‘One piece of a puzzle’: As PCs tout by-name lists, Ontario contends with rising homelessness

By Sammy Hudes March 25, 2022

Homelessness in Durham Region has so often been “hidden,” says Erin Valant.

With little data to reflect the amount of people falling on hard times, forced to couchsurf for months on end or find other less-than-ideal accommodations, Valant says for years the issue was “not talked about as much” in the region east of Toronto, with a population of roughly 700,000 spread across towns and cities including Ajax, Oshawa and Pickering.

Home to middle-class GTA suburbs — average household income was around $9,000 higher than Ontario as a whole in 2015 — those who didn’t fit the mold were at risk of flying under the radar.

“There’s challenges across the board, whether you’re a large community or a small community,”  says Valant, manager of affordable housing and homelessness for the region. “The critical point, regardless, is having access to good, reliable data so that you can actually understand what’s happening.”

Those figures exist now, and they paint a picture of a worsening problem. There were 209 people experiencing homelessnesss in Durham as of December 2021, including 122 for six months or more — up by 50 from 14 months earlier, when such data began being collected through what’s known as a “by-name list.”

Durham was one of the first regions in Ontario to employ the practice, which involves keeping track of a real-time list of all known people experiencing homelessness in a given community, including detailed information about each individual’s needs.

In March 2021, the PC government directed all 47 municipal service managers in the province to do the same, in partnership with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), which has long advocated for policymakers to adopt the tool. A year later, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced that $464 million in consolidated provincial funding for homelessnesss supports — a boost of $25 million — would be tied to compliance of that directive (all service managers had done so as of January 1).

But while experts and advocates praise Ontario for taking a much-needed step to boost understanding of an issue that’s only grown more dire throughout the pandemic, many say the efforts of Premier Doug Ford’s government haven’t adequately tackled the core factors that leave people vulnerable to homelessness, including the province’s affordable housing crisis and insufficient poverty reduction supports.

“It’s one piece of a puzzle,” says Stephen Gaetz, president and CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, who adds “prevention is mostly ignored” when it comes to addressing homelessness.

“This isn’t just a critique of Ontario, it would be a critique of all provinces. They focus on chronically homeless people for getting them housed, which is a good priority I would never criticize,” he told Queen’s Park Today. “But you’re allowed to have more than one priority.”

Housing Minister Steve Clark announced March 8 the PCs would add $25 million annually to help people experiencing homelessness find housing and other supports through the Homelessness Prevention Program. (Government of Ontario)

Gaetz, a researcher at York University, points to Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s December 2021 value-for-money review of the provincial government’s efforts to reduce homelessness. The report concluded that in Ontario, where 16 of every 10,000 people are estimated to be experiencing homelessness (a rate that would equate to more than 23,600 people), “the province has taken a fractured approach to preventing and reducing” the crisis, with no “overarching and co-ordinated provincial strategy to prevent and reduce homelessness.”

It named housing unaffordability as a roadblock but also found Ontario has taken little action to help people find housing after transitioning from correctional and health-care facilities, as well as government care.

Those missing pieces are critical, says Gaetz.

“All the claims that we can end homelessness, I don’t buy, unless we can have a whole-of-government approach,” he says. “Every currently chronically homeless person, they weren’t born chronically homeless. They were homeless for the first time once.”

Community and Social Services Minister Merrilee Fullerton insists the PC government is taking a “multi-ministry approach.”

“There’s a broad spectrum of issues that result in people becoming homeless, and that’s why we’ve done a poverty reduction strategy, that’s why we have an accessibility strategy and a seniors’ strategy and the mental health and addiction issues are significant.” she said at a press conference last month in response to a question from Queen’s Park Today. “Our government has put dollars behind those programs.”

That poverty reduction strategy has been criticized by social assistance recipients, who decry the government’s failure to increase Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program rates since 2018. Lysyk also pointed out the PC’s five-year plan, launched in December 2020, “does not contain a goal to end homelessness, and only indirectly addresses areas that may help to prevent and reduce homelessness, such as connecting people to supports and services for issues acting as barriers to employment.”

