‘I am more than my criminal record’: New Calgary campaign looks beyond job seekers’ pasts
CBC News, March 13, 2017             

A new campaign aims to reduce stigma for Calgarians with criminal records who are looking for jobs. The Calgary John Howard Society launched a public education initiative called “I Am More Than My Criminal Record” earlier this month. “This campaign is about showcasing these individuals’ lives and who they think they are and giving voice to them,” said Cristina Amaro Benzaquen, employment partnership specialist at the society, to the Calgary Eyeopener. Having a criminal record can be a barrier to employment, especially in Calgary’s competitive job market. “I remember one week in particular where I had a few employers hang up the phone on me. They were hiring, and I knew they were looking for candidates, and I had great candidates who met all the qualifications for the job. They didn’t want to hear from me,” Amaro Benzaquen said. “There is this big stigma that comes attached to having a criminal record.” Gordon Sand, the executive director of the Calgary John Howard Society, hopes the campaign lets potential employers know people make mistakes, but they are more than those mistakes.

‘I love my job’. Dan, who spoke to CBC News on the condition his surname not be disclosed, is one of the people who shared his story on the campaign’s website. Five years ago, on the same day his mother died, he found out his partner of 24 years had been cheating on him. “I lost the two most important people in my life,” he said. That caused major depression, he said, and he turned to drinking and drugs. He ended up incarcerated and was homeless upon his release. When Dan started searching for a job, he found it really tough because of his past. He said he was let go from one job after his employer found out he had a criminal record. “Just seeing that box on a [job] application just sends fear, shame, so many emotions,” he said. With the organization’s help, Dan was able to get a job working in retail. “I love my job. I couldn’t be happier. It’s given me something to get up for every morning,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m a burden anymore. I feel alive. I’m 11 out of 10 now. Life is good.”


$2 million announced for senior and affordable housing in Calgary with more expected
CBC News, March 16, 2017

The chair of the Calgary Housing Company is cheering new provincial money that will help plan new affordable and senior housing units, but his eyes are squarely focused on what could be in the provincial and federal budgets. The province announced $5.7 million on Wednesday to help with planning for 14 projects across Alberta, five of which are in Calgary and will receive $2.15 million. “We are expecting more, both in the provincial budget, but I think even more so in the federal budget next week,” said Ward 11 councillor and CHC chair Brian Pincott. “This is certainly something I’ve been working on for quite a while in my lobbying work in Ottawa with the federal government, to get that significant commitment in their infrastructure dollars for affordable housing.” The provincial budget will be announced on Thursday afternoon.

Planning and redevelopment

Pincott said the money announced on Wednesday is great news, allowing CHC as well as other affordable and senior housing providers to prepare for much needed projects. “Not only Calgary Housing, but I think a lot of the housing providers are looking at opportunities with stock as it ages and gets older, at how we can redevelop sites and make them considerably better,” he said.  Last year, $18 million flowed into the city from the provincial and federal governments to help refurbish older social housing complexes.

Housing crisis

Pincott said the housing situation in Calgary has been in crisis for some time, with close to 4,000 people on the city-owned company’s waitlist.  “So, we need new buildings, we need to expand what we’re doing, we need to make sure that we’re getting the supports for people in place,” he said.  “We’ve been ready. Calgary Housing Company, I think probably all the housing providers, have been ready. We are ready for the planning money, we are ready for the construction money. We need the other orders of government to be ready with us.” The money is part of the provincial government’s $1.2 billion Alberta Jobs Plan, which the government said will help renew or build more than 6,000 affordable housing units over the next five years.



