Evidence of meeting #20 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 crisis.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Doug Pawson  Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s
Jacques Beaudoin  General Secretary, Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation
Parisa Mahboubi  Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute
John Milloy  Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

2:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 20 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Pursuant to 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 webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the 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. I would like to remind everyone, especially the witnesses, to please use the language channel of the language you are speaking. If you intend to switch between French and English, please be sure to switch the channel before you switch the language you are speaking.

I would now like to welcome our witnesses. We have Doug Pawson, executive director for End Homelessness St. John's, the city of my birth; and Jacques Beaudoin, general secretary for Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation.

Mr. Pawson, please proceed with your opening remarks.

2:05 p.m.

Doug Pawson Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Good afternoon, everybody.

I'd like to start by thanking the committee, and you, Mr. Chair, for inviting me to appear today.

I appreciate your time and commitment to better understanding the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our most vulnerable neighbours, specifically those who are experiencing homelessness.

At End Homelessness St. John's, we understand the dynamic interplay between the forces that create homelessness and housing instability for our most vulnerable neighbours. We recognize and accept that homelessness itself is not the issue; it's the culmination of social system breakdowns. These breakdowns, whether they be related to health, the economy, intergenerational poverty, colonization, exploitation, gender-based violence, trauma or something else, all serve as pathways into homelessness.

We also recognize that the opposite of homelessness is not just having a roof over one's head. It's having housing stability and having the resources, the skills and the confidence to maintain one's housing. More importantly, we believe that by working together and collaboratively across all levels of government, it is possible to end homelessness here in St. John's and across the country.

While many people across our community and indeed across the country continue to suffer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing we've borne witness to is the incredible ways in which governments across all levels have come together to support our most vulnerable neighbours. Watching institutions become more agile and collaborative gives me great hope that the pathway to housing and housing stability for those experiencing homelessness can happen.

The Government of Canada's emergency response, specifically the work within Employment and Social Development Canada, and Reaching Home, under the leadership of Minister Ahmed Hussen, Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan and their teams should be applauded. The emergency funding that's been allocated under Reaching Home has allowed communities like ours in St. John's to not only respond to the pandemic but also begin thinking about how we can leverage investments to enact critical systems change that will lead to more communities across Canada reducing homelessness.

During the pandemic it has become clear that the investments required to end homelessness in our community, as in many others around Canada, are needed now more than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the significant gaps that exist for our vulnerable neighbours who live on the margins. In St. John's we've seen an increase in demand for emergency shelter, an increase in demand for mental health services and an increase in demand from women experiencing violence, among a host of other social ills. What has become painfully obvious for those we hear from who work in the homeless-serving sector here is that the gaps to securing safe and affordable housing continue to widen.

Ending homelessness isn't going to be done solely by building houses. For many people who experience homelessness, ending homelessness will require that additional supports be part of any and all housing and homelessness strategies and investments.

The research undertaken across several Canadian communities over the past 10 years has demonstrated to us that those experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of morbidity and mortality; acute illness, including traumatic brain injury and vascular disease; chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer and respiratory illnesses; severe mental illness and substance abuse issues; and infectious diseases, including hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis.

Taken together, what the research and the voices of those working on the front lines every day across Canada show is that people experiencing homelessness often have disabilities and medical conditions that place them at greater risk of COVID-19. What we have learned during the pandemic is the importance of finding ways to work across government departments that by their very design and nature operate in isolation. Finding new solutions to long-standing social and health inequities will require a commitment from all levels of government to innovation and collaboration within and between all levels of government.

This is why for us in St. John's and across Newfoundland and Labrador, we see an opportunity to lead, with our province, interdepartmental conversations and collaborations among our income assistance programs, justice department, health and regional health authorities and our provincial housing corporation. This is all with the intention to redesign our housing and homeless-serving systems to bring about real change for our most vulnerable neighbours.

The same approach can certainly be taken with the leadership and commitment from the federal government. Investing in the federal housing advocate and the national housing council is one way to demonstrate this commitment, as is investing in better understanding the unique needs associated with urban and rural indigenous housing and homelessness across the country.

Even with those much-needed investments that have come through as part of the Government of Canada's emergency response, there's still a lot of work in front of us if we're going to plan for a second surge in the fall and beyond. We know that the system costs of homelessness cut across multiple departments, as do the cost savings when investments are aligned.