‘Actionable data,’ but Ontario ‘unlikely’ to meet targets by 2025

Ontario is the first province to mandate by-name lists, and CAEH president and CEO Tim Richter hopes others will follow suit, calling it a “foundational piece.”

Richter says by-name lists build on point-in-time counts, a tool that only provides an anonymized snapshot of homelessness at a given moment. Now, Ontario communities can access more “person-specific data,” such as how many people are actively experiencing homelessness, are being housed or with whom contact has been lost.

In 19 Canadian communities that began employing the practice prior to the pandemic — most of which are in Ontario — 74 per cent have shown increases in chronic homelessness in the two years since, which “gives us a very good sense of the scale of the problem that we’re fighting.”

“Unless you can see that movement of people through the system, it’s very difficult for you to target resources and get the system working effectively,” Richter says. “We find out who they are, document their needs and that allows us to target interventions both for the individual … but also at a community level. Once you have that information, you can see which programs are working or not.”

Durham Region’s by-name list data shows chronic homelessness has risen since 2020. (Durham Region)

The Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness (not affiliated with Richter’s national group) is also supportive of the measure, with executive director Kira Heineck noting cities like Toronto were being held back by the lack of a detailed breakdown.

“My favourite example is always the City of Toronto’s Works department. [It] has a very sophisticated database with every condition of every square metre of pavement in the city — if there’s potholes, when it was repaired — so then they could respond based on the evidence that data system gives them,” she says. “We didn’t have any of that for homelessness.”

But the tool must be accompanied by “proper investment,” including training for a workforce inexperienced in the field of data analysis, she says.

“You can’t ask a service manager or any agency or individual to do something if you don’t properly resource them to do it,” she says. “This is a sector that, unlike the health sector, has really not had a lot of experience in — or even had the chance to think about — using data diagnostically or strategically.”

Ontario’s by-name list directive also “does not guarantee that the people most in need will receive housing first,” the AG’s probe found. “People added to the by-name list by municipalities are not guaranteed any specific support, program or service.”

Clark’s office insists the by-name list approach “maintains up-to-date information about each individual’s unique needs, to help match them to the right housing and to provide supports to help them stay housed.” Spokesperson Nazaneen Baqizada adds the province is providing the CAEH with up to $600,000 in 2022-23 to deliver by-name list training and implementation support.

“We needed a new approach,” said Baqizada in an emailed response to Queen’s Park Today. “By-name lists help service managers use program funding to achieve the best outcomes possible.”

Baqizada says the province’s new streamlined Homelessness Prevention Program has responded to one-third of Lysyk’s 12 recommendations in its first year of implementation. Through the program, service managers will track changes in local homelessness over time to measure the impact of the new approach.

“This is actionable data — not just numbers on a spreadsheet,” she said of the “real time” information provided via by-name lists.

Community and Social Services Minister Merrilee Fullerton lauded the government’s five-year poverty reduction strategy. But that plan “does not contain a goal to end homelessness,” says Ontario’s auditor general. (Government of Ontario)

Like the auditor general, Ontario’s financial watchdog also has concerns about the steps the PCs have taken on the homelessness file, noting last month a $160-million shortfall in planned government spending on housing and homelessness through the first three quarters of 2021-22. (Clark’s office says “spending has accelerated in the fourth quarter,” which will be reflected in program expenditures at the end of the fiscal year.)

In March 2021, the Financial Accountability Office also predicted the province’s housing programs for low- and moderate-income households “will not keep pace with demand.”

In its response to Queen’s Park Today, Clark’s office says the PCs have created around 1,200 new supportive housing units through the government’s Social Services Relief Program and spent $3 billion addressing the problem. It teased that a forthcoming deal with the federal government to contribute funds to the social services program — which it plans to extend beyond the pandemic — is “very close” to being reached, with more details to come in the “very near future.”