To End Homelessness, Prevent It from Happening in the First Place
The Tyee, March 13, 2017
By: Stefania Seccia

It was some of the toughest weather he’d seen yet on the day Joe Roberts spoke to me, holding his phone in one hand while pushing his tricked-out shopping cart along the Trans-Canada Highway with the other. I heard truck horns blare as they passed him. Roberts was on day 281 of his ongoing walk across Canada, pushing his cart through heavy falling snow and whiteouts on a stretch of two-lane highway approaching Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The cart is a symbol of homelessness, and his cross-country trek a fundraiser for a project to keep youth from falling into it. He plans to reach Vancouver in late September. Roberts was pushing a real shopping cart in 1989. He was living then in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside after abandoning his family in Ontario. He struggled with a heroin addiction and mounting mental health issues. He collected cans and bottles to make ends meet. “I lived under the Georgia Viaduct,” he recalls. “I thought my life was over. Thanks to his determined mother and a sympathetic Vancouver police officer, Roberts was connected to support services and his life turned around. He went from being a high-school dropout to building a multimillion dollar website development company, Mindware Designs Communications, during the dot-com era. He credits his escape from the street to his mother and what happens when the system works. For many, it’s much easier to wind up homeless than it is to get a home back. That’s contributed to a social-service focus on rescuing those who are homeless already. That’s valuable work, as Roberts’ own story illustrates. But the focus on the already homeless tends to accept the condition as somehow inevitable and a perpetual problem for society. It doesn’t have to be, observers and social workers say. A more organized effort to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, they say, would lessen the pressure on the band-aid of emergency response.

Innovative communities are taking steps to head homelessness off at the door. They’re assessing young people especially for early indicators they may be at risk of homelessness, and providing them with adequate support before they become embedded in street life. It’s why Roberts is fundraising for the Ontario-based Upstream Project. The initiative hopes to introduce in Canada an approach to keeping youth from becoming homeless that’s already been successful in Australia. The Geelong Project is named after the Australian city not far from Melbourne where it began. Community support providers there came together to keep youth out of the emergency shelter system by identifying individuals at risk, and then co-ordinating their services to meet those individuals’ particular needs. Through early intervention, they hoped to prevent young people from ever becoming homelessness. The project uses a survey tool developed by Dr. David McKenzie: the Australian Index of Adolescent Development. It asks high school students questions about their home life, if they’ve moved out, their relationship with parents or family, and their sense of their personal safety. During its pilot phase in 2013, the Geelong Project identified and intervened with 95 young people and 43 of their family members. The distressed teenagers were connected to youth and family-focused case management. All subsequently remained in school and retained “safe sustainable accommodation,” according to a report on the pilot. In a study by researchers at Melbourne’s Monash University who surveyed several thousand high school students in the Geelong region, McKenzie’s Index questions were found “to detect a significant subpopulation of adolescent students suffering from emotional and family distress” whose unhappiness may otherwise have flown under the radar.

Raising the Roof, a Toronto-based national charity that aims to end homelessness, is among the organizations that want to import something similar to Canada. “If you had a flood in your basement, would you spend the next 10 years mopping up the water?” asks Elisa Traficante, the organization’s manager of community initiatives. “No, you would go upstairs and turn off the tap.” To begin to “turn off the tap” leading people to the street, Raising the Roof and four other groups have launched the Upstream Project — the initiative Roberts is raising money for somewhere north of Sault Ste. Marie by now. It will closely mirror the Geelong Project. Beginning this year, it will survey students in a number of high schools in Ontario’s Niagara and York regions with questions similar to those in Australia’s Index of Adolescent Development. Students identified as being at risk will be connected with appropriate support from other project partners like community-based 360° Kids in York, and the Raft in Niagara. Both provide education and support services in their respective regions. “We estimate that approximately five per cent of the student body will be identified as at-risk for homeless[ness] or school dropout,” Traficante says. The national non-profit Canadian Observatory on Homelessness is another sponsor sharing the $449,000 costs of the Upstream pilot project. Its director, Stephen Gaetz, says the organizations selected the two Ontario school regions because service providers there are deeply connected to their communities. Australia has long focused on homelessness prevention, Gaetz says, but it’s “a thought that still doesn’t really occur in Canada that often.” He hopes the pilot project will collect evidence that similar early interventions keep youth off the streets here. If it does, Gaetz plans to push the federal government to implement the model nationwide. “If we really want this to take hold in Canada, we need to get some facts on the ground and demonstrate that it works here,” he says. Schools are key to acquiring that proof, Gaetz argues, because youth often continue to show up at their desks after their shelter has become precarious. Melanie Redman, executive director of A Way Home, another national coalition to end youth homelessness, is sold on the Geelong/Upstream model, but cautions that it’s only one of many necessary interventions, emphasizing that there is no single “silver bullet” to sheltering everyone.

