Cuts to housing subsidies shortsighted, advocate for homeless says

An advocate for the more than 150 people in Moncton who are homeless is worried the provincial government's decision to cut up to 70 affordable housing units between now and April 1 will do lasting harm.

Lisa Ryan, co-ordinator of the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, called the decision to temporarily cut rent supplement subsidies disappointing and shortsighted.

Each rent supplement represents one affordable apartment.

"Housing is the solution to homelessness," Ryan said. "Housing is the solution to preventing individuals and families from entering into homelessness."

Trying to cut costs

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shepard confirmed on Tuesday her department has not been renewing rent supplements across the province in a cost-cutting effort to trim between 65 and 70 of the agreements until the new budget begins.

Shepard said it's "unfortunate," but the cuts were necessary to offset the $2 million her government spent on emergency shelters in Fredericton and Moncton.

"It's been a substantial unbudgeted line item just this past year," the minister said.

Under the rent supplement subsidy program, landlords receive the bulk of their rent from the the province, while the tenant pays the remainder, which equals 30 per cent of their income.

New Brunswick provides 4,367 rent supplements to landlords across the province.

In Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton, about 500 people are currently homeless.

When New Brunswick signed a $299.2 million agreement with Ottawa under the National Housing Strategy, there was hope new affordable apartments would be built quickly.

However, according to the 2019-2022 New Brunswick Action Plan, the goal in the first three years of the agreement is to create just 151 new rental units.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

With a shortage of affordable housing, and no new building projects yet announced under the National Housing Strategy, the only other immediate option to create more housing is a rent supplement from the provincial government.

Ryan fears that once the 65 to 70 apartments have been cut from the inventory of affordable housing in New Brunswick, it will be impossible to get them back.

"Those units will be rented and landlord engagement isn't very high right now with the rising costs of rent in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John," she said.

With low vacancy rates across the province, Ryan said, it's not realistic to think the apartments will still be available on April 1 when the funding is reinstated.

Shane Magee/CBC

Recent community meetings held in Saint John identified rent supplements as the preferred method of ensuring people have a safe place to live this winter.

In an email, Greg Bishop of the Human Development Council said community members have asked the province to reverse the plan to cancel rent supplements in the region, and to also provide an additional 40.

Calls for housing, not shelters

With fewer affordable housing options, Ryan said people will have no choice but to stay in emergency shelters.

"We know that a loss of housing means longer shelter stays and with longer shelter stays come a lot of issues," she said.

"It's important that we understand that shelters do not end homelessness."

The idea of stability happening through a shelter system is just not true … it doesn't happen. - Lisa Ryan

In her interview, Shepard said while the goal is always a home for people, the  government simply doesn't have the resources to meet the need, and shelters are the best option.

"The shelter helps stabilize individuals to get them into their own home," she said.

While Ryan agrees there is a need for emergency shelters, where people stay for seven to 14 days, she believes the minister's assertion that shelters stabilize people is incorrect.

Ryan said in Moncton, people are spending as long as six months in shelters which are "underfunded and understaffed."

"You can watch the resiliency of the individuals slowly fade the longer that they're in their situation because it's chaos — it's chaos."

Shane Magee/CBC

Karen Brooker, 58, has been staying in an emergency shelter in Moncton since August. She has been searching for an apartment she can afford on her $763 monthly disability cheque but said it's proven to be an impossible task. 

She suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and said it's difficult to cope with the "constant drama" at the shelter.

"All kinds of drama in the shelter when people are using drugs and people are flipping out because they don't get their own way. I'm grateful just to have a bed to sleep in and a roof over my head … I just know it's not a life I want to live."

Ryan has seen people living in shelters "stigmatized by the community" and said the focus must be on creating housing, not more shelter space.

"The idea of stability happening through a shelter system is just not true," Ryan said. "It doesn't happen."

'With prosperity comes more money'

Ryan said the goal is for shelter beds to steadily decrease because people are being moved into affordable housing units with support.

Cutting rent supplements to pay for larger shelters is not what the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee asked for.

"Shelters do not need to be increased. We need an increase in housing. We need an increase in wrap-around supports."

We cannot build prosperity on the backs of our most vulnerable, our impoverished people in New Brunswick. - Lisa Ryan

"We want those [shelter] beds to decrease every year because we want those resources — that financial resource of those beds to go toward housing because that is what's going to solve homelessness."

Shepard said cutting rent supplements in favour of spending on emergency shelters was not an easy decision, but with 500 people on the streets government had to "at least keep them safe."

"What I can say is that with prosperity comes more money," she said. "That will give us the resources we need to up our game but we are working with what we have."

Ryan agreed that New Brunswick needs more prosperity but said cuts should have been found elsewhere.

"We cannot build prosperity on the backs of our most vulnerable, our impoverished people in New Brunswick … it cannot come from services to our vulnerable populations — our children, our education systems, our health-care systems."