A homeless man seeks refuge inside a bus shelter at York and Wellington Streets in downtown Toronto, Ont.. Photo by Danielle Scott, via Wikimedia Commons

Shelter from the storm: Homelessness and affordable housing is an election issue

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” —Luke 9:58

Over his decade of work as a street outreach priest in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Rev. Matthew Johnson has seen firsthand the difference that affordable low-income housing can make in a person’s life.

He recalled the past experience of his friend Bill (not his real name), who was not homeless but living in what Johnson called “an absolute hellhole—something that it’s hard to believe you would find in the First World.”

Visiting Bill on two occasions in his 9’x10’ suite at a single-room occupancy hotel, Mr. Johnson saw cockroaches and a massive bedbug infestation right in the open, along with mice and rats. Each floor had a shared bathroom with no light bulb, toilet paper, bathtub plug, or door lock.

“It is hard to believe … Many people prefer to live rough and on the street rather than to live in accommodations like that,” Johnson said. “…those accommodations were taking a massive toll on his mental health.”

When purpose-built housing for individuals with mental health diagnoses was built in the neighbourhood, Johnson helped with the application process that enabled Bill to move into a clean new apartment, with working doors and locks, a small private bathroom, and his own stove and fridge.

The positive change was immediate.

“His life has been transformed—absolutely transformed,” Johnson marvelled. “It is very difficult to put into words what I see in his face and what I hear in the tone of his voice, and what I know of his story since he has been housed.

“It has been like a resurrection for him, and it has put him on a stable footing from which he is able to again enjoy life, again volunteer and contribute, giving back to the community through volunteer service and just through his very presence here.”

Homelessness and affordable housing together make up one of the 10 issues highlighted in the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2015 federal election resource.

More than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year. In his experience with homeless Vancouver residents, Johnson noted that many were survivors of trauma. Others suffered from issues such as addiction, mental and physical illness and poverty—problems that homelessness often aggravates and perpetuates.

The problem of homelessness is further exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing, noted Sonia Hsiung, program associate at Public Witness for Social and Ecological Justice.

“Canada is experiencing a crisis in affordable housing,” Hsiung said. “Federal funding is decreasing. Meanwhile population has increased … Also, with the economy, with cutbacks in social assistance and all of that, it’s creating longer and longer waiting lists for affordable housing.”

Currently in Toronto, the waiting list for affordable housing is between 10 to 15 years on average.

With federal operating agreements that support mortgages for low-income residents about to end, many in social assistance housing are now in very precarious positions—particularly in northern, First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities where it is more expensive to build and maintain housing.

The Anglican Church of Canada currently works with two partner organizations, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and Housing for All, which respectively focus on homelessness and affordable housing.

With the federal election in full swing, the latter is pushing for the development of a national housing strategy and additional funding to preserve existing housing stock and add new housing stock.

“What we’re talking about are not bottom lines, but flesh-and-blood human beings, brothers and sisters,” Johnson said.

“When we are talking about affordable housing, that is what it’s about … When human lives are changed and where people are given just the basics—a safe place to stay—it turns their lives around and they give back, and everyone is enriched,” he added.

“Just as we are all diminished when neighbours suffer, we are all enriched when our neighbours thrive.”

View the 2015 federal election resource sheet on homeless and affordable housing.

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