Toronto has a proposal to tackle chronic homelessness, but it needs the help of Doug Ford’s provincial government

·4 min read

Over Tommy Taylor’s six years working in Toronto’s homeless shelters, he figures he’s seen roughly a thousand faces – some leaning briefly on the system to get through acute hardship.

But others stagnate, unable to leave. The city says about a fifth of overall shelter population are chronic users, though Taylor estimates the number is likely higher in the locations where he works, with many occupants struggling with mental illness and addictions.

“It’s hard for people when this has become their home,” Taylor said, noting that emergency shelters and respites weren’t designed to help people recover from serious, underlying challenges. “It’s not a system that’s designed to move you forwards. There’s just not enough resources for this.”

City staff have a proposal to tackle Toronto’s chronic homelessness problem in 2021, but it hinges on millions of dollars coming from the Ontario government — roughly $15.4 million for 2020, and $26.3 million annually in future — that so far have not appeared.

The city’s proposal calls for the creation of more than 1,200 new supportive housing units, which are a form of affordable housing that integrate services such as health care and employment help. These units carry a price tag of $2,000 per month, much cheaper than the $6,600 a month for a shelter bed since costs increased during COVID-19.

During its recent budget talks, the city has so far decided not to fund the supports needed to create that form of housing, counting on Queen’s Park instead. The city’s budget process isn’t yet finished, but without that money, the supportive housing proposal will grind to a halt by the end of March, with current funds only enough to put support services in 150 of the projected 1,248 units.

At budget committee meeting last week, Coun. Mike Layton argued that the city should fund the supports in its fiscal plan, with the expectation that the province would eventually foot the bill.

This strategy has worked in the past, he said. In 2019 and 2020, city staff proposed a “balanced” operating budget that relied on tens of millions that hadn’t yet been received from the feds, including money to house refugees that eventually arrived. This year, though, the city faces an unprecedented budget gap of close to a billion dollars, due to the pandemic.

Layton’s motion last week to fund the supportive housing projects was unsuccessful, with councillors Brad Bradford and Ana Bailao asking staff if the city would compromise its “leverage” with the province or wind up inadvertently downloading the costs.

“I think indicating right now that we’re going to backstop it in any way is probably not the right thing to do at the moment, at all,” city manager Chris Murray said, urging continued communication to outline the city’s “expectation” to the province instead.

A spokesperson for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark pointed to other funding that has been allocated to Toronto in 2020-21, but did not specifically mention money for supportive housing.

Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of Toronto’s shelter, support and housing administration (SSHA), said she had “a little less” confidence that the money for supportive housing would arrive, compared with the request for federal support for refugees. Refugee housing was temporary, while supportive housing would need a permanent, ongoing pledge, Bedard said.

“Once we place these people into supportive housing, this is their permanent home,” said deputy city manager Giuliana Carbone. “We can’t be pulling them (out).”

Laural Raine, a director with SSHA, pointed to several factors — including a need to focus on basic and immediate needs — that can make it hard to escape long-term homelessness.

“If we can reduce chronic homelessness by moving these long-term shelter users into housing — supportive housing — it frees up those existing shelter beds for their originally intended emergency use, and it reduces pressure to expand our shelter system’s capacity to keep up with demand,” she said.

But Layton worries provincial money won’t come quickly enough. If it doesn’t arrive by the time the new units are ready to be occupied — the brick-and-mortar aspect for many is covered by federal funding — Layton said they could either sit empty, or be handed over to the affordable rental market.

Taylor said Toronto officials need to work out a backup plan, arguing that it’s “irresponsible” to count on another government to get supportive housing up and running.

“There needs to be a plan B, to look within to start getting something done,” he said.

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star