With the support and leadership of the federal government, we see an opportunity for a concerted effort to ensure that community entities, like ours at End Homelessness St. John's, are working very collaboratively with our provincial governments and the federal government to maximize the investments and align the funding across and between the national housing strategy and Reaching Home.

I'd like to see all the departments within the federal government that have a housing, homelessness and health mandate, in fact, all departments with a social policy mandate, work collaboratively to ensure investments are aligned and contribute to housing stability and ending homelessness.

Of course, any continued investments into housing and homelessness prevention should be part of a post-pandemic relief package. The reasons for this are many, but three important ones would be that any investments in housing will accelerate an economic recovery through much-needed job creation; aligning investments will save money as we find ways to [Technical difficulty—Editor] homelessness and into housing; and more importantly, will save lives at the community level.

I'd like to thank you again for inviting me to appear today. I look forward to our discussion.

2:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you very much, Mr. Pawson.

Mr. Beaudoin, you have the floor.

2:10 p.m.

Jacques Beaudoin General Secretary, Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I thank all the members of the committee for having invited us today.

The events of the past few months, you will agree, have certainly been a tremendous challenge for all Canadians. This was particularly the case for the sector we represent, the non-profit housing sector organizations, or NPOs, in Quebec. There are 1,250 organizations in Quebec that own and administer 2,600 housing projects, or nearly 55,000 affordable housing units, all of which are intended for a variety of vulnerable clienteles.

Of these households, nearly half are composed of seniors, who are known to be among those most at risk in the current pandemic. The others are families, including one or two-parent families, women and children victims of violence, troubled youth, people at risk of homelessness, and others living with physical or mental health problems.

The variety of clienteles found in our housing NPOs represents just about the entire spectrum of the most vulnerable people in Quebec society, as is also the case in non-profit housing in other provinces. COVID-19 has added an additional layer of hardship for these people.

Having said that, we are pleased, if I may use that term, that less than 5% of non-profit housing projects in Quebec have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Among those, there have been no significant outbreaks. I would like to believe that having access to affordable, safe and well-maintained housing, where there is community support and where people take care of each other, has contributed to the overall positive results in terms of protecting individuals.

Almost a year ago to the day, on June 20, the Parliament of Canada took a historic step by recognizing housing as a fundamental human right. The importance of everyone having a roof over their heads and a place to live in safety has never been more evident than in the context of the current pandemic. The commitment enshrined in the National Housing Strategy Act to advance the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing must inform the government's response to the pandemic and the recovery plan in the coming weeks or months.

The organizations we represent, their managers and the thousands of volunteers who work for them have spared no effort over the past three months to put in place the protective measures recommended by the various public health authorities, despite the limited means at their disposal. I might mention the control of comings and goings in the buildings, the intensification of sanitation measures, the provision of personal protective equipment, as well as the preparation and delivery of meals to seniors in seniors' residences, directly to their rental units. All of this has had a major impact on the operating expenses of our member organizations.

A survey we conducted among them in the last few days allowed us to estimate the additional costs caused by the pandemic in all housing NPOs in Quebec over the last three months at approximately $30 million. These are mainly costs associated with the additional human and material resources that had to be mobilized. This is in addition to the loss of certain revenues. Although this loss was less significant than could have been expected, it still adds pressure on the budgetary balance of our organizations. There was a loss of rental income, mainly because of the difficulty in renting units that became vacant that we could not show potential tenants. These revenue losses totalled about $10 million.

It should be noted that the vast majority of our organizations do not receive any financial support for their operations. Any increase in expenses must necessarily be offset by an increase in their own-source revenues. Since these revenues come from rents, this poses a challenge for maintaining the affordability of our housing units. The assistance programs that have been put in place, such as the emergency wage subsidy, have been designed primarily to help businesses that have suffered significant revenue losses, not necessarily those that, rather than suffering a significant loss of revenue, have experienced a significant increase in expenses. As a result, our members have not been able to benefit from this particular program. A number of them did, however, benefit from the Canadian emergency business account. They have taken advantage of it and we are very pleased about that. It's been very helpful to them.

We hope that in the coming days, the $350-million emergency community support fund announced for community organizations will support our non-profit housing organizations, which greatly need that support.

In my presentation, I argued that the right to housing should inform the government's response to the pandemic. In our view, this should translate into a revitalization and acceleration of the National Housing Strategy. We need a more ambitious and stronger strategy. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has set the goal of ensuring that by 2030, all Canadians will have affordable housing. To achieve this goal, the National Housing Strategy needs to provide better delivery and even greater program flexibility.

