Attitude adjustment would solve our homeless problem

Our attitude towards the homeless is a barrier to solving the problem. The old notion is that the poor deserve to be so:  if people would just apply themselves, they wouldn’t be homeless.

image: KamloopsThis Week

Finland’s experience shows how a shift in attitude makes a difference.

In 1987, Finland had a homeless population of about 20,000 out of a population of five million –a rate of four homeless per thousand.

To address the problem, Finland adopted a “Housing First” philosophy, said Juha Kaakinen (Globe and Mail, August 13, 2021).

 Kaakinen, chief executive officer of Finland’s non-profit Y-Foundation, was addressing a panel convened by The Canadian Urban Institute.

Another panelist, Leilani Farha, said that part of Finland’s success is the result of shift in mindset. For Finns, homelessness is not an option.

“People have a right to housing as part of their constitution.” said Farha,

Finland’s solved the problem with a partnership between federal and state governments, lottery corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Y-Foundation, a non-profit organization, started buying private apartments in 1985 with grants obtained from the government run Finland Slot Machine Association.

In turn, the Y-Foundation subleased the apartments out to municipalities and NGOs. The rent plus the grants paid for the apartments.

Finland’s homeless rate is now one-fifth of what it was.

It’s tempting to think of housing the homeless as an expense when, in fact, it’s savings. Housing for all everyone has proven to be the most effective remedy for improving lives and saving money.

A study published by Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that costs to Seattle’s public health system dropped by 60 per cent in the first six months after chronically homeless people with severe alcoholism were found homes.

Canada is not beyond hope. Our homeless rate is just above what Finland’s was in 1987 –about six homeless per thousand.

All levels of government are working on the problem.

The City of Kamloops’ Affordable Housing Reserve Fund allows for up to $150,000 per project for low income earners.

The B.C. government built 3,200 new affordable housing units last year and more are being built this year. (Full disclosure: I am the president of a non-profit organization that will take possession of the largest project in the interior built by BC Housing, opening in downtown Kamloops this fall.)

The federal government is working with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to build affordable housing. This year’s federal budget provides an additional $2.5 billion over seven years to CMHC.

Dignity and financial security are restored when the homeless are given homes.

Tina Dawson, 52, from Victoria, told the Institute’s panel about being homeless for first-time in the past year:

“Being newly homeless, I am gob-smacked at the way things are out of sight, out-of-mind, and the machine that is in place to keep people homeless. How on earth am I going to get out of this position? I’ve managed my entire life. I’ve raised three children. And I have no address. The problem is [putting together] the damage deposit. I’m on permanent disability. That’s hand to mouth.”

Those who work full-time at minimum wage jobs should be able to afford a place to live.

Surely that’s not too much of an adjustment in attitude to make.

Canada’s housing agency tries to slow the exodus from big cities

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is attempting to curb the outflow from big cities.

iamge: HuffPost Canada

Toronto saw a net loss of 50,375 last year as people moved to surrounding small cities; places such as Oshawa where the population increased by 2.1 per cent according.

Municipalities around Montreal also experienced growth with Farnham seeing an increase of 5.2 per cent.

People are migrating out of Vancouver to small Interior cities, as well. In Kamloops, home sales totalled 3,044 units last year, up 6.4 per cent from 2019. Sales were brisk with homes on the market just of 2.6 months on average, compared to 5.8 months the previous year.

The pandemic has resulted in millions of new workers from home. As of December, 2020, 4.8 million Canadians worked from home. For 2.8 million of those, working from home was a new experience.

The influx of highly successful, mid-career professionals and knowledge workers has an effect on the character and culture of a small city. On the plus side, professionals have more to spend and support the arts making small cities more vibrant. Conversely, they drive the price of houses up making them less affordable for low-income wage earners.

CMHC, a Crown Corporation responsible for affordable housing, is promoting big cities. In a two-page ad in The Walrus magazine, they point to the advantages of living in denser communities:

“CMHC is also increasingly recognizing that intensification, or creating denser communities, can play a positive role in addressing not only housing affordability but other challenges — such as access to services, health status, and climate change — that factor into where people choose to live.”

Part of the appeal in moving out of a big city, it seems, is the seemingly lower rates of COVID-19 infection. But most infections in big cities have been among those working in high contact jobs, not home-work environments. And the Kamloops region is now experiencing a spike in infections.

It might seem like commute times are less in smaller cities but Vancouver isn’t much different than Kamloops. In Vancouver, the average commute time by car was 26 minutes last year. While I don’t have averages for Kamloops, most drivers had a commute time of 15 to 29 minutes according to Statistics Canada. And fifteen per cent of Kamloops drivers had commute times longer than 30 minutes.

Big cities attract medical talent to specialized clinics, making health services superior in dense urban centres. Michel Tremblay, VP at CMHC says:  “You simply can’t offer the same level of service in smaller centres; it is just not economically justifiable,”

Everyday needs such as groceries, libraries, and community support services are not only more numerous and varied in a big city, but also easier to get to by walking, cycling, or public transit. People prefer to go on foot, which is the basis for an inherently healthy, active approach to living, CMHC argues.

Personally, I’m not convinced. Despite the disadvantages of living in small cities, Kamloops was a big draw for me when I moved to here from Calgary. I like the slower pace of life and living close to nature.

But I wonder what motivates CMHC, a housing agency, to promote big cities? Is it because they are worried about a collapse in big city housing markets where they insure the mortgages?