Currently, we are not winning the fight against homelessness in Canada. The number of people experiencing homelessness in Canada is still estimated to be around 235,000 people in any given year and 25,000 to 35,000 people on a given night, just as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, it has also become clear that innovative policies like Housing First have so far been unable to significantly reduce the number of people visibly experiencing homelessness out on the street in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver. This puts a significant damper on the hope that came from the positive results of the At Home study into the benefits of the Housing First approach, which suggested that the approach solves homelessness. It has been a real disappointing reality check for everybody who expressed hope over the past twenty years that we were approaching the end of the issue.
The 2000s and 2010s were clearly not the decades that brought about the beginning of the end of homelessness in Canada, but the 2020s might be. There are a few changes to the circumstances surrounding homelessness policy that are happening right now. These changes are all happening at the same time and may have the potential to make it much easier to dramatically reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in Canada, possibly the easiest it has been in decades. This article explores some of these changing circumstances. Ultimately, I argue that the next few years will give us a great opportunity to solve homelessness. We just have to take it!
1. Housing will be the defining political issue of the next few years
The most important reason why there will be a great opportunity in the near future to fight homelessness is because housing will be front-and-centre in politics. The current housing crisis has captured the attention and the concern of much of the Canadian public. Anyone who pays attention to Canadian politics these days can notice that politicians are putting a major emphasis on housing policy in order to appeal to these concerned Canadians. The ruling Liberals have put a massive focus on housing in the 2022 federal budget (although housing was a smaller focus of the 2023 budget) and have announced other new housing policies recently including a new housing-based long-term infrastructure plan coming this fall. At the same time, the Conservatives, in their efforts to win the next election, have made housing policy the centrepiece of their still-developing platform, promising to punish major cities that do not build enough housing by withholding federal funds and promising to sell off federal buildings so they can be turned into housing. It is no secret why Pierre Poilievre has adopted the phrase “Bring it Home” as his slogan and why there is an image of a house in his personal logo. Canadian politicians are predicting that housing will be the main issue that will decide how many people will vote in the next federal general election, and they are probably right. They are crafting their platforms to attract these votes accordingly. Housing is one of the areas of public spending that is guaranteed to get a lot of money dedicated to it over the next few years, even from very fiscally conservative governments.
On a personal note, I have recently been to many political events featuring politicians on both the left and the right. At many of these events, housing was a common subject of discussion, in some cases being the main topic that attendees wanted to talk about. One Member of Parliament who I met at one of these events said that housing is an everything problem and that if you fix housing, you fix Canada. Clearly, housing is at the top of people’s minds and everybody in politics is ready to take action of some kind on it. We are in an era defined by the issue of housing.
This creates an opportunity to leverage this focus on housing in order to increase the amount of political attention, willpower and resources directed towards fighting homelessness, which is conventionally treated as a sub-issue within the broader issue of housing. (Homelessness has received increased levels of attention as an issue in its own right, not just as an outgrowth of discussions on housing, but this article explores that subject more in the fourth point.) WIth politicians funneling or promising to funnel great amounts of resources towards fixing Canada’s housing problems, it is not difficult to see how some clever minds who have the attention of people in power may be able to convince them to not forget about homelessness. Smart people with political clout may be able to ensure that future massive housing efforts include a significant amount of effort directed towards fighting homelessness in order to comprehensively deal with housing’s many sub-issues. This is just a possibility. There is no guarantee that anybody will be able to convince politicians to put a great emphasis on fighting homelessness or that politicians will focus on homelessness by their own wills. This is why I describe the prospects for change in the near future as an opportunity and a chance to make change rather than as a guaranteed outcome. Still, the situation is shaping up in a way for us to have a reason to have hope.
Many of the recent housing promises made by politicians involve dramatically increasing the amount of housing available through widespread building or other means, often with a focus on building more affordable housing. Examples of such promises include the federal Liberal government’s commitment to help build 270 more units in Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ promise to incentivize widespread construction by linking federal money for municipalities to the numbers of units it builds and the Ontario Progressive Conservative provincial government’s commitment to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years. Ultimately, politicians across the political spectrum are treating the housing crisis as an issue of supply in which the solution largely lies in building more. This means that no matter what political parties will be in power throughout the coming years, there will likely be a major increase in the amount of housing available in Canada. Even if the current and future elected leaders falter in the implementation of their housing agendas and they do not create the number of new housing units that they promised, there is such a massive effort underway to increase the housing supply that there will likely still be a sizable increase in the amount of housing in Canada.
