on the peninsula and in the north end. Ratcliffe attributes this to the abolition of rent control in 1993 and the steady rise the property values in HRM since that time.

Where Michael Poworoznky has focused his energies on putting homeless people in a position to be able to stay off the streets, the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty has been pushing for the implementation of what it calls the “one per cent solution.” The idea, according to Ratcliffe, is simple. If the province of Nova Scotia donated just one per cent of its yearly budget to the construction of affordable housing the result would be in a significant increase in the number of units available.

“I think that dealing with homelessness needs to be multifaceted,” said Ratcliffe, “but I think that this solution would do a great deal to eliminate the immediate need for subsidized housing.”

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