But it’s “unlikely” Ontario will end chronic homelessness by 2025 (a Liberal government pledge maintained by the PCs) without new policy measures, the FAO found. By 2027, the number of households in core housing need (those requiring housing-related financial assistance) will reach 815,500 — an increase of 80,500 households compared to 2018, “as the incremental support provided by the province’s housing programs will not be enough to offset population growth and higher housing costs,” per the FAO.

To NDP MPP Chris Glover, it shows the PCs “don’t care enough to do something about it.” He tabled a petition last fall calling on the province to build 70,000 affordable housing units and 30,000 supportive housing units over the next decade.

“We’re not building supportive or affordable housing,” he told Queen’s Park Today. “Data is important. But if you’re collecting data, and not building housing and supportive housing for people that need support, then you’re not accomplishing anything. It’s not enough to count people.”

He also took aim at the PC’s long-awaited housing affordability task force report, which called for 1.5 million homes to be built over the next decade. The report, which followed a housing summit the previous month, attended by the premier, referenced “homelessness” just twice.

“It didn’t address the root causes of the problem,” Glover says, noting the monthly $735 Ontario Works benefit is supposed to provide the cost of food, shelter and clothing. “You cannot get a room for $735 a month.”

Advocates urge Bethlenfalvy to boost funds in spring budget

For Heineck, the need to get this right is urgent. Homelessness had been on the rise long before Covid, but the pandemic has only accelerated, and complicated, the help people require in order to get by.

“You have to have been asleep for a long time not to notice that homelessness is increasing. The worst is probably still to come — in terms of people at risk of homelessness for the first time,” she says, citing economic changes and temporary government measures that have reached an end, such as rent freezes.

“We’re going to see a greater need before we see reduced need, and we’re not ready for that. No one in Ontario is.”

In a February 10 letter to Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy in advance of next month’s provincial budget, the TAEH ​​noted clients with urgent needs waiting for Intensive Case Management rose from 280 to 701 since March 2020, with more than 120 high-priority cases added to Developmental Services Ontario’s housing and supports waitlist in Toronto.

“​​The challenge this year is to house and support more people in private apartments or rooms who would otherwise become homeless again,” the group wrote.

It urged the PCs to fund rent subsidies in new affordable housing being built by other levels of government, sustain existing supportive housing by increasing provincial rent supplements, and provide portable rent subsidies to house people who are experiencing homelessness or being discharged from institutions.

The group also called on the government to increase funding for mental health services, violence against women shelters and supportive housing organizations so workers are treated “more equitably” through competitive salaries, noting “providers have not received funding for cost-of-living increases for several years and face further constraints” due to Bill 124, which capped public sector raises at one per cent per year.

Ontario’s net increase of approximately 2,400 shelter spaces from March 2020 to September 2021 is an indicator of the rise in homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the province’s auditor general. (Office of the Auditor General of Ontario)

Heineck says the government hasn’t responded to its recommendations.

“There’s a major shift that has to happen — either it’s on the income side, or it’s on the housing side in terms of availability to really make a serious dent in homelessness,” says Heineck. “Either reducing who’s experiencing it now or preventing it in great numbers to come.”

But there’s another shift needed in how homelessness is understood, she adds, pointing out close to 70 per cent are in that position “purely for economic reasons.” While compassion is needed for those with extenuating circumstances, it’s an issue that could strike at any corner of society — not just those who ‘need special help.’

“It’s been a struggle from the beginning of this government to engage them in that discussion,” she says. “I think there’s this sense of … people who need these services are not mainstream people. They’re still seeing homelessness as something that is experienced by people who are ill or are addicted, an issue contained within people being sick or somehow needing welfare support, and not as a broader economic issue or an issue around poverty.”

But shifting understanding of homelesseness to an issue of community health, affordability and quality of life can start with the integration of by-name lists. Heineck says she hopes that data helps the province and local governments “address that stigmatized view of people experiencing homelessness.”

“You can start to see, ‘OK, look at all these people who have no mental or physical health needs or who are recently homeless because they lost their jobs,’” she says.

“We haven’t drawn as good a picture for policymakers as other sectors have over the last few decades.”