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“Homelessness is a housing problem”: CAEH addresses HUMA Committee

June 12, 2024 - 12:07 pm / News

The House of Commons Committee on Human Resources, Skills, Social Development, and Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) has undertaken a study to understand how past underinvestment in housing has contributed to the current housing and homelessness crisis. The Committee has heard from witnesses from across the housing sector, including Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

On June 10th, Tim appeared as a witness at the Committee, and shared some key reflections on how we found ourselves in the current housing and homelessness crisis and the solutions government can implement to reverse course:

Homelessness is a housing affordability problem, driven by high rent and low vacancy. The surge of homelessness and encampments we’re seeing today is the result of the cost-of-living crisis.

Think about a game of musical chairs with 10 kids around 10 chairs. There is one kid in the game, Alice, who has a broken ankle. The music starts, a chair gets taken away, and when it is time to sit down, everyone gets a chair but Alice. When we ask her, “why aren’t you in a chair?” she responds, “it is because I have a broken ankle and couldn’t get to a chair fast enough.” But the reason Alice isn’t in a chair is because there aren’t enough for everyone, not because of her broken ankle. This can help us to understand the impacts of the lack of affordable housing on homelessness – when rents skyrocket and the availability of units decreases, low-income households or people with other needs, end up forced out of their homes and simply can’t compete when there are not enough affordable housing options, or chairs when the music stops.


Mass homelessness like we know it today hasn’t always existed. The roots of our current homelessness crisis and the surge in encampments are tied to the roots of our housing crisis. That began in 1980 with the federal withdrawal from incentives to support rental housing constructions and subsequent reduction in affordable, social, and co-op housing investments and the elimination of federal affordable housing programs in 1995. This is a problem that is over 40 years in the making.

If we want to solve homelessness, we need to ensure we have a healthy housing system – a system where there is affordability and choice, from social housing to ownership. The whole system has to be healthy. If the ownership system isn’t working, people stay in rental housing. If the rental system isn’t balanced, the burden falls on non-market housing, and people are pushed out the bottom of the system. To resolve this, we need a clear federal strategy to eliminate homelessness and importantly, as highlighted by the Auditor General, we need to connect the housing strategy with the homelessness strategy and objectives.

We must take an approach rooted in cooperative federalism. Solving homelessness requires a national strategy with an approach similar to disaster response, where there is a plan and an agreement between different levels of government on who does what within their different jurisdictions. Imagine a natural disaster – the local government and community lead and the provincial and federal governments come and support. This approach is key to ending homelessness.

The federal government’s return to housing leadership with the National Housing Strategy and the new Housing Plan are welcome. This plan should be successful, if implemented well, in expanding rental and non-market housing construction over time. However, there is an absence of federal-provincial-territorial coordination and collaboration. You can implement measures like the GST reduction or accelerated capital cost allowance, but if development charges eat up those new savings, we are no further ahead.

There are some clear recommendations for the federal government and Committee on Human Resources, Skills, Social Development, and Persons with Disabilities to consider as they move forward:

  1. Establish a National Strategy for the Prevention and Elimination of homelessness, built in collaboration with provinces and territories, with cities and experts, including people with lived experience, where community leaders lead the response to homelessness and other levels of government join in their areas of jurisdiction.
  2. Introduce a homelessness prevention and housing benefit as a measure to slow the flow of people into homelessness. The vast majority of people who are in core housing need and at risk of homelessness are already in housing, and we need income support to prevent people from becoming homeless, while the broader housing crisis is addressed.
  3. Develop a National Housing Accord, built with the provinces and territories that addresses the health of the whole housing system – and this must include the creation of at least 655,000 units of social and affordable housing.

While the current housing and homelessness crises have been decades in the making, now it is time for all levels of government to remedy the past and turn their attention to the solutions.