Increasing the amount of housing in Canada is important for fighting the housing crisis and fixing Canada’s housing problems more generally, but it is particularly important for fighting homelessness. This is because homelessness is often understood as being largely a product of a lack of affordable housing, or at least a lack of increases in the number of new affordable housing units to a degree that allows supply to keep up with demand. Some experts on homelessness even claim that the reduction in funding for social housing in the 1980s led to the explosion of homelessness in that same decade which put the entire issue on the public’s radar. Consequently, experts on homelessness argue that significantly increasing the amount of affordable housing is a key element of a good plan to fight and end homelessness. People experiencing homelessness face a wide range of issues that cause and exacerbate their homelessness, ranging from addictions to mental health issues to criminal records and others, so housing is not the sole issue at play. It is important to remember, however, that many people experiencing homelessness for short or long term periods got into their situations partly because of the expensiveness of housing (for example those who could not afford to pay rent and were evicted). Even some homeless people with multiple complex issues that keep them homeless like addictions and mental health issues are unable to get and keep apartments of their own because of the rent. Having enough affordable housing in the system makes getting the homeless off the street so much easier, even when we are talking about the mentally ill homeless. Take for example Houston, Texas. As was mentioned above, this city is one of the only major cities in the United States that has managed to make massive progress in the fight against homelessness, having housed around 25,000 people experiencing homelessness over the past decade. A major part of why Houston was able to efficiently house so many people is because the city began its big push against homelessness while already having a sizable amount of existing apartments considered moderately priced for housing vouchers available for use. Houston’s land use policies, including the city’s lack of a traditional zoning code, has allowed the city to substantially increase its housing supply and lower its costs. In contrast, the major cities in California such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that are severely struggling with homelessness have not been able to replicate Houston’s success mainly because those cities do not have housing supplies as abundant as that of Houston. Just think about the reputations that major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver have with regards to rent prices and the lack of abundance of housing and it is not difficult to see a part of the range of reasons why these cities have not achieved the success that Houston has. Hopefully the current push in Canada to create a large amount of new housing will create the supply needed for Canada’s major cities to house the homeless with the efficiency demonstrated by Houston and to achieve results comparable to those of Houston.
Ultimately, the massive focus on housing in Canadian politics these days and in the coming years may make it easier to fight homelessness.
2. Some cities have had success in the fight against homelessness and can be used as inspiration
For the first time ever, there are a handful of cities from across Canada and the United States that can provide useful case studies of how cities can successfully address homelessness. Cities like Medicine Hat, Alberta; Rockford, Illinois; and Abilene, Texas have achieved the standard of functional zero for both chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness. Functional zero does not literally mean that there are zero people in these cities who are experiencing homelessness. Instead the term essentially means that fewer people are entering homelessness than can be brought back into housing by the housing system operating normally. These cities and the many others in Canada and the United States that are making serious progress in the fight against homelessness prove that it can be done. Most importantly, these successful cities provide lessons that everybody involved in the fight against homelessness is trying to learn from and apply in their own local areas.
