Though it seems clear on the surface, affordable housing has two definitions. 1. A rental amount that is ‘affordable’ based on the amount of income one has, or; 2. Having an income that makes a rental amount ‘affordable.’
Raymond Landry, co-ordinator of The Homelessness Network, told Sudbury.com there is a real issue with affordable housing in Sudbury and it’s one that can’t be solved unless one of the two definitions are addressed.
In essence, offer more affordable housing or change the definition of the word ‘affordable.’
It also comes down to the mission of The Homelessness Network and that of the Canadian Government's Housing Strategy: Housing First.
The Homelessness Network, with 18 staff and five outreach workers who are in the community on a daily basis — as well as the workers from their partner organizations — are consistently checking in with vulnerable populations, letting them know about services available and handing out water, snacks, clothing and often bedding, as well as offering those experiencing homelessness assistance in finding affordable housing.
They support the housing process for anyone experiencing homelessness, regardless of addiction, mental health issues, or any other impediments to working within the system — focusing on stability in housing.
“Housing is a human right,” said Landry. “Our philosophy is that we can get them housing first and then resolve the other issues.”
He notes the length of waiting lists for help – for mental health, for addictions – and asks, “Do they have to live outside all that time” while awaiting services?
This is the principle of Housing First. Helping and supporting someone in need, regardless of their past or present traumas and helping them find a new life, simply by giving them a place to call home.
But principles are left to the burden of reality and though Housing First is an effective strategy, it first requires affordable housing.
The other options are not affordable at all.
In 2017, the Auditor General of Ontario released a report on the the cost of housing alternatives. While this list is somewhat out of date and without consideration of a pandemic, the numbers are startling:
Average cost of providing social housing to one household: $613 per month.
What about the second definition of affordable housing – changing the income?
The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW), the programs that most often support those who are unable to earn an income, do not reflect current requirements.
For instance, if you are a single person, your monthly Ontario Works benefit is $343 for Basic needs, $390 for shelter costs, for a grand total of $733 dollars per month. On ODSP, your benefit is $672 for basic needs and $497 for shelter, a monthly total of $1,169.
If you have children, you receive $121.75 per child, per month; if you have children, you know that might just cover the amount of cereal they eat in a month.
If you have ever thought it might be better to avoid offering income supplements, let people fail or succeed by their bootstrap ability, consider this: The New Leaf Project, a study by Foundations for Social Change and the University of British Columbia, found that when they gave a one-time cash transfer of $7,500 directly to the people experiencing homelessness, the people who received cash transfers moved into stable housing faster, saved enough money to maintain financial security over the year of follow-up and even decreased spending on drugs, tobacco and alcohol by 39 per cent on average; there was increased spending on food, clothes and rent, according to self-reports.
A single person on Ontario Works would only slightly exceed the $7,500, with a yearly income of $8,796.
Adding to the inadequacies of income supplements is a supply problem: the challenge of trying to find stable and affordable housing, and find it while in the throws of a pandemic. Landry said that not many are willing to move when things are so unpredictable, which means the already long waiting lists for social housing have been getting longer and longer for months now.
“There is less movement in housing; people staying put where they are and this is ‘blocking’ the flow of usually available move-ins.”
Even if you find a place, a quick look back at the maximum shelter allowance might dampen your hopes. “I would say it is extremely difficult to find an apartment that is less that $730 per month,” said Landry.
This leaves a specific impediment, one that contributes to the homelessness crisis. In Sudbury, there are many people without a home. That number, however, is a bit hard to pin down.
The Canadian government and The Homelessness Network use the term ‘chronic homelessness.’ Landry describes it as a “working definition” of the people they focus their efforts towards.
“The working definition is six months or more of homelessness, or over 580 days in the last three years” said Landry. “More a history of homelessness over time.”
While he notes it is difficult to draw a line and they are willing to help those who may not perfectly meet the criteria — “They are human beings after all” — this is to ensure that those who need fundamental support for housing, are receiving it.
“We don’t want to tie anyone’s shoelaces when they can tie their own,” said Landry. “But when it comes to chronic homelessness, usually the person has had a lot of run-ins with the system, an inability to negotiate their way through the structures and institutions, often a history of trauma. And they’re usually dealing with extreme poverty.”
And a fear of the system is a specific issue for many of the people experiencing homelessness in Sudbury, as 40 per cent of the vulnerable population here identifies as Indigenous. That is an increase, as Landry said it is normally between 25-30 per cent.
By focusing on those who are experiencing chronic homelessness, the numbers can become slightly more defined.
These numbers reflect a 2018 study conducted by Dr. Carol Kauppi, the Director of the Centre for Research in Social Justice and Policy and professor in the School of Social Work at Laurentian University.
“In very round averages,” said Landry, “there was about 1500 homeless persons or at-risk persons. Out of those 1500, about 400 are chronically homeless.”
Of those, there are some who are chronically homeless, but not necessarily sleeping rough. Landry said there are approximately 100 people “in the street, in the bush” and another 50 or so using the shelters.
These numbers do not reflect the weight of a global pandemic, something Landry notes has changed the game significantly.
It is the knowledge that inside these numbers are humans in crisis that moves The Homelessness Network to adhere to the core philosophy of Housing First.
There may be a web of issues at work in causing chronic homelessness, but as Landry said, there is a solution: affordable housing, regardless of the definition you choose.
“I think we’re well-supported and well-financed to do the work we’re doing,” he said. “But we need access, systemically, to affordable housing and we need to address poverty issues. If people would have more funding, it would resolve a major chunk of the whole idea of affordability.”
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com