Historic Perspective

In order to solve a problem, it must first be defined. In his February 18, 2009 report entitled Homelessness in Canada: Past, Present, Future, J. David Hulchanski writes:

Starting in the 1980s, it was clear that homelessness referred to a poverty that includes being un-housed. It is a poverty that means being without required social supports. And it is a poverty so deep that even poor-quality housing is not affordable.

He further writes:

Signs of HomelessnessIn short, we have not used the word homelessness for very long. It was rarely used before the 1980s. It is a catch-all term for a host of serious social and economic policy failures—more serious than in the past. Its widespread usage reflects what has happened to Canadian society—the way we organize who gets what, and our failure to have in place systems for meeting basic human needs in a universal, inclusive fashion.

Basic human needs include having a home; not a temporary shelter, not the use of a couch in a friend’s basement, and not a tarp strung across some trees beside the Coquitlam River. A home is certainly a structure, but it is much more than that. There is a philosophical difference between being housed and having a home. Home connotes permanency including the security that permanency offers, ownership (not in a legal sense), and a sense of well-being.

Long-time U.S. housing researcher and activist Cushing Dolbeare perfectly described what homelessness is:

The one thing all homeless people have in common is a lack of housing. Whatever other problems they face, adequate, stable, affordable housing is a prerequisite to solving them. Homelessness may not be only a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem. Housing is necessary, although sometimes not sufficient to solve the problem of homelessness.

Federal Spending on HomelessnessThe Mayor’s Action Team on Homelessness has several core beliefs: having a home is a basic human need; providing affordable, permanent homes is its primary objective; and that without social, economic, and emotional supports in place, the cycle of homelessness cannot be permanently ended.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, there are six foundational reasons to address the problems of chronic homelessness: that this group of people consumes a disproportionate amount of costly resources; this group is in great need of assistance and special services; the problem is finite and can be solved; chronic homelessness has a visible impact on the community’s safety and attractiveness; there are effective new technologies for engaging and housing this population; and that by addressing the needs of this group, resources can be freed to assist other homeless groups including youth and families. The statistic from the Council is that 10% of homeless people consume more than 50% of available resources. It is the chronically homeless that are the heavy users of public resources.

Canadian Perspective

In his February 18, 2009 report entitled Homelessness in Canada: Past, Present, Future, J. David Hulchanski writes that Canada, by the 1980s, had developed the social problem of homelessness. Cutbacks in social housing and related programs began in 1984. In 1993, he says, all federal spending on construction of new social housing was terminated and in 1996, the federal government further removed itself from low-income housing supply by transferring responsibility for most existing federal social housing to the provinces.

He notes the declining trend in federal programs that provide support for (direct transfers to) individuals and families. In the 1970s, this spending equaled about 5% of the GDP, which lasted through the 1980s, reaching 6% in 1993. In 2008, it was 3.8% of the GDP. The same trend is evidenced in federal transfers to other levels of government: an average of 4% of the GDP in the 1970s and 1980s, and about 3% of the GDP today.

He further notes that the federal government’s ability to pay down some of the debt, the federal tax cuts to higher income individuals and corporations, and the recent cut in the GST all came from federal budget cuts, some of which left the most vulnerable without the ability to achieve a minimum standard of living including adequate, secure housing.