Identifying someone on the brink of homelessness in time to connect them to services is a strategy already being employed in Alberta. Calgary’s Homelessness Assets and Risk Screening Tool seeks to pinpoint people in precarious living situations so they can be connected to appropriate services and kept from ever ending up actually homeless. Unlike the Australian survey, Alberta’s asks more questions that try to suss out a person’s current housing situation and their concerns about it, while also assessing mental health and substance-use issues. It also includes questions targeted to various sub-groups, to try and determine what intervention would best suit that person. A pilot study of the Alberta tool in 2012 was administered to 740 Calgarians who were not seeking assistance at the time. It “provided a unique exploration of risks,” according to the report on the pilot. When researchers followed up with participants several months later, the tool had correctly assessed 81 per cent of those who had or had not become homeless. Alina Turner was on the team that developed the risk-screening tool. She has since helped Alberta cities like Medicine Hat reduce their homelessness numbers. She agrees with Gaetz that Canada’s homeless crisis is a by-product of failing to focus on prevention. Alberta’s tool was borne, she says, from “the idea that we needed to get a better sense of the risk factors that impact how we design interventions.” While the tool has been adopted in Calgary as part of a multi-model city strategy to end homelessness, it’s not yet as widely implemented as Turner would like to see. Her hope is to have service providers across the spectrum — even physicians and dentists — use it to screen their clients for people who may need help with shelter, but are not yet asking for it. She envisions those professionals referring patients to support services, as they do already for cancer screenings or mental health issues.

Tools like those developed in Alberta and Australia are designed to identify people for help before they face the street. But to provide that help, other services and support need to be both available and adequate to make a difference. One such critical support for preventing homelessness, Turner argues, is the welfare system. It is, after all, meant to provide the necessities of life to those without enough means of their own. Yet B.C.’s notoriously low welfare rate of $610 for an individual hasn’t risen in a decade. Not only is it one of the lowest in the country, but it pales in comparison to the average cost of living in the province — one of the highest in Canada, according to a recent Statistics Canada report. In 2015, the average B.C. household spent $2,178 on just shelter and food each month. In Vancouver, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,820. But even that inadequate welfare can be hard to get, according to both advocacy groups and those with experience in the system. Over the years, the process of applying has changed. Where once people could walk into an office and ask a person there for assistance, now a more centralized system favours contact by phone or internet. Fourteen Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation offices have closed since 2005. In some, critics say, welfare enrolment was handed over to Service BC staff who haven’t been trained in income-assistance legislation. Service hours at 11 of the remaining 82 offices have been reduced to three a day. Internet and phone services are available only in English. Those who phone often wait on hold for 45 minutes. All that makes simply applying for welfare a huge undertaking for people who don’t have a phone, don’t use the Internet, have limited funds to pay per-minute connection charges while they wait, or whose first language isn’t English, says Erin Pritchard, a lawyer with the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre. She gets the constant calls to prove it — from those trying to navigate the system alone, and other advocates attempting to guide a client through an application. “We talk to people all the time who have essentially been blocked from accessing services that they’re legally entitled to, which is just so problematic,” Pritchard says. In 2015, the centre filed a complaint with Jay Chalke, B.C. ombudsperson, on behalf of nine other provincial organizations calling for dramatically improved access to welfare. The ombudsperson denied the complaint, says Pritchard, and problems persist. Indeed, she says, “it just seems to be getting progressively worse in terms of aligning with the needs and resources of people who rely on the system.” The ministry argues that people can still access services face-to-face, but claims its clients have shown a growing interest in online services. For its part, BC Housing insists that its Homeless Prevention Program is working. The agency declined to make a representative available for an interview, instead providing a list of provincial programs that address homelessness. Meanwhile, there are as many as 15,000 people facing homelessness in the province at any one time. The province says it funds about 1,520 portable monthly rent supplements, allocated to service-providers across the province. It claims to have connected 7,130 people to stable housing in 2015-16, through contracts with outreach and emergency service providers. But other reporting has found that there are catches to accessing those supports too. After escaping homelessness and making his money, Roberts left his web company in 2003 to become a motivational speaker. Now 50, he bills himself as the “Skid Row CEO.” He formed his Push for Change charity in 2011 in an effort to create sustainable change for youth, which prompted him to go back to pushing a shopping cart. Roberts says he has high hopes that the Upstream Project will deliver on preventing youth homelessness, because he’s an example of what can happen when the “system works.” “The thing that keeps me awake at night,” he says, “is how many great kids, or people, had that opportunity waiting to [be found] within themselves, but they don’t have the systems or resources to access. Getting in upstream, before someone hits the streets the first time, and giving that person that help, Roberts says, is “really what we’re advocating for.”


