The federal departments tasked with curbing chronic homelessness in Canada don't know if the billions of dollars in public money they've spent have helped to get people into homes, Canada's auditor general reported Tuesday.
Auditor General Karen Hogan found that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and Infrastructure Canada have failed to collect sufficient data about their programs, which are designed to connect the most vulnerable people with homes.
These two agencies are largely responsible for delivering the federal government's National Housing Strategy, which has a target of reducing chronic homelessness by 50 per cent by the 2027-28 fiscal year.
But without data, there's no way to know if the government is getting good value for its money or if the 50 per cent target will ever be achieved, the AG said.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference on Parliament Hill, Hogan said the government really doesn't know if all the housing-related money spent so far — about $4.5 billion across six different programs — has been helpful.
WATCH: Federal government failed to collect data homeless programs: AG
"They have a really big data gap. They aren't collecting the information," she said. "A data-driven strategy is a great solution."
One of the government's key programs to move people off the streets is the "reaching home" program, which is administered by Infrastructure Canada.
The department spent $1.36 billion between 2019 and 2021 but, Hogan said, "the department did not know whether chronic homelessness and homelessness had increased or decreased since 2019 as a result of this investment."
Based on the limited data available, the AG found the number of shelter users who are chronically homeless has actually increased since the housing strategy was launched in 2016.
About 29,900 people used a shelter in 2019-20 — a 11.3 per cent increase from the 26,900 reported three years earlier. There was no data available for the 2020-21 or 2021-22 fiscal years.
Hogan said Infrastructure Canada also hasn't completed any analysis to determine if a cash infusion the department received during the pandemic has met its targets.
CMHC, which is the lead agency for the National Housing Strategy, has so far spent about $4.5 billion on various initiatives but, Hogan said, "the corporation did not measure the changes in housing outcomes for priority vulnerable groups, including people experiencing homelessness."
The housing strategy defines "vulnerable groups" as survivors fleeing domestic violence (especially women and children), seniors, people with disabilities, people dealing with mental health and addiction issues, racialized people or communities, recent immigrants, the LGBT community, veterans, Indigenous people, young adults and people experiencing homelessness.
"While the corporation knew vulnerable groups were intended to benefit, it did not know whether those groups were actually occupying housing supported by its initiatives," Hogan said.
"For example, it did not know whether units intended for people with disabilities were actually occupied by this population."
The AG's recommendations to fix this oversight were relatively simple: Infrastructure Canada should collect and analyze data in a timely manner. CMHC should assess whether its programs are actually helping vulnerable groups, the AG said.
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Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen said that, while there's little data, he's confident the government has "prevented thousands of people from actually entering homelessness."
He also said the government has helped to permanently house 32,000 people who were homeless.
"Absolutely, these programs are having an impact. We need to do better in terms of the collection and analysis, yes. We know there's more work to be done," he said, adding he's accepted all of the AG's recommendations for improvement.
Hussen blamed the poor or non-existent data collection on the pandemic. He said community entities that report numbers up to the federal government "have had difficulties" during COVID-19.
'Affordable' rental housing unaffordable for many: AG
Hogan also found that CMHC has floated funds to get more "affordable" rental housing built but some of those homes are unaffordable for many low-income people.
Under the housing strategy, the federal government defines "affordable" rent as anything that costs less than 30 per cent of a household's before-tax income.
But CMHC uses a different metric: affordable rent is rent that is less than 80 per cent of the median market rent — the middle value of all monthly rents paid in a given area.
That means a large number of the rental housing units built and paid for by public money don't meet the government's goal of getting people into homes that will cost less than 30 per cent of their income.
In a majority of Canada's provinces and territories — eight out of the 13 — households are spending in excess of 30 per cent of their income on so-called "affordable" housing units.
"This program is at the beginning stages," Hogan said of CMHC's national housing co-development fund. "They could adjust the program to put it on a more viable path."
With rents moving higher in this inflationary period, Hogan said, these rental units will be even less affordable if CMHC sticks with its current definition of "affordable" housing.
Meanwhile, despite being the lead agency on the housing file and the recipient of most housing-related funds, CMHC told Hogan that it is "not directly accountable for addressing chronic homelessness." Infrastructure Canada also said it is "not solely accountable for achieving the strategy's target of reducing chronic homelessness."
Hogan said that, based on these responses, there is "minimal federal accountability" for the government's progress in reaching its stated goal of reducing chronic homelessness by 50 per cent.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan, the party's housing critic, said Tuesday the government's "level of incompetence is breathtaking."
"The Liberals have spent billions to build homes that Canadians can't afford," she said. "What's worse, they don't even know if this money is reducing homelessness in our communities.
"People are dying on the streets. The Liberals have turned their back on them."