It’s been four years since the City of Victoria announced the intention to end homelessness in ten years, a task which has seen the creation of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, and now finally, released just last month, a written plan outlining their strategy.
The concept of a ten year plan to end homelessness was introduced back in 2000, by an organization in the United States called the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The NAEH’s strategy, outlined in a report entitled “A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years”, was a departure from the shelter-based solutions to homelessness that have existed since the early 1980s, in that it put focus on housing and prevention, and not simply on shelters.
Cities across the US began drafting 10 Year Plans after the Bush Administration announced funding for a ten year initiative to end chronic homelessness.
Since then, over 300 cities in the US have created 10 Year Plans, and many Canadian cities as well. Based on the success perceived with Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge, a Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness was formed in early April 2012 to promote the idea in more Canadian cities. The CAEH’s blueprint, like it’s US counterpart, is also called A Plan Not A Dream: How To End Homelessness in Ten Years. It has the same four elements as the US strategy; Plan for Outcomes, Close the Front Door, Open the Back Door and Build the Infrastructure. (see links for more details on that terminology).
The Canadian Strategy outlines 10 Essentials for a successful plan. They are:
2. data, research and best practice;
3. coordinated system of care;
5. emergency prevention;
6. systems prevention;
7. housing-focused outreach;
8. rapid re-housing;
9. housing support services; and
10. permanent housing.
So how does the Greater Victoria Coalition match up with those essentials?
The recently released strategy “Solving Homelessness in British Columbia’s Capital Region: A Community Plan”, has 5 priorities. They are:
Priority 1: Increase the supply of safe, decent, affordable, permanent housing, including
Priority 2: Prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless and assist people who are at risk of homelessness.
Priority 3: Support people while they are experiencing homelessness.
Priority 4: Ensure a coordinated and comprehensive community response to homelessness.
Priority 5: Build public and political support to end homelessness.
For each of these priorities, they outline step required, such as for Priority 1:
-Build or start 180 new units of housing with support, towards the 2018 goal of 420 new units.
-Acquire 126 units for housing with support, towards the 2018 goal of 295 acquired units.
-Enable access to housing with 105 new rent supplements, towards the 2018 goal of 245 new rent
-Increase the stock of safe, decent, affordable rental housing.
They also lay out a strategy to achieve those priorities, for instance, (still on Priority 1):
-Advocate for extension of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (federal program)
beyond March 31, 2014.
-Municipal councillors and electoral area directors to advocate (through membership on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other provincial bodies and associations) for sustainable funding to support the increase of affordable housing stock.
-Develop strategies to prevent the loss of private rental housing stock.
-Create incentives to encourage repair and maintenance of aging rental housing stock.
-Support the implementation of a regional affordable housing levy.
-Offer incentives such as: pre-development grants, development application fee rebate, building permit fee rebate and property tax rebate to stimulate the development of rental housing
-Increase the supply of affordable rental housing by fostering community investment
in, and collaboration with cooperative, non-profit, private rental and faith-based
-Explore opportunities to repurpose vacant buildings for housing.
-Ensure sustainability of the Streets to Homes Program.
-Bolster the Regional Housing Trust Fund.
Much seems to hinge, as far as building an adequate supply of affordable housing, on the ability to ‘advocate’ for funding and programming from the federal and provincial governments. Currently however, the federal and provincial governments are functioning under neo-liberal economic policies, which dictate that public responsibility be shifted onto the private sector. On the municipal level, this is forcing municipalities to extend incentives to developers to build affordable housing, despite evidence showing that the best ways to fund affordable housing projects is either through the construction of government-owned affordable housing or through subsidies to renters and tenants — not to developers. City of Vancouver co-director of planning, Ann McAfee was quoted in this article saying, “there is considerable evidence to suggest that if the objective is to provide affordable housing to the average renter, we should target the subsidies directly to the renter through shelter-allowances, and build non-profit housing.”