Alberta government announces more than $5.6M in funding for affordable housing planning
Global News, March 15, 2017
By: Quinn Ohler

The Alberta government announced planning funds Wednesday for 14 affordable housing projects throughout the province. The announcement totals just over $5.6 million. The NPD said it plans to build or renew more than 6,000 affordable housing units over the next five years. “I’m pleased to see this government move forward on housing projects that are much needed in the community,” Capital Region Housing CAO Greg Dewling said. “The demand for affordable housing has skyrocketed in the past few years.”

Of the 14 projects, five are in Edmonton and four are in Calgary.

The Seniors and Housing ministry says the planning dollars will assist the organizations in proceeding to the permit development stage, and includes funding for scope and cost definition and feasibility studies. Although the planning funds have been approved, that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to move on to the construction phase. There are currently more than 40 housing projects in the works across Alberta. The announcement is part of the Alberta Job’s Plan, part of the government’s 2016 budget. “Previous governments’ underfunding left a significant wait list for affordable housing and seniors’ lodges—it’s unacceptable,” Minister of Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said in a news release. “That’s why our government is working to make life better by building new housing so Albertans have a safe and affordable place to call home.”

Housing projects approved for planning:

  • Clover Bar Lodge Replacement, Edmonton, Heartland Housing Foundation – $350,000
  • Del-Air Lodge, Manning, North Peace Housing Foundation – $100,000
  • Elbow Valley Seniors Community, Calgary, Silvera for Seniors – $750,000
  • Elmwood Terrace, Edmonton, Greater Edmonton Foundation – $780,000
  • George C. King Tower Replacement, Calgary, Trinity Place Foundation of Alberta – $300,000
  • Hillcrest Lodge, Barrhead, Barrhead & District Social Housing Association – $150,000
  • Second Social Housing Site, Calgary, Calgary Housing Company – $450,000
  • Linsford Gardens, Leduc, Leduc Foundation – $250,000
  • Piper Creek Lodge Replacement, Red Deer, Piper Creek Foundation – $250,000
  • Londonderry, Edmonton, Capital Region Housing Corporation – $600,000
  • Southview 3, Calgary, Calgary Housing Company – $500,000
  • Strathcona Place Redevelopment, Edmonton, Greater Edmonton Foundation – $330,000
  • Valley View Redevelopment, Calgary, Silvera for Seniors – $150,000
  • Youngstown, Edmonton, Capital Region Housing Corporation – $700,000


Calgary artists create virtual reality of homelessness with ‘1200 Roommates’ film
Global News, March 20,2017
By: Jill Croteau

A group of Calgary filmmakers and creative artists are experimenting with virtual reality, a one of a kind, 360-degree view of the world. The goal is to take audiences through an immersive experience of homelessness in the hopes it will trigger empathy in a way nothing else can. “You can put people in places they’ve never been to or will ever be able to go to.” Founder of Mammoth VR Matt Wright says the film, being showcased by the Calgary Drop-In Centre, is intended to give the viewers a very raw look at homelessness.

