Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
To start, I just want to recognize and thank the federal government, all of the MPs and Canada's federal civil servants for the critically important work you are all doing to support Canadians through this pandemic. I want you to know that we very much appreciate all that you are doing.
I also want to recognize and thank the government for the new and important investments of over $200 million in the Reaching Home program, as well as support for women's shelters and sexual assault centres. That's very important.
As you know, I am representing United Way Centraide Canada. We are Canada's largest non-governmental funder of vital community services, focused on eliminating poverty and also providing the supports to vulnerable Canadians that they need to build sustainable livelihoods. Across Canada we support about 3,000 community organizations and about 5,600 different programs. We invest about $40 million annually in housing and homelessness supports, as well as domestic violence issues.
We're also very active in our communities across Canada in supporting a COVID response.
As has already been said this afternoon, we know the pandemic is affecting all Canadians, but I think we also know that it's going to have an even more profound impact on our most vulnerable Canadians, in particular, the homeless and the precariously housed.
I thought what I would do is share a little bit of the experience we're seeing on the ground, from coast to coast, from community organizations and our United Way Centraide partners that are supporting them.
To start, the good right now is the additional funding that was provided, which is extremely important. It's flexible. It's allowing our communities to adapt and respond. I want to recognize the importance of that.
Equally, perhaps, the challenge is that the COVID-19 implications are not really short term. They're not just today; I think this will be in front of us for the next six to 18 months until such time as we get a vaccine. That tells us that the additional funding, however critical, may not be enough for what's in front of us not just in the immediate term but in the months to come.
I think you've heard a little bit of this already, but I'll reiterate a few things regarding the challenges and how communities are responding in particular around homelessness.
Food is a significant issue. As the meal programs have changed, our homeless populations and our community service providers have had to find new ways to provide safe access to food.
The challenges of supporting people dealing with mental illness are significant. They are even more profound in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis we're facing.
We know and we're hearing that domestic violence calls are up. Families are under stress financially and through isolation.
We know that our shelters are full. It's been referenced, but you know our emergency shelter system was not designed for social isolation. Our existing shelters are facing a challenge. That's requiring us to find new spaces, spaces that can accommodate social distancing, and also to create spaces for those who test positive so that they can be isolated. The shelter system wasn't designed for this, but we're having to adapt all across the country.
The issue of personal hygiene is a significant one as homeless individuals don't have the same access to public facilities to take care of their personal hygiene needs. There are United Way Centraide organizations that have had to literally buy porta-potties in order to contribute and support communities in a crisis. I never thought that would be the case, but we are doing that just as part of the response. I think we need to highlight that.
There is also a new demand. People who are leaving incarceration without a plan for housing are showing up in the shelter system.
Another thing I would highlight as an important challenge is we have to protect our front-line workers in the shelters. There is a tremendous need for health and cleaning products and for personal protective equipment. All are in short supply. It's incredibly important that we work hard to support our front-line workers to make sure they have access to what they need to deliver care to the communities.
Those are all things that our amazing community organizations are working hard to address. We should be proud of how hard they are working to support the most vulnerable Canadians.
We also have to think about not just today, but about what could be coming at us. That is the potential problem of the new homeless and new homelessness. We know that social distancing and isolation are pushing the precariously housed into homelessness. We know that eviction prevention programs are really good right now—they're great—but we can foresee a wave of evictions coming due to the economic hardship that people are facing, and the inability to pay rent in the future. This is really important as we think about not just today, but what's in front of us.
What's needed? I'd like to highlight a few things.
First is the recognition that housing is a fundamental human right, and a fundamental right for Canadians. It's something that Canada recognized in legislation last year. The reality is that people cannot build a sustainable livelihood without safe, secure and affordable housing. It has to be part of our conversation.
We had a homelessness and housing affordability crisis before COVID. The COVID crisis is really just showing the significant gaps we have in our safety net.
For us, thinking short term is important. Let's also take the time to think in the longer term. I think you've heard some of that this afternoon.
I'll share with you a couple of ideas as part of my final remarks.
Fundamentally, what we have to do is make sure we keep Canadians housed. This means adequate income support to keep Canadians housed through the immediate crisis, but also into the future. We also know that low-income workers are at greatest risk of losing their jobs due to the economic shock. They are also the most precariously housed and are facing low vacancy rates and, as a result, high rents.
Here are a couple of ideas for all of us to consider.
We have CERB. What about a CERB rental support top-up? We have Canadians who qualify for this benefit. It's not necessarily enough to pay both basic needs and rent, but we could easily implement a top-up. You could think about this as 30% to 50% of the average rental cost in a market, to top up those benefits so that people can significantly reduce the impact of evictions in the future.
For those who don't qualify for CERB, we could think about an emergency rent benefit program, which would essentially help low-income Canadians avoid depleting all of their assets and then ultimately depending on social assistance.
We also have the beginnings of the implementation of the Canada housing benefit. Certainly, something we could look toward would be accelerated implementation.
My final comment would be that we need to really make a commitment to supportive housing. We have a significant need for investment in supportive housing, and for the federal government to be a contributor and to help build the thousands of supportive housing units that we're going to need to support the most challenged in terms of homelessness. I think that is part of our long-term solution. It's something that we advocate and support, and we hope that many others will as well.
With those remarks, I thank you for the opportunity to speak today. Also, thank you for all of your leadership. Finally, thanks to all of the front-line community organizations that are doing great work supporting our communities today.