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WHEN ENDS DON'T MEET: Call for rent support grows as homelessness spirals

Getting a spot in a local shelter has allowed Ian McCain to get off the streets and focus on finding a job
Passage House resident Alan McCain said he is living on disability support and has struggled with homelessness due to the unaffordable rent.

When Ends Don't Meet is a regular NewmarketToday series highlighting issues of social equity by sharing the stories of community members left struggling to make ends meet during a far-reaching affordability crisis.     

Ian McCain isn't alone in becoming homeless because his rent became too expensive.

On disability and unable to find any work in Stouffville, he decided it would be best to move. But he simply could not find any place he could afford on the payments he gets on the Ontario Disability Support Program.

“Everything is expensive now,” he said. “If your rent isn’t subsidized, which almost all of us try to apply for, you can barely afford to live like everybody else. I’m not saying everyone else isn’t suffering, especially the working class. But it’s very difficult on disability. It’s the way it is.” 

Cost of living increases coming out of the pandemic has had municipal leaders calling for more action on homelessness. Newmarket Mayor John Taylor has said there was a significant spike in local homeless encampments last summer. York Region has recently budgeted more for the issue, with council members saying increases in homelessness have been noticeable, though the official count has yet to indicate that.

McCain has found some stability, now residing in Passage House in East Gwillimbury, a transitional housing facility run by Blue Door. 

Previously working in factories, he said he developed lung complications and mental health issues that put him on disability about four years ago.

But now that he has found a stable place to stay, he is applying for work again. The province recently upped the maximum you can take in wages while maintaining disability funding from $200 to $1,000.

“The beauty of it, you don’t have to worry about finding a place to live,” he said. “I'm getting back into the swing of things so I can find employment at least … Confidence is given to you living here. It’s a world of difference. It’s one less thing off your plate. When you have nowhere to live, you’re too busy looking for somewhere to live.” 

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said Passage House has done well since it opened last fall, providing the homeless with hope.

Providing shelter spaces has been a grind with it in more demand, he said. That’s resulted in them only being able to house 200 per year versus 300 in previous years, he said, with finding places to transition to more difficult. 

“It’s not from a lack of trying or effort from our partners at the region and our partners across the region. It’s really just the difference, the gap between income and affordability has grown,” he said. “The answer is not lots and lots of emergency housing or shelters, it really is deeply affordable housing.” 

Municipal governments and advocacy organizations are pushing for more action on homelessness from the upper levels of government.

Newmarket committee of the whole approved a resolution March 6 put forward by Councillor Bob Kwapis asking the province to commit to ending homelessness and working with municipalities to set out a plan. In part, it said, “the homelessness crisis is the result of the underinvestment and poor policy choices of successive provincial governments.”

Taylor said he feels Newmarket is doing its part with the community fridge, multiple shelters, working with the homeless and providing land to Inn From the Cold.

“When we call on another level of government to take action, I think we can know we’re doing our part in taking considerable action,” he said. 

Asked to respond and speak to homelessness support, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesperson Melissa Diakoumeas said they have provided $4.4 billion over the past three years to enhance community housing and address homelessness.

“Last year, we launched the new Homelessness Prevention Program (HPP) and invested an additional $25 million annually to help more people experiencing homelessness find safe housing and the support they need,” she said. “The additional funding brings Ontario’s total yearly investment in the program to almost half a billion dollars.”

York Region has the flexibility on how to best use that funding, she further said, with the municipality allocating $35 million in 2022-23 through various prevention programs.
“We will continue to support service managers to ensure Ontario municipalities receive their fair share of funding under the National Housing Strategy," she said. 

Tim Richter is the CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, which is also calling for more federal efforts on the matter.

He said the pandemic and subsequent affordability crisis have really driven up homelessness to a dramatic degree. But the modern state of homelessness is a result of historical decisions, he said.

“It really began when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing development,” he said. “Since then, governments of all levels have either been neglecting the issue or scrambling to try and do something.” 

The National Housing Strategy started in 2015, a centralized effort directing billions toward housing. Richter said it was a good step but it has not resulted in enough change to date.

As a result, the organization is pushing for a new program for a Homelessness Prevention and Housing Benefit. With an estimated annual cost of $6 billion, the organization proposes the federal government provide a subsidy to provide rental relief to low-income households. 

Richter said homelessness is already costing the country billions, and a subsidy is a direct way to prevent it.

For many, “it’s simply not enough money,” he said. “They’re living in housing that’s appropriate to them, but they just can’t afford it. We know 85 per cent of people who experience homelessness, it’s really just about a lack of funding.”

The subsidy would target about 385,000 low-income households, with another 50,000 getting support to leave homelessness.

“We know that targeted rent support, targeted income support, is effective at preventing and reducing homelessness, and it can be deployed fast enough.” 

Braithwaite said there are efforts to build more affordable homes, but that will not be in place quickly enough to address homelessness now. 

“We absolutely need deeply affordable housing. That’s going to take three, four, five, 10 years to really try and make a dent and catch up,” he said. “In the meantime, the only housing that’s available is market rent. To afford market rent, people need income support.” 

Making such a benefit happen would take political will and the public pressuring their government representatives, Richter said. 

“It just comes down to us making it known to government that this is something that’s important." 

McCain said he knows that governments are trying to address the housing situation. 

With a recent court case ruling that local governments cannot remove encampments without adequate housing ready, he said he is interested in how governments will respond.

“We’ve all been in that situation. I have friends that lived in tents for a year or two that are my neighbours now,” he said. “We’re all firm believers that we should have somewhere to live.”