Even Wright himself was moved by the project from start to finish. “It changed my perspective of homelessness,” Wright said. “When I look at someone homeless, I think about their story and it rewired my brain to have more empathy.” The audio portion of the film is written and voiced by Talia Hume. The visuals in the piece were drawn by Mandy Stobo. A Calgary artist known for her “Bad Portraits,” she created all her paintings within the virtual reality world. “I’m a 2D artist who works on paper so when you’re in there you’re in the headset and in the matrix and there’s this endless white amazing room,” Stobo said.

She’s grateful to have been a part of it.

“Virtual reality is such high technology and it can create such empathy – it’s magic.”

The Calgary Drop-In Centre’s clients have been asked to watch it and experience the film. Former client Ruth Vickers said it resonated with her own journey. “I hope it (the film) makes people think: ‘What are these people and what are they there for? And what can I do to stop this misery?” Vickers said. “It’s not something we talk about, but this is where misery lives.” Jazmine Lintner, 27, is a university student who works with seniors at the Drop-In Centre and watched the film for the first time Tuesday. “I didn’t even consider before: this is their home but there is no quiet place surrounded by people,” Litner said. “You have 1,200 roommates; I have one and it’s tough. I can’t imagine.” The film 1200 Roommates is available for viewing on desktop and mobile devices.


Calgary Homeless Foundation hoping for innovation in federal housing budget
Metro News, March 21, 2017
By: Brodie Thomas

With major dollars expected for affordable housing in Wednesday’s federal budget, The Calgary Housing Foundation (CHF) is hoping some of that money will flow directly to the city, rather than the province Kevin McNichol, VP of strategy at CHF, said housing and supports are traditionally the responsibility of the provincial government, and federal dollars would have to flow through the province. But he also knows the current government is open to new ideas. “Our large urban centres have been fairly active with this federal government and the government seems fairly responsive, so I’d be curious to see how they would roll out this housing as a principle and as a whole,” he said. McNichol said when it comes to affordable housing, it might be better to get dollars to the municipalities, because problems vary from city to city. “There’s enough regional differences – and a lot of them are localized to the economies – that a blanket solution of just building affordable housing doesn’t translate the same in every community,” he said. Although he doesn’t really expect to see it in this budget, McNichol said housing funding that’s tied to individuals rather than projects is another solution he’d like to see.

Ron Kneebone, professor of economics at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, has studied the feasibility of boosting people’s incomes to address housing. “You can either make their housing cheaper or you can give them more income,” said Kneebone, adding that the latter option is cheaper.

He said even a small supplement of $100 per month can take someone in poverty from homelessness to market housing. That also creates a market incentive for landlords to build more affordable market housing on their own, according to Kneebone. He said it’s unlikely the federal government will give supplements to individuals in this way, because social assistance is a provincial responsibility.


Federal budget ‘largely good news’ for affordable housing, Green Line LRT construction, says Nenshi
CBC News, March 22, 2017
By: Dave Dormer

Calling the federal budget “largely good news” around affordable housing and transit, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Calgary should receive $1.15 billion in federal funding for the Green Line LRT as part of a $20.1 billion investment in transit over the next 11 years. The money will be doled out through a bilateral agreement with the province that will be based on ridership (70 per cent) and population (30 per cent). “And I have commitments as recently as today from the federal government that they will also fund their additional $400  [million] or $450 million that they promised for the Green Line,” said Nenshi, noting he spoke with federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi after the budget was presented in the House of Commons. “It means we actually have in a budget document the beginning of the commitment that was made during the last federal election … this means we’ll be able to move forward on the Green Line, and it also means it will be very, very important for us to sit down with the government of Alberta to get their one-third in place as well.”

Housing commitment

Nenshi said he was also pleased with what he called “a historic commitment to affordable housing” by the feds in Wednesday’s budget, part of $11.2 billion in funding over 11 years. “When the funds start flowing, we’ll be able to really make a difference to people,” he said. “There’s currently 4,000 [people] on the Calgary Housing Company waitlist, there are about 19,000 households in Calgary that are living in substandard housing right now.” Tim Richter, president of the Calgary-based Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said the money is badly needed and should be prioritized to assist the most vulnerable.