There are many strategies that are shared between these successful cities that have contributed to their successes. One of the most important of these strategies is the adoption of the Housing First approach. The Housing First approach is defined by trying to get the homeless into housing without any preconditions that they must meet in order to qualify for housing. Under this strategy, housing is provided to the homeless first before other services so that they can have stability in their lives knowing that they have a place to stay. Other services like addiction treatments and therapy are subsequently offered to these newly-housed people to help them in their recovery journeys. Housing First is essentially the dominant approach to fighting homelessness right now, and not every city that has used this approach has had success in the fight against homelessness. (Famous examples of cities that are using the Housing First approach but are still severely struggling with homelessness include Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; and Vancouver, British Columbia.) This means that the use of the Housing First strategy is not the only deciding factor behind a city’s success in fighting homelessness. Other strategies that the successful cities share include bringing together every organization that serves the homeless at a single table so that everybody stays on the same page and shares the same goals; keeping an up-to-date list of each individual experiencing homelessness and what they need so that they can be served on an individual basis, which is often called a by-name list; and making the process of entering the system of services for the homeless easier and more uniform across all entry points, which is often called a Coordinated Access System. These three strategies are all elements of the Built for Zero approach, which has grown in popularity across Canada and the United States. Not every city that uses the strategies that define the Built for Zero approach will necessarily explicitly ascribe to Built for Zero. (An example of such a city would be Houston, Texas, which also unsurprisingly happens to be one of the first major metropolitan cities that has had a huge amount of success fighting homelessness.) But still, regardless of whether or not Built for Zero is ever mentioned by name, the same strategies are shared between these cities and these strategies have helped these cities, so there are lots of lessons for us to learn from these places.
It is particularly important that some American cities are providing lessons that Canada can learn from because Canada and the United States have similar welfare states, thereby making lessons from America potentially easily transferable to Canada. In academic terms, both Canada and the United States have liberal welfare states with the ranges of social services provided by the Canadian and American governments being highly limited and many social services being left to private markets. This is different from many northern European countries which have social-democratic welfare states which offer more extensive ranges of services and benefits provided by governments. Northern European countries are often upheld as places that provide many valuable lessons for fighting homelessness, but these lessons are difficult to transfer to Canada because Canada does not publicly provide the same extensive range of services and programs that form the foundation of the northern European approach to fighting homelessness. This is why American successes and the lessons they provide are so valuable to Canada. If places in the United States can defeat homelessness, then this shows that an extensive welfare state is not needed to do it. Due to Canada and the United States having similar welfare states, Canada can learn a lot from how American cities are beating homelessness and can probably incorporate lessons and strategies from America into the Canadian system quite successfully.
All of this is discussed further in an article that I previously wrote about Built for Zero. My point here is that never before in the field of homelessness policy have we had so many success stories providing so much evidence and so many ideas that others can directly take, learn from and recreate. These success stories and the lessons they provide give us an advantage that we can use to significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in the near future.
3. Treatment drugs are getting better, creating greater potential for drugs to solve addiction
This point is admittedly more difficult than the other three points to back up because there is no guarantee that the advancement of medicine will lead to the discovery and/or mainstreaming of drugs that can effectively solve — or even help people more-reliably fight — addiction. After all, drugs, including drugs meant to assist people’s fights against addiction, have already been researched and improved over decades and still no miracle drug has yet been conclusively found to reliably end addiction. Still, this point will explore why the time when drugs that can reliably help people fight addiction are found and/or widely used may be in the near future.
It is important that this article provides context on why fighting addiction is such a critically important dimension of the effort to solve homelessness. Getting a better handle on addiction to illicit substances is so important to the fight against homelessness because many people experiencing homelessness are addicted to one or more substances and are worse off as a result. Not all people experiencing homelessness are addicts and not all addicts are homeless, but there is an important relationship between these two states of being. Addiction is a common cause of homelessness across Canada, as is demonstrated by a federal government study which found that 25.1% of survey respondents from the homeless community said that addiction or substance use was a reason for their most recent loss of housing. Addiction is also sometimes described as a result of homelessness, with evidence existing that suggests that substance use among the homeless increases as a consequence of homelessness because the use of drugs serves as a method of coping with the stresses of life on the street. The same federal government study mentioned earlier in this paragraph found that the proportion of homeless individuals who reported addiction or substance use is greater among those who have been homeless for longer times compared to those who have been homeless for shorter times. 19.0% of those who have been homeless for 0 to 2 months experience addiction or substance abuse while 28.2% of those who have been homeless for over 6 months in the past year experience addiction or substance abuse. Hard drugs provide an escape from the experience of homelessness but they are harmful in themselves. Defeating homelessness requires us as a society to get a better grip on that awful cause and exacerbating factor of homelessness that is addiction.