Given the situation we are experiencing now and will experience in the coming weeks due to the health crisis, we invite the government to consider the possibility of creating an emergency fund to support the acquisition by non-profit organizations, and eventually, by municipalities, of affordable housing that may become available on the private market. A slowdown, or even a collapse, in the real estate market is expected, announced or projected. In this context, some owners will want to dispose of their assets.

There is currently affordable housing in the private market that we wish to retain. We do not want the situation to become like the one we experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, a kind of "financialization" of the housing market. This led to a massive loss of affordable housing. Between 2011 and 2016, Canada lost 322,000 affordable housing units for households earning less than $30,000 a year. The current programs of the National Housing Strategy, as valid as they are, do not provide the flexibility needed to encourage such acquisitions. Such acquisitions would preserve the affordable housing stock and ensure its sustainability by removing it from the speculative market.

In conclusion, I would like to convey a message from all representatives of the Quebec social and community housing sector. They fervently hope that the agreement between Ottawa and the province on the transfer of funds provided for in the National Housing Strategy will finally be concluded, and quickly. Quebec is the only province that does not have access to these funds. In our view, these funds are absolutely necessary so that we can continue to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Quebec households whose housing needs are imperative.

The pandemic has shown us that when they have the will to do so and the situation requires it, governments are capable of acting quickly and decisively in crisis situations. What we have managed to do collectively, in the context of the health crisis, we should also be able to do in the context of the housing crisis.

Thank you for your attention.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you very much, Mr. Beaudoin.

We will now proceed to question period for members, starting with Conservative members.

Leading off is Mrs. Vecchio for six minutes.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Thank you very much, Monsieur Beaudoin and Mr. Pawson, for joining us today. It's wonderful.

I'm going to begin with Mr. Pawson.

I was out in St. John's doing a tour in Newfoundland back in 2018, and I happened to meet with members of your organization. Specifically, looking at the makeup of the way the houses are even built in Newfoundland they are a bit different from what we see in other parts of the country. I know there are multiple units in homes.

With social distancing and different measures that are being asked for in Newfoundland, did you find any new effects in some of the housing issues?

2:20 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

Broadly speaking, yes. There was this concern regarding having an aging infrastructure. Certainly, we experience 800-plus individuals in emergency shelters annually, which may seem small, but in a city the size of St. John's, it's pretty significant.

More importantly, moving from an emergency shelter to an affordable housing unit is really complicated, because we do have aging infrastructure, and folks are often residing in what we call bedsits, rooming houses that are overcrowded and have very little in ways of supports or management.

A lot of individuals have expressed concern about living in conditions where they have very little control over the activities of the folks who also reside in those homes. We've worked a bit with the province to identify ways in which those individuals might be supported, including, as part of our pandemic response, to ensure that anybody requiring testing, who can't avail of safe and secure refuge, can find space at a designated hotel in the community here.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Awesome.

2:20 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

We recognize that for folks who may not be in an emergency shelter there's certainly a gap between getting from a shelter and into a deeply affordable and maybe non-market rental type of unit. We know the national housing strategy's funding will allow the province to expand and repair its housing stock. We do wonder if that's going to be enough.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Okay. I want to move on to some other things.

I think in 2019 there was supposed to be a five-year strategy that had been completed by your organization, but you mentioned that the gaps continue to widen when it comes to housing and homelessness.

What did you find over the scope of the five-year study, the survey and structure that you did in your strategic plan? What results did you get from that? Add that to where we are with this pandemic. What are some of the trials and things that you're seeing? How did this actually widen?

We know there has been a lot of money put into this, but how has this widened, and why has the gap continued to get larger?

2:20 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

I think quite honestly it's the issue of affordability. For individuals who are moving from homelessness, or moving from a bedsit, or a rooming house into a private market housing unit, the cost of maintaining that unit can be quite challenging on provincial income support systems.

This is why any housing and homelessness strategy has to include income support systems as part of it, because the challenge of maintaining housing stability on limited income can be very daunting, and that's in St. John's where we have quite a vacancy rate which is quite higher than the national average.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

We see affordability is the issue with a lot of things.

When it comes to supply, is that being increased? What are you finding with that right now?