“For the first time in 25 years, the federal government is re-investing in housing and homelessness, with long-term funding, which is obviously going to be quite positive,” he said. “There are people in Calgary shelters and on our streets that could die from a lack of housing, so it’s important that this federal money — when we figure how it gets spent — is prioritized for those people.” The feds also earmarked money for innovation and training, which Nenshi hopes can be leveraged into new jobs. Calgary Economic Development is also working to attract high tech companies to the city in an effort to diversify the workforce.  “I don’t yet have the details on how that’s going to work, but the fact the federal government understands the need to build these clusters across the country, particularly in our big cities, and the importance of innovation as we reinvent our economy — that’s more important in Alberta than anywhere else, and it’s more important in Calgary than anywhere in Alberta.”

No time to waste, says Nenshi

The province will also receive an additional $6 million to deal with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. Nenshi said that money needs to flow quickly. “There is some real money in there but we need to make it stick,” he said. “And that money has got to flow fast. We just don’t have any time to waste.”Earlier this month, city council went over its infrastructure wish list, which includes things like:

  • Airport Trail N.E.
  • Crowchild Trail short-term improvements.
  • Flood mitigation and resiliency measures.
  • Main Streets Phase 1.
  • Legacy Parks Phase 2, tier 3 projects.
  • River access improvements.
  • N.W. water and sanitary upgrades (Brentwood TOD, Stadium).
  • Corporate lifecycle.
  • Investment Optimization Fund.
  • Parks and pathway improvements (including Jack Long, Mills, Bridgeland, Montgomery).
  • Community infrastructure lifecycle.
  • Baines Bridge.
  • Construction of a pedestrian bridge at 14th Street and 90th Avenue S.W.
  • Various road improvements at Glenmore Trail and 68th Street. S.E., Deerfoot and 128 Ave. N.E. and 194th Ave. S.E.


Green Line cash, housing dollars: Nenshi not surprised by federal budget
Metro News, March 22, 2017
By: Helen Pike

Dollars for projects near and dear to the Calgary mayor’s heart get injunction of federal funds. Curious about what Calgary’s mayor takes from today’s federal budget announcements? Here’s his highlights, some of them ticking off the box on the city’s cash flow wish list, and some needing more time to flesh out nitty gritty details:

Green Line:

With a road map of funding over 11 years, it looks like there may be a chunk of the $20.6 billion in funding will ultimately land in Calgary’s lap. “We need to figure out what the financing on that looks like, and who is going to pay the interest payments on that money,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told reporters.  “11 years is better than 30 years, and the city’s money is over 30 years. We can certainly work that through and I would hope a lot of that would be front-end loaded.” Funding that the provincial government gave in December will tide the city over, allowing work on the project to continue and council to vote on final alignments. The province is waiting on firm budget details before getting involved further.

Cut transit pass tax credit:

Because the feds decided this credit failed to get new people using transit, they’re ditching the tax credit that came with getting a transit pass. “There’s nothing wrong with putting more money into people’s pockets and helping people who are making the right choices,” said Nenshi. “That said, we know the number one driver of people taking transit is that it’s convenient and reliable.” But the transit-loving mayor let the blip of bad news roll right off his shoulder – the City of Calgary has something up their sleeve.  “We’ve got a very big set of plans in terms of addressing the transit shortfall, both on the service side and on encouraging people to ride,” he said. “We’ll be announcing those over the next weeks and months.”

Affordable housing:

For Calgary, Nenshi said this item is a big win. The feds plan to spend $11.2 billion dollars over 11 years and that could help the city get a number of shovel-ready projects on the go.

“One of the things we’ve really seen is that for these housing first strategies to work you have to have housing for people to go to,” said Nenshi. “Because we’ve had basically a moratorium on new funding to build housing from the federal and provincial government for some years now, it’s made it very difficult to meet those goals.” Once the money is flowing, Nenshi said the city can get going on several projects that are either shovel-ready or almost at that mark.

Opioid Crisis:

The government announced $6 million headed to Alberta to help battle the ongoing opioid crisis. “There is some real money in there but we need to figure out how to make that stick and that’s got to flow fast,” said Nenshi. “We just don’t have any time to waste.”In recent months the mayor has proposed that Calgary become a pilot bed for any innovative ways to help treat the crisis including finding suitable spaces for supervised consumption.

Innovation “superclusters”:

As Calgary moves towards becoming the new Silicon Valley, the feds announced a cash program that could help. Announced Thursday, $950 million is being allocated to a competitive program to get businesses to innovate in major city centres. “That’s more important in Alberta than anywhere else,” said Nenshi. “It’s more important in Calgary than anywhere else in Alberta, so we’re really, really happy to partner with the federal government on taking advantage of the state of the world today and making sure that we here in Calgary continue to attract big brains, big ideas, and big money in that area.”


A portable housing benefit could ease our homeless crisis
The Globe and Mail, March 20, 2017
By: Pedro Barata and Tim Richter

Pedro Barata of United Way Toronto & York Region chairs the National Housing Collaborative and Tim Richter is president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

A frustratingly familiar challenge is playing out for Canadian families across the country. Overheated markets are pricing home ownership out of reach for too many. Limited vacancy rates are squeezing rental supply. And people who are struggling to find shelter say it’s just too expensive. A common thread throughout all of these scenarios is cost. Affordability determines access. And one solution within our grasp is a national portable housing benefit. More than 1.5 million Canadian households are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent – CMHC’s standard for affordability. Over half of these households are in extreme core-housing need (living in poverty and spending more than 50 per cent of income on housing). Worse still, every night more than 35,000 Canadians will be homeless as part of the more than 235,000 Canadians who experience homelessness at some point every year. These are people who are sleeping in shelters, on the street, couch surfing, or waiting unnecessarily in hospital or other temporary accommodation. Beyond the human toll, poverty and homelessness are a financial burden on all Canadians. A recent report funded by United Way Toronto & York Region found that in Toronto alone, poverty costs $5-billion annually. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, homelessness costs Canadians over $7-billion a year. The good news is that poverty and homelessness are problems that can be solved. The federal government’s commitment to a National Housing Strategy and the upcoming budget is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a significant new investment in affordable housing. Over the past year, affordable housing advocates, national associations, researchers, foundations, municipalities, home builders and landlords have come together as a United Way-led National Housing Collaborative (NHC) to propose innovative, detailed and tangible steps the government can take. With the budget just days away, there is a historic opportunity for the government to make immediate progress on one of the NHC’s key proposals: a commitment to a portable housing benefit. This benefit is a subsidy paid directly to tenants who cannot afford rent.

Here are five reasons why the portable housing benefit is a smart idea:

  1. It is the most efficient way to help households in need and address homelessness. We need more supply and it is essential that investment in new units and repairs of existing affordable and social-housing stock are priorities in the budget. But new units will take years to build and Canada’s housing crisis is far too big to be fixed by construction alone. For renters in crisis, a portable subsidy makes housing affordable right away and gives them stability and choice.
  2. It will reduce homelessness. The vast majority of people who experience homelessness in Canada are homeless only because they cannot afford rent. A portable housing benefit would prevent homelessness for thousands of Canadians and take thousands more quickly off the street and out of shelters and house them in stable, long-term tenancies.
  3. It will reduce poverty. When people are able to afford their rent, they are most likely to succeed in securing better nutrition, education, child care and other things that contribute to health, quality of life and economic success.
  4. Its portability means it is tied to an individual, rather than a housing unit, giving people choice so they can move to a different neighbourhood, town or city, based on their career or personal needs. It is also essential in mitigating against rent inflation.
  5. It is already working. Five provinces offer a housing benefit, and Ontario is piloting a new program. A federal housing benefit would boost existing programs and provide much-needed support to all Canadians.

This government has already shown leadership on the Canada child benefit – which is helping to lift children out of poverty and giving a new generation of Canadians a more promising start. The 2017 budget offers the next opportunity to make a transformational change in the lives of Canadians. Urgent access to stable, affordable housing will allow families to focus their energies on making their lives, and all of Canada, more prosperous, inclusive and healthier.


