The federal government released their 2021/22 budget Monday. Budget 2021 builds on existing National Housing Strategy investments with over $2.5 billion in new funding and an additional $1.3 billion moved forward in previously promised housing investment. But it doesn’t go far enough.
By Tim Richter
President & CEO, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness
Canadians have been suffering under the man-made disaster of mass homelessness for over 30 years. Homelessness has touched over 36% of Canadians including an estimated 1.6 million who have personally experienced it. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted people experiencing homelessness, compounded Canada’s lethal overdose crisis, and as I write this, the third wave of the pandemic is mercilessly tearing through shelters, encampments and low-income, racialized and female-led households.
In that context, the federal government announced their long-awaited budget Monday. The budget contains some important new investments in housing and homelessness, building on the National Housing Strategy. While Budget 2021 does not go far enough or fast enough, taken together with the National Housing Strategy, it does make some important progress toward ending homelessness.
Here are 10 highlights about housing and homelessness measures contained in the budget with thoughts on how Canada can get closer to ending homelessness.
- Budget 2021 contains an expansion of the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI).
The budget expands the RHI with a new $1.5 billion investment. The strength of the RHI lies in its ability to create deeply affordable or supportive housing for very low-income people by converting non-housing facilities into affordable housing. This rapid creation of affordable and supportive housing is a smart investment that has the potential to lift thousands of people out of homelessness quickly.
To make the most of this investment and support the federal goal of ending chronic homelessness, the government will have to specifically prioritize people experiencing homelessness and people in extreme core housing need, and it will need to help communities find the funding for the Housing First-based, wrap-around supports necessary to help people with complex needs. Without this focus, the government risks spending the money a mile wide and an inch deep, diffusing its potential impact and leaving the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness out in the cold.
- A welcome $567 million in new funding for Reaching Home.
Reaching Home is the federal government’s flagship homelessness program. It provides critical funding to over 66 large communities plus Indigenous entities as well as northern and rural communities across the country. Through the pandemic, the federal government more than doubled their funding for Reaching Home, which has been a lifesaving investment.
Reaching Home will play a leading role in achieving the goal of ending chronic homelessness. This program is effective because it’s the money communities use to organize and build data-driven homeless systems and it leverages the millions of dollars spent from other sources in each community. It’s not yet known how this new funding will be allocated but it will be important to address critical gaps in homelessness for women, in rural communities, youth homelessness and prevention.
Importantly, to achieve the goal of ending chronic homelessness, the government must ensure that Reaching Home works hand-in-glove with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Today, CMHC and Reaching Home operate separately and often CMHC housing programs and investment do not align with the goal of ending chronic homelessness. In any strategy to end chronic homelessness, Reaching Home and CMHC will have to align their efforts.
- Beginning the end of veteran homelessness.
A welcome and exciting new investment in Budget 2021 was the creation of a $45 million, two-year pilot project aimed at reducing veteran homelessness through the provision of rent supplements and wrap-around services for homeless veterans. This is the long-awaited response to the 2019 House of Commons motion by Liberal MP Neil Ellis, seconded by Conservative MP Karen Vecchio and former NDP MP Sheri Benson. While details are yet to be confirmed, this pilot seems to model the highly effective US HUD VASH program that has been instrumental in cutting veteran homelessness in the United States in half. Recently, the City of London achieved functional zero veteran homelessness and with a program like this, many other cities will follow suit.
- No Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy.
Perhaps the most glaring and disappointing gap in Budget 2021 is the lack of dedicated funding for an Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy. Over 40% of Indigenous peoples live in urban centres and they are dramatically overrepresented in homelessness. Indigenous Peoples make up less than 5% of Canada’s population, yet represent over 30% of emergency shelter users.
Indigenous Peoples who do not live on reserve or in-home communities require a distinct housing strategy. There must be an adequately resourced Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing and Homelessness Strategy that is developed and implemented by urban, rural and Northern Indigenous peoples and housing and service providers.
- Little new dedicated affordable and supportive housing construction.
An estimated 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year and 1.7 million households are in core housing need. The National Housing Strategy aims to create between 150,000 to 160,000 units of new affordable housing over 10 years – much which will be unaffordable to those experiencing homelessness or core housing need.