2:20 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

We know that under the NHS there is a commitment by the province to expand its housing stock and repair that stock. We don't have specific timelines for when that will be developed, but we do see a vacancy rate, and we're working with private landlords as part of our organization to try to incentivize them to take on individuals.

We're seeing take-up on that, but that needs to be widespread and have far more investments than what we would typically see under Reaching Home.

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Thank you very much.

Monsieur Beaudoin, looking specifically at the seniors, you mentioned there were many seniors in many of your facilities and taking up many of your spaces.

What were some of the challenges you saw that the seniors were facing, specifically through this pandemic?

2:25 p.m.

General Secretary, Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation

Jacques Beaudoin

The main difficulty we had was complying with health regulations. In the seniors' residences, we had to impose confinement for public health reasons. This confinement is just beginning to be lifted these days. From a mental health perspective, the requirement for these people to be confined to rental units—small one-bedroom units at best—has been very difficult for their morale.

These people are used to going out, socializing, and taking part in recreational activities in the common room. These are habits that are essential to maintaining their independence and abilities. However, we had to close the dining rooms and deliver meals to the rental units. This was the most difficult part, because these seniors would have liked to have had even this opportunity to meet at least once a day to eat together, exchange ideas, make sure everyone was well, and so on.

Our organizations have obviously had to deal with the costs associated with providing meals in rental units or hiring security guards to monitor the comings and goings in the buildings. This represents a significant financial pressure for these organizations and we hope to be able to offset this in the coming months.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Beaudoin.

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Thank you.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Vecchio.

Next, we're going to Mr. Turnbull, please, for six minutes.

June 19th, 2020 / 2:25 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Thanks, Mr. Chair, and thanks to the panellists for being here.

I wanted to start off by saying that I think our government has demonstrated a real commitment to addressing the affordable housing crisis and putting an end to homelessness with historic investments. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it's certain to me that we've invested $15 million for big cities, $157.5 million through Reaching Home, $50 million for women's shelters, and another $350 million through the emergency community support fund, which is going to many of the agencies that deliver a lot of the wraparound supports.

Would you not agree that the current government has demonstrated a real commitment to addressing affordable housing and ending homelessness?

I would like a short answer from Mr. Pawson, if you don't mind.

2:25 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

Obviously, these investments are absolutely critical if we're going to continue down the path to end homelessness. I think the challenge remaining is the relationship building that needs to exist between the community entities, the NHS partners at the provincial level, as well as the federal government. These investments need to be stronger and more aligned, but they are critical and allow us to set forth, at least for us, a strategy to transform our shelter system here in St. John's.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

That's great, thank you.

Mr. Beaudoin, maybe you could answer that question as well, but quickly, please, as I have more questions.

2:25 p.m.

General Secretary, Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation

Jacques Beaudoin

I'd be happy to.

In fact, since the announcement of the National Housing Strategy in 2017, we have applauded this commitment and the will that has guided the development of this strategy. However, in practice, there is still a lot of work to be done to make this a concrete reality on the ground, to tie together the different interventions and programs.

In Quebec, the situation is relatively unique. Indeed, over the past 20 years, especially following the withdrawal of social housing investments by previous federal governments, Quebec has developed infrastructure, an ecosystem and programs that have made it possible to put in place social and community housing.

There has to be an alignment and follow-through so that the will expressed by the federal government is conveyed to the people on the ground and development continues.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

Thank you for that answer.

I want to ask a looking-forward question now. I think both of you would probably agree that we need to make sure that housing is a part or at the centre of our economic recovery. Nod your head if you agree.

What's the best thing to do to make sure we're continuing to move the needle on ending homelessness and addressing the affordable housing crisis in the economic recovery post-COVID?

Mr. Pawson, I'll go to you first.

2:30 p.m.

Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s

Doug Pawson

Absolutely, housing is essential to an economic recovery; there's no question. These are big infrastructure projects that can be built across the country to alleviate a very important housing crisis.

The issue around folks exiting homelessness will inevitably require provincial income support systems to be involved in housing corporations in those communities and across the provinces, and of course interventions around the financialization of the housing market in general.

I think we want to make sure that as we're adding affordable new housing stock to communities, and maybe even deeply affordable in non-market-based rentals, we're also not further contributing to the unaffordability of housing in the private market because of the financialization of the housing market across the country.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Ryan Turnbull Liberal Whitby, ON

That's very insightful.

Mr. Beaudoin, I want to give you a chance to answer, and then my time will probably be up.