The City of Victoria has spent public funds on supportive housing, and the provincial government has created a limited (and far too sparse) amount of affordable housing, while the federal government refuses to create a National Housing Plan. If what is happening in Vancouver is any indication, the creation of affordable housing, (being the most important tool for ending homelessness) will require following through on (as outlined above): Offering incentives such as pre-development grants, development application fee rebate, building permit fee rebate and property tax rebate to stimulate the development of rental housing.
As outlined in the one of the above linked articles, these incentives have not worked in Vancouver as it was thought they would, with the housing created still being out of reach for many.
That’s why income is such an important part of efforts to end homelessness (and why no doubt it is one of the 10 essentials laid out by the CAEH.) The Coalition’s plan addresses income in Priority 5 – Build Public and Political Support to End Homelessness. The steps it proposes are: A regional poverty reduction strategy (including a living wage policy), Encouraging self-sufficiency by implementing earning exemptions for people on basic income assistance and more community economic development that enables participation of citizens in diverse circumstances.
Missing (so far) from the report’ suggestions for policy development is an increase in social assistance and disability pensions to market basket measure rates. This inadequacy in supports is a direct contributor to homelessness, and if it is not addressed, I fail to see how ending homelessness would be possible.
As far as a living wage policy goes, that is something that municipal governments have increasingly been adopting for their employees, but not everyone works for a municipal government, (and most of those that do already make a living wage.) Beyond that, no political party or union is advocating that the minimum wage be raised to a living wage rate. Such a thing would force many small companies out of business. An idea that has more momentum (and yet still is not likely to happen in the next 6 years) is the Guaranteed Livable Income.
The report also emphasizes that Priority Five is a critical enabler of the first four priorities. Indeed, while affordable housing seems to take up the most space in this report, both social policy planners and economists agree that raising income is a better way of narrowing the housing gap than lowering housing costs. It’s also a much more ambitious undertaking. The only party even talking about a GLI is the Green Party, which is not to say that a critical mass of voters couldn’t create a shift in NDP policy, let’s say, but it’s not something the Coalition to End Homelessness has identified as an objective.
If the goal of these plans were to outline a local approach to reducing homelessness, or for that matter kick-start an open-ended project of ending homelessness some day, then success would be guaranteed. My biggest criticism of these plans however, is the objective of completely ending homelessness in a matter of ten years.
The impossibility of ending homelessness completely has been recognized by many from the very beginning. Indeed, the funding created by the Bush Administration was for plans to end ‘Chronic’ homelessness. A great deal of these 10 Year Plans have since their beginnings been focused on specific populations, like families, women, elders, veterans, youth, First Nations and the street/chronic/hard-to-house homeless. Some of the plans started off being more comprehensive and then shifted focus to one or more of these sub-populations. It even seemed, to me, that the Coalition was going to make this shift, as evident in the way Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin now refers to the city’s goal of ending ‘street’ homelessness. This shift has not (yet) be reflected in the Coalitions reports or press releases however.
Not included in these plans, but an obvious peripheral component to the efforts to reduce the rate of homelessness is the increasing criminalization of basic human activities as practiced by homeless people, such as sleeping, eating or panhandling. We don’t have it nearly as bad as many US cities, but certain prohibitive bylaws have been recently been introduced. As 2018 draws closer, and the homeless issue doesn’t seem to be going away, will the city bring in more repressive policies to outlaw (‘end’) homelessness, or will it shift the blame onto an uncooperative public who just couldn’t see the wisdom of their vision?
There are a lot or vague goals within the Coalitions plan to end homelessness, and to be fair, they are still working on finding appropriate avenues to these goals, and it may be too early to comment on some of these strategies. If the experiences of other cities are any indication, ending homelessness may be a lot harder than they expected, but their attempt at this monumental achievement will without a doubt make a difference in many people’s lives. The shifting of focus to a Housing First model is a definite improvement on the approaches that have come before. Where we go from here is up to all of us.
Some critiques I found online of other 10 Year Plans: