Dollars and cents: Ontario homelessness spend balloons as community housing craters

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Federal government tells Ontario to follow rules or risk losing housing funds
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Advocates are calling for a change of strategy to deal with Ontario’s housing crisis as new internal data suggests the Ford government is throwing hundreds of millions at homelessness programs while it cuts what it spends on community housing.

Since Ford took office in 2018, Ontario has ramped its spending on homelessness up by roughly 80 per cent, while lowering what it spends on community housing by 70 per cent.

Obtained by Global News under freedom of information laws, the figures were included in a handover binder presented to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra when he took over the file in September.

Calandra’s office said the reduction in spending on community housing comes as federal dollars under the National Housing Strategy flow.

While the increase in money from Ottawa under its National Housing Strategy broadly coincides with Ontario’s drop in spending on community housing, the federal program does not make up the full difference.

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Combining federal funding and Ontario’s community housing spending for 2023 reveals an eight per decrease from when the Ford government took office in 2018.

Homelessness spending increases

Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau said that throughout northern Ontario, local towns and cities “have seen an increase to homelessness prevention dollars while either seeing status quo or most recently a decrease to community housing funding.”

Effectively, the breakdown presented to Calandra suggests more is being put toward helping those already experiencing homelessness and less is going to building new, deeply affordable housing stock.

“When Ontario is spending less on housing, they’re going to end up spending more on homelessness — and that is going to grow,” Tim Richter, from the Alliance to End Homelessness said.

“What you’re seeing in Ontario’s data on their homelessness spend: as homelessness increases that homelessness emergency response spend will increase, as will costs in health care, as will costs in policing and social services across the board in Ontario.”

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The Ford government has seen its homelessness spending increase, while community housing spending has dropped. Global News

The breakdown of spending summarizes Ontario’s total funding for “homelessness, community housing and national housing strategy programs.”

It shows Ontario spent a total of $1.1 billion on its housing programs in the 2018-2019 year: $397.1 million on homelessness, $693.5 on community housing and $7.8 million on Indigenous housing.

Five years later, the province was planning to spend $1.4 billion: $707.7 million on homelessness, $215 on community housing, $422 on the national housing strategy with the federal government and $8.3 on Indigenous housing.

The government points out that while community housing spending dropped to $215 million, the national housing strategy was worth $422 million, for a total of $637 million across the two pots.

The provincial and federal governments are locked in a fight over the national housing strategy funds after Ottawa accused Queen’s Park of failing to hold its end of the bilateral bargain.

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The money was supposed to be spent building new affordable housing units, the federal government said, but Ontario has used its money to refurbish and renovate aging housing stock.

Ontario has argued renovating old housing is key and addresses unique pressures in the province. Calandra has said aging affordable housing must be fixed urgently to avoid it going offline and worsening the crisis.

As of early April, the Trudeau government looked set to withhold any more money under that envelope, blaming Ontario for failing to build more.

More homes needed, advocates say

Boileau, who also chairs the Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association, said the government spending less to build community housing would ultimately make the homelessness crisis worse.

“We’re talking about homelessness and you can’t end homelessness without housing and without a housing stock,” she told Global News. “And with less money going into community housing, it leads to not only less stock that municipalities can create… but it actually limits the capacity of municipalities to maintain the current stock.”

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The terms “homelessness” and “community housing” refer to a range of different policies in the document, rolled out and expiring at different times. The two categories also include federal funding envelopes and legacy plans introduced under previous governments.

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Asked about his government’s funding for homelessness in March, Calandra said the issue was about more than money.

“Homelessness funding has increased to the highest level in the history of the province but I think it’s not just about funding,” he told reporters on March 7.

But Boileau said the way that the province spends its housing money will create challenges down the line.

“I think it does come down to a choice,” Boileau said.

“Ontario, like any other province, does have a choice when it comes to funding programs. Homelessness and social programs typically don’t form the foundation of any party’s platform, and so they’re not, normally informed by predetermined policy and tend to be more reactionary.”

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A bilateral problem

Richter acknowledged the Ontario government does have a unique issue to contend with through both Toronto and Peel Region, where a large number of asylum seekers have entered the shelter system.

The federal government has provided some funding to offset the cost of housing asylum seekers in emergency spaces but many — including the province and city — have said the money falls far short.

“In Ontario, things are also complicated a little bit because Ontario is seeing a lot of asylum seekers being moved into their homeless system — that’s a clear area of federal responsibility,” Richter said.

Calandra said he expected the federal government — which is in the midst of a tense battle with Ontario over the housing file — to step up.

“We have to work with the federal government on this,” he said in March.

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“We have worked very closely with our municipal partners, we unilaterally went ahead with significant extra funding with a number of municipalities… that were really struggling under the weight of the refugee challenges.”

Richter said that ultimately it was for the federal and provincial governments to address the crisis together, suggesting both had fallen well short.

“Collectively the federal and provincial governments are not investing enough in social and affordable housing, he said.

“The governments, in Ontario in particular, are forced to spend more in emergency responses to homelessness.”

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