Evidence of meeting #17 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was homelessness.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Éric Cimon  Director General, Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec
Tim Richter  President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness
Timothy Ross  Executive Director, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada
Robert Byers  President and Chief Executive Officer, Namerind Housing Corporation
Jeff Morrison  Executive Director, Canadian Housing and Renewal Association

2:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

I call this meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number 17 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. Pursuant to the orders of reference of April 11 and May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its study of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today's meeting is taking place by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The website will always show the person speaking, rather than the entire committee.

Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. Before we get started, I would like to remind everyone to please use the language channel of the language you speak.

I would like to thank the witnesses for joining us today. With us today we have, from L'Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec, Éric Cimon, director general; and from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, Tim Richter, president and CEO.

Welcome to the committee, Mr. Cimon. You have the floor for 10 minutes.

2:05 p.m.

Éric Cimon Director General, Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for having us as part of the committee business so that we can highlight the importance of housing during the current crisis. I'll start by introducing our organization. The Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec is made up of 25 technical resource groups, or GRTs, that serve the entire province of Quebec. These GRTs are social economy enterprises that, for over 40 years, have helped create more than 85,000 housing units in the form of co-operatives or housing non-profit organizations. These units account for over half of Quebec's social housing stock.

The GRTs also support many community real estate projects, including community centres and early childhood centres. GRTs have played a key role in the development of housing projects for over 40 years. We're involved in all stages of a housing project, including the identification of needs, project support, the implementation strategy, financing, site supervision, group training, and real estate and financial management. The GRTs act as catalysts to carry out housing projects that meet the various needs of the most vulnerable people throughout Quebec.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it's the importance of staying home to prevent the spread of the virus. People across the country have stayed home. However, we must remember that too many people don't have a home, and that too many families have homes that are unsafe, too expensive or simply not suited to their condition or reality. We've seen the significant movement to help food banks, because more and more people can no longer afford to eat. However, we've forgotten that the reason is probably that these people need to spend far too much of their income on housing.

Giving families proper and affordable housing means ensuring that they're better fed, better clothed, healthier, less vulnerable and therefore protected from a future pandemic. What we saw during the pandemic and what studies will show is that community housing can help us respond quickly to a crisis such as the current one.

Community housing projects are owned collectively and run democratically. This makes them small communities where people know each other very well and help each other. This empowers all residents to take responsibility for their well-being and increases their desire and ability to take action. This is good for protection against a virus, but it's also good for all the little things that come up in daily life.

The latest census counted 1.7 million households in Canada, including 306,000 in Quebec, in core housing need. That's shameful. It's easy to predict that the current crisis will significantly increase these needs. However, a massive investment in community housing is an excellent way to prepare for the next pandemic. You must be wondering why this investment hasn't already been made. The fascinating thing about this situation is that for you, the elected members in the House of Commons, it wouldn't be acceptable for your constituents to not have access to an education system or a school. It wouldn't be acceptable for the people in your constituency to not have access to health care. So why is it acceptable that almost 13% of the country's population has trouble meeting such a basic and essential need as housing?

I have good news for you. As part of the economic and crisis recovery process, investments in community housing also benefit the economy. Every dollar invested in Quebec in the development of community housing generates $2.3 in economic activity. We're asking you to use community and social housing as a way out of the crisis. We aren't the only ones. About 20 organizations outside the community housing sector are also asking for this, including chambers of commerce, real estate developers, foundations, the Chantier de l'économie sociale and municipal organizations, to name but a few. They all believe in community housing not only for its economic recovery aspect, but also for its benefits.

The discussions on the pandemic are giving us the opportunity to review our habits. We must do so by carrying out more compassionate, greener and more sustainable projects. We're also making it clear that support for the basic needs of vulnerable people mustn't be subject to markets and profits.

The health and safety of the most vulnerable people shouldn't be an industry, but a government obligation.

The models used by co-operatives and housing NPOs are striking examples of how we can do things differently, while still focusing on the well-being of residents. From this perspective, the government must increase its partnerships with the social economy. It's a way of doing more and doing better, for the greater good. There are many examples. I encourage you to discover these examples across the country.

