Hundreds of new affordable housing units are expected to open in Toronto this year, a significant proportion of which will be designated for Indigenous residents.
The federal government on Friday announced the results of its Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1-billion program to quickly build new affordable housing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Liberal government says the program is now on track to create 4,700 new affordable housing units nationwide in 2021, which exceeds the target of 3,000 new homes when the program was first announced last October. The units are being built through a variety of "rapid" methods such as the construction of modular housing or the repurposing of existing properties.
Forty per cent of the new homes will be earmarked for Indigenous people, although the figure drops to 20 per cent in Toronto, specifically. Meanwhile, Indigenous residents make up a disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness in Toronto.
Indigenous 'homelessness with crisis proportions'
"We're seeing homelessness within crisis proportions," said Steve Teekens, the executive director of Na-Me-Res, which operates a shelter and offers housing services for Indigenous men.
Teekens said the rapid housing program is a positive development, but that it falls short of the comprehensive Indigenous housing strategy that he believes is needed.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the long-standing housing and homelessness crisis among the city's Indigenous residents, Toronto's Indigenous-serving organizations say.
The city's most recent survey of people experiencing homelessness found that Indigenous people account for 16 per cent of Toronto's homeless population and 38 per cent of the people sleeping outdoors. Yet Indigenous people make up one to 2.5 per cent of the city's total population.
"Because of the lack of affordable housing opportunities, a lot of people find themselves homeless, trying to get into shelters or sleeping outdoors in encampments," Teekens said.
The hope is that the federal housing program will help to change that.
Ahmed Hussen, the MP responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, described Friday's commitment to Indigenous communities as "a result that has exceeded our highest expectation."
Hussen's parliamentary secretary, MP Adam Vaughan, was even more bullish on the significance of the program.
"The end of homelessness is now within reach," Vaughan said during a Friday news conference.
"There is a really significant contribution to Indigenous housing and in particular urban Indigenous housing."
Toronto to create at least 540 new units
Toronto's municipal government has already confirmed the construction of 540 affordable housing units as a result of $203 million it will receive through the program. A further 20 per cent of the units will be earmarked for women and girls.
Additional homes to be built and managed by local community groups are also expected, though details about those projects will not be announced until the end of March.
Wigwamen, a non-profit housing organization that serves Toronto's Indigenous communities, is among the groups vying for funding to open additional homes.
"They've clearly understood the importance of providing affordable housing for the Indigenous community," said Wigwamen general manager Angus Palmer.
The group has applied to build a 62-unit facility and a smaller 12-unit facility through the program.
Wigwamen already operates around 850 affordable housing units for Indigenous residents. Palmer said the waiting list for those units is about the same size and that demand for affordable housing has increased during the pandemic.
Councillor Ana Bailao, Toronto's designated housing advocate, said she hopes to see Indigenous-led groups involved in the next stage of the program.
"Partnerships are essential and particular in Indigenous communities to work with those that know the community, that are from the communities," Bailao said.
Still, Teekens says what's needed most is a national Indigenous housing strategy — something he says remains unaddressed.
"All I hear is crickets," Teekens said about the prospect of a broader plan. "The silence is deafening."