Budget 2017 promises additional billions to Indigenous communities
APTN National News, March 22, 2017

The federal Liberal government unveiled a $305 billion federal budget Wednesday that will see hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments flow to Indigenous communities and peoples this fiscal year. Overall, the federal budget commits to providing $3.4 billion in new money over the next five years for First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and communities. This money is in addition to the $8.4 billion announced in last year’s federal budget which was also spread over five years. The two figures would bring total new federal investments targeting Indigenous peoples and communities to $14 billion by 2021-2022—two years after the next federal election. “Together, we will build stronger, more resilient communities and renew our nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Metis,” said Finance Minister Bill Morneau, in his budget speech to the House of Commons. “We will help break down employment barriers, with a focus on skills development, training and better education.” In his speech, Morneau claimed the new funding—which represents an increase of 27 per cent in spending between 2015-16 and 2021-2022—proves the Justin Trudeau Liberal government has erased the two per cent cap first imposed by the Liberals under Jean Chretien in 1996-1997 to control spending. “This represents an increase of 27 per cent, well in excess of the decades-old two per cent funding cap,” said Morneau. “And will contribute to a higher quality of life on reserves. All this, while setting Canada on a path toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” Morneau’s statement blurs the reality of the two per cent cap which limits how much funding Indigenous Affairs gets year-over-year. The new investments announced by the Liberal government are time specific—between five years to 11 years—and their permanence depends on the economic climate and the goodwill of government at the time. The previous Conservative government’s spending increases on the Indigenous file, which was also based budget to budget, routinely exceeded two per cent year-over-year. The Assembly of First Nations and the Trudeau government are currently negotiating a new fiscal arrangement to replace the two per cent cap with a larger escalator. The biggest piece of money in the Indigenous envelope—$1.15 billion over five years—targeted on-reserve infrastructure like housing, water treatment systems, health facilities and other similar projects. The money is part of a $4 billion package the Liberal budget said will be spread over 10 years. None of the new infrastructure money will be invested this year. A first instalment of $275 million will flow next year, with a matching amount to follow in 2019-2020, the next election year. The budget says a total of $600 million is slated to roll out in 2021 and 2022. The budget also promises $828 million over five years for First Nation and Inuit health, including $305 million for the non-insured health benefits program including $86 million to expand access to mental health services, $184 million for home and palliative care and $118 million for mental health programming. The new health funding also includes $83 million, over five years, to expand maternal and child health services for families with children under six years of age. The budget also sets aside $72 million for primary care, $50 million for chronic and infectious diseases and $15 million for a drug reduction strategy. The Liberal budget promises new money for northern and off-reserve housing, but the money is spread out over 11 years. The budget sets aside $300 million for northern housing with about $240 million going to Nunavut, $36 million to the Northwest Territories and $24 million to the Yukon. Budget 2017 additionally offers $225 million over 11 years in funding for housing providers that serve off-reserve Indigenous peoples. The funding is also earmarked to take over from the former Urban Native Housing Program. The budget also commits to continuing to fund Friendship Centres in urban areas with $118.5 million spread out over five years. The Liberal government, in support of plans to introduce legislation to protect and promote Indigenous languages, said it will invest $89.9 million over the next three years on the file. The budget earmarks $69 million of that total to enhance Indigenous language initiatives like learning materials, language classes, culture camps and archiving. Library and Archives Canada will receive $14.9 million through the same envelope to digitize existing Indigenous languages and cultural materials along with the development of an “Aboriginal Oral Testimonies Project” to document Indigenous heritage. The National Research Council will also receive $6 million to develop information technology aimed at preserving oral histories by converting speech to text, along with other interactive materials. On the justice front, the federal budget commits $56 million over five years to promote restorative justice, $65 million on rehabilitating and reintegrating Indigenous offenders and $82 million for policing services in First Nations communities. Budget 2017 also promises $250 million over five years for programs supporting Indigenous fisheries. While the budget provided no new funding for on-reserve K to 12 education beyond the $2.6 billion over five years promised in the last budget, it does set aside $90 million for First Nations post-secondary education. The federal budget also commits $24 million, on an ongoing basis, to resolve specific claims which deal with historical grievances over lost lands and mishandled trust fund monies.