Canadian urban issues are complex yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay, a former Winnipegger, and collaborators look at how two Prairie cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.
When we’re young, we’re taught that one plus one equals two. As we grow up, we quickly learn that this isn’t always the case.
In Winnipeg in 2018, a one-bedroom apartment typically cost $920 in average rent per month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. In the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, household incomes can be as low as $15,552 annually — not nearly enough to support and sustain suitable housing, food and services. In a city where the numbers simply don’t add up for its most vulnerable populations and government support has significantly tapered, it comes as no surprise that many have found themselves under-housed, homeless or transient, moving from one shelter to the next.
In Winnipeg, the topic of homelessness has escalated in recent months. There have been positive stories, from a private developer announcing plans for a 47-unit housing complex downtown for individuals on social assistance to a federal funding announcement to develop 119 rental housing units at the University of Winnipeg campus. There have been negative stories, from accounts of crowded shelters to an increase in individuals found living under bridges.
Recently, a group of activists turned their megaphones towards the City of Winnipeg and the potential displacement of individuals living in "homeless camps" near parks, bridges and downtown. In its Request for Proposals, the city sought services for the removal of mattresses, tarps, shopping carts and garbage — often, the very same materials used to form temporary housing infrastructure. On their petition webpage, activists called on the city to cancel the RFP process.
"Current campers and concerned citizens alike have expressed their disgust at this blatant attack on Winnipeggers who are poor and homeless," the page said.
Activists had originally hoped to collect 100 signatures; they got 1,600. Winnipeg’s city council and administration have halted their RFP process.
These loud calls for action on housing and homelessness have seemed to produce an echo effect in Winnipeg. In 2014, a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, spearheaded through a collaboration between community and business leaders, was endorsed unanimously by Winnipeg’s council.
In 2015, End Homelessness Winnipeg was created as the backbone organization to implement the plan and move the initiative forward. Since that time, it has brought private, public, non-profit and Indigenous stakeholders together to design collaborative strategies and a common vision under the plan’s four pillars: homelessness prevention, housing supply, housing with support and shared measurement.
In 2019, End Homelessness Winnipeg transitioned to the role of Community Entity under the federal government’s new homelessness strategy, Reaching Home. All of this work holds promise for making concrete steps forward to reduce and end homelessness in Winnipeg.
"Implementation of Reaching Home and the 10-year plan involves ongoing partnership, collaboration and investment from all partners," says End Homelessness Winnipeg president and CEO Lucille Bruce.
"End Homelessness Winnipeg is poised to meet and exceed the goals of Reaching Home through collaborative, evidence-based and timely responses to local needs that can achieve tangible, positive outcomes for those experiencing and at risk of homelessness. Supporting End Homelessness Winnipeg at this vital time is one of the best investments the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba and all our partners can make for the future of our community."
While a positive step in the right direction, the great strides by this organization need to be supported with continued political leadership to advance the plan’s actions in totality. A lack of political leadership has caused the issue of homelessness to reverberate over time.
If a growing body of research has affirmed the necessity for suitable housing to better the lives of our cities’ most vulnerable people, what has stopped us from moving forward? What is stopping us from setting clear, measurable targets to not only connect those under-housed with shelter, but to innovate and create more housing supply?
Academics and practitioners working to address homelessness would argue that there has been no shortage of ideas, programs and initiatives to connect those experiencing homelessness with suitable shelter and that inconsistent and unreliable funding and government support has been the tenuous link between policy and implementation.
At Home/Chez Soi, a national research demonstration project spanning 2009 to 2013, was co-led by University of Winnipeg Vice-President Jino Distasio, examining Housing First as a means to ending homelessness for people who are living with mental illness in urban settings. The project reflected the diversity of Winnipeg’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. Housing First is a housing model predicated on providing participants with secure housing and a range of individualized services and supports — made popular by Sam Tsemberis and Pathways to Housing in New York in the 1990s.
Through Mount Carmel Clinic, Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre and the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre Inc., the project provided 300 participants housing access and social supports. Among the five cities, more than 1,000 Canadians accessed affordable housing.
"At Home/Chez Soi was launched in 2009 when few Canadians had heard of Housing First," recalls Distasio. "Over the five-year period, the Winnipeg site demonstrated clearly that it was possible to take a largely American model and adapt it to better fit the needs of the local community. Together, community-based organizations, social enterprises, government and academics successfully contributed to a fundamental shift on a large scale in the manner in which homelessness could be addressed not only more effectively but also within a framework that best reflected local realities.
"To meaningfully end homelessness is less about building homes as it is about repairing and reestablishing relationships. It is critical that people value the importance of ensuring those transitioning from homelessness have access to both quality and affordable housing along with an individualized set of services."
