Due to difficult family circumstances, I was living independently from my parents when I was 15 years old. As a full-time high school student and part-time fast food employee, I had to collect social assistance to keep a roof over my head and food on my table.
Back then, finding a one-bedroom apartment that was $425 a month would lead a caseworker to question if you knew how to budget so that you could afford to buy groceries, because $425 (with utilities included) was more than the housing allowance portion of social assistance allowed.
Sadly, in nearly 30 years, the situation has only gotten worse, with rates of homelessness increasing, rents skyrocketing, and waiting lists for affordable housing climbing to a 12-year wait.
When I worked for YWCA Niagara Region, we often slept people in our meeting rooms, because our shelter beds were full and there were no other shelters with space.
Last week, Niagara This Week wrote about the provincially mandated point-in-time homelessness count in Niagara.
The bi-annual Niagara count — now mandatory under provincial legislation — found 625 people were homeless on that March day, including 114 children aged from under one year old to age 15.
As these numbers are much higher than last year, it would mean YWCA Niagara Region and other shelters are more frequently sheltering people in meeting rooms than they were when I was working there.
Poverty costs our community more than $1.3 billion per year, primarily because it is difficult to access services, find work, etc. without a fixed address.
The survey also showed homelessness is taxing the health care and law enforcement systems: in the last year, 219 homeless people had visited an emergency room 663 times in total, 125 people had spent 1,333 days in hospital in the previous three and a half years, 161 people had 628 interactions with police in the previous year, and 70 people had spent a total of 3,276 days in jail over almost nine years.
Our Niagara Regional government needs to do more; we are all concerned about alleviating poverty.
Niagara Regional government can’t be in the business of building all of the affordable housing units we’d need to fill the gap, but there are a few things we can do, and there are some things that are already being done.
- Work with existing landlords to encourage them to offer their units as affordable housing. The benefit to the landlord is that they’re not looking for tenants for the units, as Niagara Regional Housing (NRH) caseworkers (and caseworkers at places like the YW) move tenants in and out, based on their waiting lists, and the rent is guaranteed, as NRH or the YW are technically the tenants;
- Offer incentives to developers to include affordable housing units in their new builds (we can’t demand it presently, because it’s not included in the Official Plan, so developers can fight a demand like that and win – while also costing the Region time and money in that fight);
- Review and revise the Official Plan to mandate that new multi-unit developments must include a certain percentage of affordable housing units and further bolster this by ensuring that smart development takes priority and is implemented throughout Niagara;
- Develop a local, coordinated response to housing needs (many agencies are doing excellent work with housing, and we need to ensure that everyone is ultimately working together and efficiently and effectively);
- Ensure that the provincial and federal governments are providing Niagara with funding comparable (per capita) to Hamilton, Toronto, etc.; and
- Be open to new ideas from the community and those already working in the field.
One new strategy is a pilot project by the region that’s designed to engage landlords to convince more of them to consider renting to people who may not have solid references or a stable renting history, with the promise of supports tenants may need and guarantees on rent payments.
“There’s a number of community minded landlords who want to do this, but they don’t want to go it alone,” said Jugley.