Quebec has its own housing ecosystem. It involves 40 years of partnerships and complementary relationships between co-operatives, housing NPOs, municipal housing offices, cities, municipalities, the health care system, community groups and crown corporations. It also reflects the success of the AccèsLogis Québec program, which was jointly built by the Société d'habitation du Québec and housing organizations. Lastly, the success of collective ownership ensures the long-term affordability of housing. Your role is to support and consolidate it.

How can you do so? We want to emphasize the importance of the federal government's resumption of funding for housing. After a 20-year absence, the establishment of the national housing strategy was well received.

First, the whole principle of the government's contribution in terms of taking leadership and investing to address a major issue was well received. In addition, we appreciated it because we could then develop a strategy with long-term perspectives and planning processes. Developing housing and engaging communities, especially the most vulnerable communities, takes time.

In recent weeks, pressure has been mounting for the signature of a housing agreement between the federal government and Quebec, the last province waiting for money from the housing strategy. A number of people seem to be hoping that the solution lies in that money. I want to tell you that we don't understand why this money wasn't distributed a long time ago. When a house is burning, we don't wonder where the water comes from or who owns the house. We just quickly put out the fire.

Second, although this money is needed and expected, the amount is far from sufficient. The needs are so significant that we need a major initiative, a massive investment, and leadership from all of you, from the political world. The communities will welcome the investments in their basic needs. Across the country, housing is becoming increasingly important and turning into a critical issue. Cities and municipalities have systematically included it in their priorities in recent years.

We hope that you'll take into account our message so that, the next time we speak at a committee meeting, we can report on our successes rather than on missed opportunities.

Thank you for your attention.

2:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Cimon.

We have Mr. Richter from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Mr. Richter, you have the floor for 10 minutes, please.

2:10 p.m.

Tim Richter President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the federal government’s response to COVID-19, specifically as it relates to homelessness.

I’m going to talk briefly about the federal emergency response to COVID-19, but like my colleague, I'll focus more on the opportunity ahead of us to build a recovery for all.

Before COVID-19, we already had a disaster unfolding on our streets that's at the same scale as the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history. Each year, over 235,000 different Canadians experience homelessness. We know that homelessness condemns people to an early death, erasing as much as 25 years off a person’s life and killing untold numbers every year. Toronto’s homelessness memorial alone lists over 1,000 names.

This disaster was man-made. The mass homelessness we see in Canada today is the consequence of federal policy, specifically the elimination of federal affordable housing programs in the 1990s and cuts to social transfers to the provinces. These cuts have been compounded by unchecked and pernicious market forces that have systematically stripped Canada’s rental housing market of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing. The irony in the cuts of the 1990s is that they effectively achieved no savings. They simply shifted costs into other parts of federal and provincial balance sheets, like health care, justice and social services. Homelessness costs over $7 billion per year.

People experiencing homelessness are at significantly elevated risk from COVID-19 as a result of serious pre-existing health conditions, crowded living conditions, poor access to health care and more. Since early March, there's been a mad scramble in homeless services to put in place measures to protect homeless people from COVID-19.

Toronto today is the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the homeless system. There have been about 500 positive cases in 14 outbreaks. To put this in perspective, the entire province of Manitoba had 297 cases.

Toronto, so far, is the worst of it. That we haven’t yet seen large-scale outbreaks and loss of life outside of Toronto is the result of several important factors including incredibly rapid and heroic efforts by front-line workers; expert health care leadership from the Canadian Network for the Health and Housing of People Experiencing Homelessness; the protection afforded by public health measures that kept most Canadians at home, thus reducing the risk of transmission to people experiencing homelessness; and frankly, homeless people fleeing shelters for the comparative safety of sleeping outside.

A critically important factor in the homeless sector’s ability to protect people was the responsiveness of the Government of Canada, and specifically, Employment and Social Development Canada and the reaching home program. Minister Hussen, Parliamentary Secretary Vaughan and their officials should be specifically recognized and applauded. They were able to get urgently needed, flexible funding out to communities rapidly, which has been essential in helping communities prepare and secure everything from personal protective equipment and staffing to hotel rooms for isolation, quarantine and social distancing.

However, none of the emergency measures we've put in place is a replacement for a home, and we are by no means out of the woods yet. There are very real risks presented by reopening the economy, challenges remaining in sustaining protections over a longer term and very real dangers posed by a second wave of the virus.

