Affordable housing shortage strains shelters
Low vacancy rates, rising rent can overwhelm people living on limited income
Feel like you’re seeing more people than ever who seem to be living on the streets of Niagara Falls?
Blame the summer, when homeless people don’t need to go indoors to escape the cold. And sometimes, people who look homeless aren’t.
But mostly, blame the shortage of affordable housing that’s putting stress on the support system and driving rents higher than many low-income earners can afford.
“It always boils down to housing,” said A.J. Heafey, a community outreach worker at the Niagara Falls Community Health Centre.
“If there was access to affordable housing, there would be fewer on the street or even couch surfing. That’s a form of homelessness, too.
“If there was more affordable housing, what we would see on the street are the chronic homeless, not the episodic homeless or the ones who are just being evicted because they can’t afford to pay the rent.”
Last week, photos posted online showing police officers evicting someone living in a tent on the greenspace along Victoria Avenue near Highway 420 led to calls for a tent city in Niagara Falls.
That prompted talks among officials in the social services community, who feel existing services can still handle the needs of people needing shelter. But the lack of affordable housing strains the system, they admit.
“That creates pressure on the
shelters,” said Adrienne Jugley, commissioner of community services for Niagara Region.
“Not necessarily because there are more people coming in, but because they are in our shelters longer while they are trying to find a place they can afford.”
Rather than opening a tent city — which are rare in Canada, require on-site services like washrooms and central cooking areas, and bring risk of liability for the landowner — “you work with your shelter providers to see if they can add capacity, as opposed to building another service somewhere else,” Jugley said.
In Niagara Falls, shelters include Nightlight Youth Services run by the Boys and Girls Club for young adults, and the YWCA offers shelter spaces for men and women. More spaces still are contracted out from within the community.
Across Niagara several other shelters are available, including the Hope Centre in Welland and Southridge Shelter and the
RAFT in St. Catharines. As well, an Out of the Cold program will open in Niagara Falls in November, though the location hasn’t been finalized yet.
Those are looked at as shortterm solutions for people in need. But without enough affordable housing in the community for them to move into, the units don’t turn over as quickly as they’re intended to.
As of October 2017, the most recent figures available online, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. reports an average one-bedroom apartment in the Niagara Falls core rents for $787, with a 2.9 percent availability among 654 units.
Outside the core, the average rent jumps to $847.
In Ontario, a single person on welfare receives $656 a month while a person with one child gets $941. A single person receiving funding under the Ontario Disability Support Program gets $1,090, or $1,515 if they have one child.
“The cost of housing on the private rental market has increased over the last number of years,” said Heafey. “The landlords that used to accommodate people in poverty who couldn’t afford a lot, they’ve all raised their prices.
“You have a hard time finding an apartment for $600 rent any more.”
As well, some houses that used to be available for rent are now being offered by landlords as vacation properties.
Both Heafey and Jugley say the numbers of people without any form of shelter are fairly small – Heafey said he could think of 10 recently, off the top of his head, in Niagara Falls.
“There were very few people on the street the last time we did a count,” Jugley said. “The majority of our homeless, probably 95 per cent, were in shelters and there were very few who were unsheltered.”
Heafey said, “If I do think that somebody is homeless, I’ll pull over if I’m driving and have a chat with them. Offer them my business card, offer them the available resources.”
Those resources include shelter addresses and places they can obtain food and clothing. He also asks the person if they’ll allow him to check back with them periodically.
“Most people do want a place to live,” Heafey said, adding generally only people dealing with a severe mental illness resist help in finding shelter.
Sometimes, people are living rough because their money simply ran out.
“What’s good about this discussion is that we’re having the discussion, and that people are stepping up to say, ‘What are we doing about this?’” he said.
“And we need to do something about it.”