The extreme cold has gripped several regions across Ontario this month, but for two homeless people in Toronto the steep drop in temperature resulted in their deaths. Earlier this month, a homeless man died in a run-down delivery van. One day later, another homeless man said to be experiencing a mental health issue, was found dead in a transit shelter wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, with a hospital bracelet around his wrist. The two deaths prompted an immediate call for action and raised questions about how these tragic incidences could have been prevented. An anti-poverty group urged Toronto’s Mayor to open more emergency shelter space and others called for more affordable housing.
What is the scope of the problem and who is at risk of homelessness?
The State of Homelessness in Canada report found that 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year due to poverty. Addional factors such as unemployment, lack of affordable housing, declining wages and lower benefit levels also contribute to homelessness. In the 2013 Toronto street census, 447 homeless individuals were found living outdoors.
Twenty percent of individuals remain homeless for more than three months, putting them at risk of addiction, abuse and suicide. The suicide rate amoungst this population is 40 times higher than the average Canadian and, the average life expectancy of a homeless person in Canada is 39 years, which is half the national average.
There is a link between mental health and homelessness, as 50 percent of homeless individuals having some form of mental illness, compared to 20 percent of Canadians. Many homeless people experience concurrent conditions (the combination of a mental illness and an addiction). Although mental illness and addiction can lead to homelessness, many people become mentally ill as a result of homelessness due to the stress and trauma they experience. They may use substances as a means of coping.
Additionally, individuals with mental health conditions often face discrimination in housing and employment, which can lead to homelessness. The unemployment rate of those with serious mental illness ranges from 70 to 93 percent.
What are some of the existing solutions that address homelessness in Toronto?
Canada’s largest city has several means of emergency care for people who are homeless. For example, there are street checks, emergency shelters, drop-in centres, and a volunteer network called Out of the Cold that provides beds in churches and synagogues. Although the city’s homeless shelters are busy, they are not at capacity. And, despite offering warm respite, some individuals choose not to use a shelter no matter how cold it is. Reasons are often complex but could include overcrowding, theft, bed bugs, body lice, strict rules and fear of abuse by other shelter users.
Many believe that supportive housing can provide a more long-term solution to homelessness in Toronto. Yet, reports suggest that more than 8,000 people in Toronto with mental health issues are on the waiting list for supportive housing. The Canadian Mental Health Association continues to advocate for the city and province to increase funds for affordable housing. One innovative approach is called Housing First.
Housing First is an approach where housing is provided as the first step, along with supportive services, to people who are homeless and living with mental health and addiction issues. This approach is based on the theory that the most important need for people is housing, and that any other issues that a person is living with can be addressed once a person has housing.
An agreement with the federal government announced this summer promised $801 million for rent supplements, shelter allowances and new affordable housing units, for all of Ontario over five years.
CMHA Ontario continues to advocate for improving housing options for homeless individuals experiencing mental health or addictions issues. Read its policy brief on homelessness and more about their work on homelessness on the CMHA Ontario website.