Governments across Canada are starting to reopen the economy and people are talking about getting back to normal. There can be no getting back to normal. Normal was more than 235,000 Canadians per year homeless and at life-threatening risk for no other reason than they were poor and without a home. The time is now for us to not only act urgently to move people into housing as fast as humanly possible, but to build a recovery plan that creates a permanent and sustainable end to homelessness.

To that end, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness has put forward a recovery plan for ending homelessness. This plan includes six points.

One is a federal commitment, with timelines and targets, to the prevention and elimination of homelessness, with expanded federal investment in community-based homelessness responses building on the reaching home program, including a national definition of “homelessness” and specific measures to address homelessness for indigenous people, veterans, women and people living in rural and remote communities. As we’ve seen in the pandemic, federal leadership is essential and highly effective.

Two is a national guaranteed minimum income to ensure those in greatest need have minimum financial resources to help them meet their basic needs and prevent homelessness when times are tough.

Three is the construction of 300,000 new, permanently affordable and supportive housing units over 10 years, and enhanced rental support for low-income Canadians to address Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis. In creating new housing, priority should be given to people experiencing homelessness or those at greatest risk. We should look closely at an expansion of the Canada housing benefits to better support prevention of homelessness.

Four is the meaningful implementation of the right to housing to surface and resolve inequities and systemic or structural barriers that contribute to homelessness and housing needs. As the private sector well knows, when you listen to your customers and respond to their needs, you get much more efficiency and better outcomes. This is at the heart of the right to housing.

Five is the implementation of measures to curtail the impact of financialization of rental housing markets by limiting the ability of large capital funds, including real estate income trusts, to purchase distressed rental housing assets. According to noted housing policy researcher Steve Pomeroy, between 2011 and 2016, the number of private rental units affordable to households earning less than $30,000 per year—so those are rents below $750 a month—declined by 322,600 units. In the same period, federal and provincial affordable housing investments, mainly in B.C. and Quebec, added fewer than 20,000 new affordable units. For every one new affordable unit created, at considerable public cost, 15 existing private affordable units were lost.

If this trend continued to 2020, that means over 480,000 affordable rental units would have been lost. Following the pandemic, there is a very real worry that this trend could accelerate, making Canada's housing crisis even worse. If we're in a hole, we have to stop digging.

Next is the final and very important point. Six is an adequately resourced, distinctions-based, urban and rural indigenous housing and homelessness strategy that is developed and implemented by urban, rural and northern indigenous peoples and housing and service providers. Indigenous peoples are approximately 5% of Canada's population but can account for up to 30% of the homeless population. According to federal shelter data, indigenous men are 11 times more likely to end up in homeless shelters than are non-indigenous men, and indigenous women are 15 times more likely to end up in a shelter than are non-indigenous women.

In every crisis there is opportunity. We have an opportunity to build back better. We cannot go back to normal, a normal world where 235,000 different Canadians are homeless, where 1.7 million households live in substandard or unaffordable housing, where people are at life-threatening risk for no other reason than that they're poor and they don't have a home.

Homelessness is the direct result of past policy choices. It's time for us to make better choices.

We also know what to do, and we know how to do it. We can follow the lead of communities like Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Guelph, Chatham-Kent, Dufferin and Durham and more, which have all achieved large-scale reductions in homelessness. In fact, Montreal is a really good example. Montreal has half the rate of homelessness of Calgary because Montreal kept building affordable housing and supporting people's incomes.

Investment in ending homelessness saves money. According to a 2019 report from the City of Edmonton, since 2009, 8,400 people have been housed, and overall homelessness in Edmonton has been reduced by 43%. In addition, these efforts saved an estimated $920 million in health and justice system costs. Canadian studies have shown that for every $1 spent on housing-first programs, there's more than $2 in savings in health and justice systems.

Investing in housing creates jobs. Our proposal to build 300,000 new units of housing over 10 years would create at least 300,000 jobs and stimulate another three million jobs elsewhere in the economy. We have an opportunity now to build back better, accelerate progress on any homelessness, address Canada's housing crisis, create jobs, achieve long-term cost savings, have better social policy and stimulate the economy. We have the opportunity to build a recovery for all.

Thank you.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you very much, Mr. Richter.