To have a fighting chance at ending homelessness and addressing housing need, Canada will need to build at least 300,000 new deep subsidy, permanently affordable and supportive housing units and ensure those units are specifically prioritized to people experiencing or at greatest risk of homelessness.
- If you’re in a hole, stop digging – addressing the financialization of rental housing.
Budget 2021 introduced a tax on vacant non-resident, non-Canadian owned residential real estate, but it did not address the financialization of rental housing.
When investors buy up rental housing, they deepen Canada’s housing crisis by taking existing rental housing off the market or by increasing rent, making it unaffordable. This leaves lower income Canadians facing eviction unable to afford rent or to live in the communities they choose. According to noted Canadian housing policy expert Steve Pomeroy, between 2011 and 2016 Canada lost more than 320,000 of affordable rental housing – this is more than double what the National Housing Strategy promises to create. A first step in solving Canada’s housing crisis, must be to keep it from getting worse by limiting the ability of large capital funds (including Real Estate Income Trusts) to purchase ‘distressed’ rental housing assets.
- Addressing housing need and homelessness for women.
Budget 2021 introduces a $315.4 million increase in the Canada Housing Benefit to support women and children fleeing domestic violence and requires 25% of RHI housing be allocated toward women-focused housing projects. These are important investments that point to the gendered nature of core housing need in Canada – a fact that COVID-19 will only exacerbate. What the budget and the National Housing Strategy do not reflect however, is the unique ways that women experience homelessness in Canada, ignoring the many women whose homelessness is hidden and who do not access the domestic violence system. The Canada Housing Benefit would be a much more effective housing intervention for women if it were an entitlement-based benefit that was provided based on need. Further, the National Housing Strategy already allocates a minimum 25% of all housing investment to women, but it is unclear if they have been successful nor is it clear whether National Housing Strategy programs reach the women in greatest need.
- Addressing rural and remote housing need?
Housing need and homelessness are not just city issues. According to the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, rural communities make up 30% of Canada’s population but do not have the same access to housing or homelessness funding through Reaching Home and the National Housing Strategy. Homelessness in these communities is out of sight and out of mind, if for no other reason than it has not been measured or studied as it has in the cities. Budget 2021 does make investments in northern housing, but it’s unclear at this point if new Budget 2021 investments will reach rural and remote communities.
- Preventing a COVID-19 wave of new homelessness.
The federal government has done a very good job of supporting Canadians through the pandemic. A clear gap in that response, however, is the lack of a program to support households facing eviction. According to CERA, as of October 2021 over 125,000 households are struggling under the weight of rent arrears totaling $150 million. This will only grow as the third wave of the pandemic hammers low-income (largely racialized and female) households. Canada is facing a potential wave of pandemic related homelessness and these households are the leading edge of that wave. CERA and the National Right to Housing Network have put forward a rights-based response to the evictions and arrears crisis that could remedy this critical gap in the federal government’s pandemic response.
- Consistent with the right to housing?
In 2019, Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act, which enshrined the progressive realization of the right to housing in Canada. International law requires states to use the maximum available resources, over time, to meet their housing obligations while prioritizing those in greatest need. States are expected to set ambitious national goals with timelines, targets and outcomes relating to homelessness and housing. The National Housing Strategy Act was founded on the government’s explicit policy commitment to this understanding. Budget 2021 and the National Housing Strategy together make important progress on the progressive realization of the right to housing, but do not meet the standard set out in international law.
Introduced in 2017, the National Housing Strategy represents the ambitious return of the federal government to leadership on resolving this crisis. In 2019, Parliament passed the National Housing Strategy Act enshrining the right to housing in law and in September 2021, the federal government promised to eliminate chronic homelessness.
Monday’s budget builds on the National Housing Strategy and takes some important steps toward ending homelessness, but it does not go far enough. Measures in the budget will surely lift thousands out of homelessness but will leave too many behind for too long.
The CAEH and our partners will continue to work with the federal government to close the gaps in the National Housing Strategy and end homelessness in Canada, once and for all.
To the people we serve – those of you who are grappling with the indignity, danger, stress and trauma of homelessness – I wish we had homes for all of you today, but we don’t. What we do have is the resolve to get there as fast as we can. And we won’t stop until we do.
Watch the Budget 2021 Round Table with Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Families, Children and Social Development following the April 19 federal budget announcement.