Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, educator, activist and filmmaker specializing in advocacy on homelessness in Canada. She is a distinguished visiting practitioner in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University. Her most recent book is A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse.
When I was growing up in the small idyllic town of Cobourg, on the shore of Lake Ontario, everyone I knew had a place to live. Families owned cars and took vacations. I don’t recall being aware of poverty or homelessness, apart from my ill-conceived hobo costume for Halloween.
On weekends, we swam in the lake at the bottom of the street, played baseball, hide and seek and board games such as Monopoly and Clue. In the evening, we watched TV shows about seemingly perfect homes and families: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Lassie, Ozzie and Harriet. We ran wild in empty fields behind our house, built forts in the nearby woods and, under the cover of darkness, sneaked into nearby houses that were under construction, frustrated they were encroaching on our natural playground.
What I didn’t realize was that these new homes being built in the fields behind my house were the outcome of a massive, post-Second World War victory: a new national housing program that resulted in a building boom across the country.
Not unlike the gains of other national programs such as medicare, unemployment insurance and CPP, this housing program originated in response to public demand.
Veterans returning to Canada from the war faced a drastic shortage of homes. The vets were vocal about their right to housing and, experienced in organizing, they engaged in dramatic and effective protests with their families, supported by seniors groups and faith-based communities. Their actions included mass parades, picketing and squatting – one group occupied an empty military hospital in Montreal while another took over an army barracks in Ottawa by moving their families and furniture inside. The barrack conditions were so poor that two children came down with polio, presumably from milk not kept cool due to lack of electricity. That only caused public opinion to swell in support of the veterans.
The result of their fight? Their demands for housing were answered with decisive action: the building of wartime housing followed by amendments to the National Housing Act in 1949 led to expanded federal funding for social housing – a national housing program that by 1964 was close to being a universal program for several decades. Despite its success, cuts were made to the program in the 1980s, and the program was eventually dismantled. First by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, which in April, 1993, announced the termination of all new funding for social housing, including renovations, except on reserves. Later, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government continued the cuts. Making matters worse, Alberta and Ontario followed suit and cut provincial funding for social housing. In Ontario alone, 17,000 new units of housing that were under development were cancelled. Those units could have housed 40,000 people. The government could not afford this among other social programs, we were told, and the private sector would take over construction.
I was working as a street nurse in downtown Toronto when the national housing program was dismantled. Like many, I was caught by surprise. Over the years, I have witnessed the dramatic results from the loss of this public-safety net. It was like observing a slow-moving disaster: Newly homeless people found themselves in drop-in centres, shelters were more crowded, church and synagogue basements were forced to open to shelter people in the winter, there was no longer enough food for people in the drop-in centres and there were clusters of homeless deaths – including due to freezing – and the return of old diseases and pestilence such as tuberculosis and bedbugs. In Toronto, the epicentre of the homelessness disaster, a “tent city” developed on the waterfront, which grew, over the course of three years, to 50 shacks housing approximately 140 people. Tent City was a refugee camp in the heart of the developed world.
Fast forward to today.
Across the country, shelters are full and in chaos. In many cases, funding pressures are forcing their closings. In Toronto, the Out of the Cold program, now in its 33rd year, acts as an overflow. While the sites, which are churches and synagogues, provide shelter, they are not shelters. They operate in the winter only and are run by dedicated volunteers. Homeless people must line up sometimes as early as 5 p.m. to obtain a space, a mat (not a bed or cot) on the community-room floor. When they leave in the early morning, they must prepare to find the next location that is open and repeat the lining up process, hoping they will get in. Last year, Toronto added three large dome-like structures, such as you would normally see used to house people after a natural disaster, to their shelter inventory. One hundred people are crammed into each one, sleeping on cots with no dividers between them. Ironically, one is on the old Tent City site. Across the country, from Victoria to Halifax, outdoor sleeping is the norm – ranging from people sprawled out on sidewalks and heat grates to groupings of people under bridges, in parks and in tent communities.
When it still existed, Canada’s housing program built 20,000 new units of affordable and social housing a year. Some of the housing, often little bungalows still standing today, is referred to as “wartime housing” because of its origin. Other types of rental housing included public housing, seniors’ apartments, student housing, co-operative housing and supportive housing for people with mental-health or developmental-health issues. That was when the term “affordable” actually meant spending not more than one-third of your income on rent. If that program had been sustained at the same level, we would have built 520,000 additional homes.
I personally benefited from this program because I was able to obtain an apartment in affordable co-op housing that had just been built with national housing program support. I was a single mom, returning to school to get my nursing degree. The universal system worked, just as it would with medicare should I need surgery. It should be there for all in need.
Today, in Canada, a staggering 235,000 people are homeless; thousands are without even basic emergency shelter, and there is no right-to-shelter legislation across the country. Our social housing that was built under the original program is in great disrepair and wait lists are long. Approximately 1.7 million people are in “core housing need,” a term that refers to housing that might be in a serious state of disrepair, does not have a suitable number of bedrooms for the family size or requires more than one-third of before tax household income to be spent on rent.
There is no shortage of creative solutions. These include laneway housing, prefabricated housing, repurposing container ships for housing and co-housing for seniors and students. Policy initiatives that include a focus on vacancy taxes, inclusionary zoning, land trusts, clamping down on short-term rentals are also being explored. These are all worthwhile and interesting but are low-hanging fruit.
In 2017, the current federal government dangled what is referred to as a “national housing strategy” in front of us, promising a multibillion-dollar 10-year plan to help reduce homelessness and lift 530,000 people from housing need. At the time, housing expert and University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski pointed out the strategy was "a random and confusing set of spending initiatives, all involving billions of dollars, most starting after the next election.” Recently, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, released a report that raised many red flags, including that fewer dollars than promised in the national housing strategy were actually spent. He stated: "It is not clear that the National Housing Strategy will reduce the prevalence of housing need relative to 2017 levels.”
Veterans and their supporters were aspirational and won a legacy national program. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that once you lose a program, it is hard to get it back. Can we be aspirational this election? The obvious solution is a return to a national housing program. That means universal availability to affordable and accessible housing in the same fashion as we now expect in our beloved medicare.
It’s always best to listen to the kids. In the Home Safe film series that I co-produced with filmmaker Laura Sky, a young boy who had been homeless asked: “I’m wondering exactly how the government is going to solve this, or whether it’s going to help at all?” Many of us feel the same way now.
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