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FORUM: Shelters overwhelmed by refugee seekers (Summer 2023)

September 14th, 2023 · No Comments

Crisis underscores a larger housing crisis that Ford refuses to help fix

By Jessica Bell

Refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Canada have been forced to flee their homes for many reasons, including war, violence, and natural disasters made worse by the climate crises.

Toronto is also seeing refugees who have fled violence because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working with local housing providers, including Street Haven and the Christie Refugee Centre, who don’t have enough shelter beds available to keep up with demand. These providers are turning people away, forcing more newcomers and established residents to sleep on the street which is contributing to our already acute homelessness crisis.

The roots of today’s crisis date back decades. In the early 1990s, the federal and provincial governments were building 10,000-15,000 affordable homes a year, including mixed-income co-ops, public housing, and supportive housing for people with mental health and addiction challenges. In the mid-1990s, the federal Liberals canceled the federal housing program, and the Ontario government downloaded the responsibility of providing housing to cities.

The Conservatives have made the problem worse. Last winter, the auditor general reported that the Ford Conservatives “have no plan to reduce or prevent homelessness,” despite sitting on over $22 billion of unspent money, some of it from the federal government. Over the past five years, the Conservatives have been quietly cutting homelessness and housing initiatives.

The latest affront is the government’s decision in this year’s budget to cut funding to the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB). People living in shelters or waiting for affordable housing are eligible to enroll in the COHB which provides a rent top-up to help people pay rent in a private market home. This funding cut meant the City of Toronto was unable to enroll hundreds of new recipients into the program which means people stay in shelters for months instead of weeks, unable to rebuild their lives in a permanent home.

Ontario’s homelessness and housing affordability crises have also been aggravated by the erosion of rent control laws. In 1996, the provincial government scrapped vacancy control which gave landlords a financial incentive to kick out long-term, rent-controlled tenants and increase the rent to any amount they could get. In 2018, the Ford Conservatives eliminated rent control on new units. Today, it costs more than $3,100 a month to rent a modest two-bedroom unit in Toronto.

With these prices, not even moderate-income workers can find a home they can afford.

Homelessness is a complicated issue, often requiring mental health, health care, and addiction treatment, but it’s fundamentally about housing. All levels of government need to do so muchmore to address housing affordability.

As an MPP, my job is to pressure the Ford government to step up. We have been calling for the Ontario government to increase funding to the COHB program to help people move out of shelters and into private market rental homes, increase funding to shelter providers, and quickly purchase rental buildings to house people in need. In response to pressure, the Ontario government recently contributed $6.67 million more to the COHB program, which is a start.

Long term, we need to get serious about lowering housing prices and rent prices in the private market by clamping down on rampant investor-led speculation and bringing in strong rent control.

It’s also time to resume government leadership in affordable housing construction. Developers need to be legislated to build a percentage of affordable homes in new condo projects. The city has already passed a law requiring this to happen, but the province is refusing to permit the city to implement it.

Other cities, from Vienna to Vancouver, have established a public builder, responsible for building homes at cost on public land. Instead of continuing our current practice of selling off public land for luxury condos, let’s use our public land to build affordable homes for people, including people in real and desperate need.

If you would like to work with us on these issues, please contact our office. 

Jessica Bell is the MPP for University-Rosedale and the Official Opposition’s Housing Critic. She can be reached at 416-535-7206. 


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