Now we're going to proceed to questions, beginning with the Conservatives and Karen Vecchio for six minutes.

Go ahead, please, Mrs. Vecchio.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

It's wonderful to see you, Tim, once again, although it's not in person. Thank you for joining us also, Mr. Cimon. It's wonderful to speak to you as well.

I'm going to start with Tim and just a simple question. Has the portable housing benefit rolled out? It was supposed to roll out effectively April 1, 2020. Is that correct? Are we seeing any signs of life happening right now, or is it all stalled due to COVID-19?

2:20 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

My understanding is that it is certainly in place in Ontario and that there are agreements in place with most of the provinces. I couldn't speak to whether or not the dollars are landing in people's bank accounts yet. I'm sure there are others on the call who could answer that question.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

I'm sure Mr. Vaughan would say I should be asking him that question, but I was wondering whether that was one of the tools that are being used right now and if that portable benefit is also there to help some of the social programs.

We've seen with COVID-19 a negative impact on a lot of things. I've dealt specifically with women's shelters across Canada. Tim and Éric, what are you seeing when you're comparing your larger communities to your smaller communities? As you indicated, Tim, COVID is very prevalent in cities like Toronto. We have fewer cases in cities like St. Thomas and London. Across the country, the Prairies have been very safeguarded.

What are some of the challenges you have seen that the homeless are facing and other things you're seeing in that rural versus urban split?

2:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

I think the challenges are fairly consistent. It's a difference in scale. In a lot of smaller communities, they don't have shelters per se, so they're scrambling to find alternative arrangements in motels and in other places, community homes and things like that.

One of the challenges of COVID-19 is that there hasn't been large-scale testing, so it could be there and we may not see it. It could be spreading in the community and we don't see it, so it's urgent that we get universal testing and get it into the communities as quickly as possible. As you pointed out, one of the challenges we have in the way that federal investment is made is that there isn't enough money going to rural communities, in my view anyway. We benefited or, I should say, a lot of the community entities under the reaching home program benefited from that rapid federal investment, but a lot of communities and a lot of smaller towns didn't have access to that money, just by virtue of the structure of reaching home. We would certainly recommend greater investment in rural Canada.

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Éric, I'm going to pass over to you but I did want to follow up with that.

Tim, when we talked about the reaching home program, you talked about getting some of those federal supplies for PPE, all those necessities. How was that networked? Was that directly? When we know there are rural and urban centres that are already having challenges, were we still able to reach all those rural centres as well that you've been involved in?

2:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

I don't know. The rural communities really did struggle with things like PPE and funding for things like isolation shelters or some kind of sheltering arrangements. I know the homeless system, by and large, was able to access PPE only through federal funding, because the provincial infrastructure and emergency response infrastructure didn't respond to homelessness. It certainly didn't prioritize it, so it was up to those front-line organizations to get the PPE and the other things they needed, like staffing, to respond appropriately.

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

That's excellent. Thank you.

Over to you, Éric. First of all you talked about the fact that Quebec has not signed the housing agreement. Could you share with me some particulars of why not? What's the hold?

Also, what are you seeing with the challenges between rural versus urban. I know that Montreal has been a real epicentre of COVID compared to the rest of Quebec. Could you share some insight on that and the impact on the homeless?

2:25 p.m.

Director General, Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec

Éric Cimon

On the first part about the urban and the community, when we look at the mobilization of people, people when they are isolated—and that's what we see in big cities—when you see people who don't have a social network to depend on, don't have neighbours they know or proof that they know, they will have difficulties getting through a crisis like this. We see it's more difficult in urban communities, but when they are organized in big projects in community housing or in community groups, they have an easier way through those crises.

In the campagne, out of the big cities, they have this network built up naturally and they work together naturally, so they respond. The way to respond for people who are more vulnerable or isolated goes much faster. We have to re-create those networks within big cities. This is what we do in social housing. When we talk about losing affordable housing throughout the years, when we put all our money in there, we don't have any guarantee for the future. We build affordable housing once and then it goes down and we lose it through time to speculation or different events.

When we build community housing, we ensure the affordable housing will be there as long as the building exists, and the people within the co-operative or the non-profit will be there. They'll make the average of the loan as small as possible and the impact will be as small as possible to pay for their building and their services. They'll get more services, more networks and more community because they'll be in those kinds of houses. It's good to have affordable housing, but this is not a nationwide policy that we have to go through. We have to make sure we build those networks for vulnerable people.