An injection of federal funding in 2016 offered the At Home/Chez Soi team in Winnipeg an opportunity to subsidize the rents of their study’s participants. Scott McCullough and Sarah Zell, who were part of this team, investigated the lingering effects of the program’s expiration, concluding that the lack of ongoing financial and operational support led to participants experiencing "fear and anxiety, especially over the possible loss of housing."
The conversation around homelessness and the role of city planners, developers, builders, health practitioners and the community at large is deepening across the nation.
In Edmonton, there’s a different story to tell.
Edmonton has long been considered a leader in affordable housing in Canada — building 8,400 of the 20,000 affordable homes in Canada since 2009. It’s well-known for its ability to successfully implement Housing First, and Edmonton city council is one of the loudest voices in the calls to action on housing the homeless. Through the success of the Housing First program, Edmonton was able to house 43 per cent of its homeless population. However, there are still seemingly insurmountable hurdles to overcome. Although the Housing First program was, by all accounts, a success, it primarily ensured that those who possessed the ability and skills to live independently were sustainably and successfully housed.
Heartbreakingly, as of March 2019, there remains an estimated 1,678 people experiencing chronic homelessness with more than 356 of those individuals "sleeping rough" (data collected by Homeward Trust).
Chronic homelessness is generally known to be accompanied by one or more physical and mental-health conditions as well as substance-abuse issues. It has become clear that, in Edmonton, one of the largest barriers to successfully moving people off the streets and into homes is the lack of permanent supportive housing. Permanent supportive housing is long-term housing that provides supports and services integrated within the housing development. Many think of it as a long-term seniors care facility, except that the residents aren’t seniors — they’re chronically homeless individuals that have a long way to go to before being labelled "seniors" and if they’re ever going to get there, they’ll need our help.
To close this gap, Edmonton’s Updated Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness calls for 916 units of permanent supportive housing to be built by 2024. With a renewed sense of urgency, Edmonton has made the construction of those 916 units of permanent supportive housing the highest priority. To advance this goal, city council approved the new Affordable Housing Investment Plan that puts $132 million towards the overall development of 2,500 new units of affordable housing over the next four years — including land contributions. Even with a commitment of $132 million, the city is relying on $377 million from combined provider equity, private financing, and funding from other orders of government to be able to achieve the 2,500-unit target.
More recently though, a project between the city and the Homes for Heroes Foundation is sparking some attention. The plan was simple: provide supportive housing for veterans experiencing homelessness. How? Through a trauma-informed lens and with the help of stakeholder engagement, Homes for Heroes decided to develop a barracks-style village of tiny homes. The issue? Finding land. The answer? A partnership with the City of Edmonton.
Through that partnership, they searched for city-owned land that would be suitable for their "veteran’s village" concept. Once the city found a site for this development, it was off to the races. Earlier this year, a dollar lease was approved and Homes for Heroes had already hosted a public-engagement session with the community. Later this year, they plan to undergo a site-specific rezoning process to enable the development of these pre-fabricated tiny homes. With various other private and non-profit partnerships, Homes for Heroes will be on track to begin housing Edmonton’s veterans from 2020 onwards.
Dave Howard, the co-founder and president of the Homes for Heroes Foundation, says engagement with veterans and planning through a trauma-informed lens is critical to the project’s success.
"Our team at the Homes for Heroes Foundation have met with many veterans who are in crisis and experiencing homelessness. We wanted to learn what type of programs could help them with a successful transition to civilian life. Our veterans are proud warriors, proud of their service and proud to be citizens of Canada. They want a hand up, not a handout. We listened to what they had to say, and we designed our foundation around meeting their needs."
There are an estimated 2,950 veterans experiencing homelessness across Canada. The actual number could be much higher given many veterans on the street do not self-identify as homeless. In Edmonton, alone, there are approximately 70 veterans experiencing homelessness. This pales in comparison to Winnipeg’s numbers with more than 150 veterans self-reporting as homeless. Now that Homes for Heroes has three projects underway in Alberta, they’re turning their efforts to Winnipeg, Halifax and locations in Ontario. We can only hope that they’ll experience a similar welcome.
Winnipeg and Edmonton’s flat and Prairie backdrop offer a hopeful and optimistic landscape of opportunities. With ample space to develop and boundless creativity from developers, city builders and home builders ready to be explored, the issue of homelessness can be tackled. If the road ahead is clear, why have we fallen behind? For Winnipeg to move its homelessness plan forward, perhaps it can look to the lessons in Edmonton — by renewing its sense of urgency around Edmonton’s Updated Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, by attaching consistent and stable funding and resources to help achieve its targets, and by fortifying the support of all other stakeholders.
Jason Syvixay is an award-winning urban planner and public relations professional currently completing his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to focus on infill policy and development.
Janice Lee is an urban planner with housing and homelessness at the City of Edmonton. Although she has spent time as a land-development planner within real estate, her passion for social justice and uplifting the disenfranchised has led her to a fulfilling path in affordable housing.