Housing First or Housing Farce?: By Jean Swanson

Harper still holds the key to ending homelessness and he's not opening any doors
Harper still holds the key to ending homelessness and he’s not opening any doors

The federal government’s idea of Housing First is to subsidize landlords, not build housing for homeless people. That’s what an official of a non profit group that provides services to homeless people says.* Housing First is the idea that it’s cheaper and better for homeless people if they are given housing instead of being left on the street. The federal government paid over $100 million for the Chez Soi/At Home study to prove this. Unfortunately, they are using the words “Housing First” to describe a program that seems to mostly subsidize landlords, while most homeless people go unhoused.

It’s complicated. Housing First is part of the Federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) which provides $600 million over 5 years for the whole of Canada. This is mere peanuts compared to the need to house an estimated 200,000 homeless people in Canada. It’s only $125 million a year for the whole country. According to housing and community development consultant, Alice Sundberg, Metro Vancouver’s share of the Housing First fund is a mere $8 million a year. The most recent, 2014, Metro Vancouver Homeless Count found 2777 homeless people in the region. The count is generally accepted to be less than the actual number of homeless people.

But it gets worse when you look at the complicated guidelines for how the Housing First money can be spent. Sundberg says the federal government interpretation of Housing First “makes it difficult to use the money to actually get people housed.” Staff have been laid off from old programs and many groups have lost funding she says.

Homeless Partnering Strategy guidelines say 65% of their money has to go to Housing First programs. There is a long list of things you can do with Housing First money. For example, you can build “relationships with landlords,” assist with “money management,” work with the local landlord and real estate association to identify units. But under the list of things you CAN’T do with this money: “Building, renovating or repurposing facilities for affordable housing.” In other words, you can’t build housing with Housing First money. In fact, says the agency rep that the Volcano talked to, the agencies have to find apartments in the private market, sign agreements with private landlords, and use their Housing First money to supplement the $375 welfare shelter allowance up to market rents, at least until a provincial rent supplement will kick in – if there’s a rent supplement.

So, let’s get this straight. Vancouver has a rental vacancy rate of half a percent when the healthy vacancy rate is about 3-5%. Last year we had the highest homeless count we’ve ever had. Vancouver’s average rents are $942 a month for a bachelor unit, $36 a month more than an entire disability pension. Buying a house costs over a million dollars. But the feds won’t let us use Housing First money to build housing.

It can be used for outreach, to find people who need housing, and to help them buy furniture. But once they’re found, where can they live? There are virtually no places available that rent for $375 a month, the welfare shelter rate. Virtually all of the Housing First money is supposed to be used to get homeless people into the private, virtually non existent, housing market and hope the province will kick in with permanent rent subsidies.

The agency rep that the Volcano talked to is also concerned because the program is set to expire in three years. What happens to the people who have been housed if there is no money to supplement their rent or support them in other needed ways? “What will the people do when Housing First money ends?” asked the rep.

There is another federal fund for housing, says Sundberg. It’s $30 million a year for all of BC, based on the province contributing a matching $30 million. But the way the province and feds have set up the programs, non profit groups will have to do lots of fundraising to supplement government grants and financing if they want to build new housing. The new trend, says Sundberg, is to incorporate social housing into buildings that have market housing so the market housing subsidizes the social housing. “Who knows if non profits will have the capacity to do this?” asks Sundberg. “They’ll have to partner with developers.”

So the main thrust of both federal and provincial programs that are set up ostensibly to reduce homelessness, is to subsidize private housing suppliers in a very tight market. The province will supply rent supplements to certain groups who have contact with homeless people, but others who don’t know about these groups can’t get subsidies. When all logic is saying we need more government-funded social housing, provincial and federal governments are putting most of their money into market mechanisms that aren’t providing desperately needed housing and are helping landlords keep their vacancy rates low and their rents high.

Meanwhile the Harper government isn’t worried about overspending on a different kind of housing. The 2010-2011 budget for prison construction was over half a billion dollars, while the cost of keeping one person in prison at the same time was almost $110,000 a year.

The corporate media needs to stop giving credit to the Harper government for its $600 million attempt to help private landlords get more tenants, and start noticing that we desperately need more social housing to end homelessness.

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