2:30 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Thank you.

June 8th, 2020 / 2:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Next, we have Mr. Turnbull, please, for six minutes.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Cimon and Mr. Richter, for being here. I've often admired the work your organizations do.

Mr. Richter, I'm going to start with you. I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the quickness and flexibility of the government's response during this pandemic. We know there was $15 million allocated for big cities, $157.5 million to community organizations through the reaching home program, $50 million specifically for women's shelters, and then another $350 million for the emergency community support fund, which I know is not necessarily only targeted toward people who are experiencing homelessness but certainly deals with some of the organizations that provide many wraparound supports for vulnerable people.

Can you speak to how responsive you think the government has been at the federal level, first of all? Maybe provide a short comment on that one and then I'm going to ask you a few questions.

2:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

As I mentioned in my statement, I think the federal government has been, to its credit, very quick and very responsive. I speak to Adam, the minister, their staff and the reaching home officials regularly. They've moved very quickly.

To be honest, that was one of the single most important factors for us for COVID-19 not being much worse than it could've been. When it first started and we watched what was happening in Italy and places like that, we were very worried it was going to be every bit as bad as the long-term care crisis. That it hasn't been is due in large measure to how the sector has responded very quickly, the fact that it had the resources available from the federal government and in place very quickly, and the flexibility, importantly, to use the money where it needed to in order to respond.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Thanks for that.

I know many of our shelters are built in such a way that people are in very close proximity to one another. There are bunk beds. I've worked in several shelters and supportive housing facilities that you would think would have a high risk of infection or where transmission would be possible.

My riding is in Whitby. Durham region received, I think, an increase in funding of 313%, if I'm not mistaken, through the reaching home program, and it's really made a difference. Can you maybe speak to how the regions or agencies use those resources to adapt to the realities they're experiencing on the ground?

2:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

They've used the money in several ways, everything from buying personal protective equipment to hiring the staff necessary. When you create an isolation shelter, you rent rooms at a hotel or buy a hotel with this money, you still need to staff all of those things, so they've been able to do that and do it quickly.

Importantly, places like Durham have done a really good job of staying focused on housing as well and using the money to get people out of the shelters, out of those hotels and into housing. It's impossible to protect yourself really well from COVID-19 when you're in a shelter or you're homeless. The best protection from COVID-19 is a home. You see that in Durham and other communities, where they're using the money as well to move people rapidly into housing.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Thanks.

I know the Toronto Star recently said that the homeless population has sidestepped this disaster. Would you say that's true, and would you say it's a result of some of the supports we've put out there?

2:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

I would say so, but a word of caution there is that due to lack of testing we may not see it all. Given the health some homeless folks have, what COVID looks like and what they may have look very similar, but absent of confirmed testing of everybody in the homeless systems in Canada, yes, I think we can say it could have been much, much worse.

We're not out of the woods yet. There could be a second wave. We have to maintain these protections for a bit longer, and we have to focus on housing.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Yes. I agree completely, but certainly in comparison to our long-term care facilities, the homeless population has fared a lot better than seniors have. Given their vulnerability as well, would you agree with that? I think it's pretty obvious, but....

2:35 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Tim Richter

I think we appear to have fared better than places like Italy or long-term care. Again, we're not out of the woods yet.

I don't want to brush over the impact this has had on the homeless system. The homeless system and shelter providers are really getting battered. It's a difficult time for them. I want to make sure we are really emphasizing the work that the front-line workers have done, really heroic efforts, to prevent this from getting truly awful.

2:35 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

I couldn't agree more, and I don't mean to paint with too broad a brush there, but thank you for your response.

In terms of the six-point plan you put forward, there are large capital funds that we know are predatory in the market. They buy up rental housing and either take it off the market or increase the prices so that it's not affordable anymore. As you pointed out, we're losing lots of affordable housing—15 to one, I think you said, in terms of loss to gain.

Can you tell me what you think we should be doing about that in the future to prevent that predatory behaviour, given the fact that it may increase as a result of this pandemic?

2:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Could we have a short response, please, Mr. Richter? We're out of time.