Decades of research into addiction has led to the mainstreaming of a wide variety of drugs that are used to help people reduce their desire for dangerous illicit drugs and to give people options on how to do so based on their needs and preferences. Some of these drugs help people through abilities such as targeting and treating detox symptoms, reducing the discomfort of withdrawals, helping people feel less of a need to get high, counteracting the highs that people gain through illicit drugs or providing a comparatively-moderate high itself. Some of the most common drugs used to treat addiction include naloxone, for opioid overdose prevention; buprenorphine, to treat opioid addiction; and acamprosate, to treat alcohol addiction. Different treatment drugs serve a variety of purposes throughout an individual’s recovery journey, with drugs being used to prevent overdose, detox and stay off illicit drugs. These existing treatment drugs do not permanently end addiction but instead allow people to manage their addictions better and make it easier for people to resume a life of sobriety. This is what exists and is widely used now. None of these drugs are perfect but they are all part of the trend of treatment drugs getting better with time. This trend of advancement will likely continue into the future.
A popular example of a drug that has been recently making headlines for its potential to curb addictions is semaglutide: a drug that is currently prescribed for purposes like lowering blood sugar levels and weight loss and is more commonly known by its brand names such as Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus. Researchers have noticed that taking semaglutide may help people feel less desire to act on their addictive habits such as eating excessively or taking recreational drugs compared to without the drug. As with any drug that shows promise as a miracle cure, nothing is guaranteed. The extent to which semaglutide’s addiction-fighting potential has been studied is limited and this potential is still being studied. Furthermore, the drug has already gained a reputation as one that has been used unnecessarily by people using it for weight loss, which has created shortages for diabetics who have been prescribed the drug. Also, there is concern among the medical world that semaglutide potentially has many bad side effects like increased suicidal thoughts and increased risk of thyroid cancer. All of these concerns are being investigated by health regulators around the world. Time will tell whether semaglutide is a game changer in the fight against addiction. It is important that people do not use semaglutide unless it has been prescribed by a medical professional and it is also important that people do not use the drug for any purpose that it has not been prescribed for, including addiction treatment. Still, the reason why this article highlights this drug is because this is an example of a drug that instills a substantial amount of hope in people — hope backed up by evidence — that better treatment drugs can help to solve the critically-important addiction dimension of homelessness. Maybe one day semaglutide will be prescribed widely for addiction and will help millions of people on their recovery journeys.
The rise of semaglutide is not the only recent adoption of a relatively new approach in the fight against addiction. Other drug-based approaches to fighting addiction that have emerged in the last 20 years include the use of naloxone, an anti-overdose drug best known for its reaction to opioids as a treatment for alcoholism and the administration of vaccines that prevent recovering addicts from experiencing great highs from the illicit drugs they consume during relapses. Advancements and new ideas like this are happening all the time. Some of these advancements may be major breakthroughs in helping people overcome addiction.
Ending people’s addictions through drugs does not address the root traumas that lead many to turn to illicit substances to cope and become addicted in the first place. Still, developing better treatment drugs is an important element of any successful plan to help those who are already addicted. Hopefully the next few years will provide those better drugs.
4. The public is paying greater attention towards homelessness at the national level
In 2021, I helped to write an article that explores and attempts to explain the lack of widespread discussion of homelessness as a major political issue in federal and provincial elections. The article argues that homelessness is rarely a major topic during federal and provincial elections because elections are decided by people voting in a self-interested manner. The premise of that article is not true anymore. Homelessness as a political issue has transformed from a topic that was mostly discussed in a local context to a topic that is discussed in a federal context (and is often framed as a public safety issue) by some of the most prominent political figures in Canada, most notably Pierre Poilievre. Evidently, a lot can change in just two years.
In Canadian federal politics these days, the discussion about homelessness often comes in the form of discourse about the merits and demerits of the decriminalization of illicit drugs and the legal provision of some hard drugs through Safe Supply efforts. The British Columbia provincial government has brought these topics to the forefront of Canadians’ minds by trying out these strategies. In response, they have received mixed reactions including nuanced support and nuanced criticism from medical professionals, people who have personal experience with drug abuse, advocates for addicts and others. At the same time, the BC government’s efforts have generated massive backlash from people, particularly championed by the Canadian political right. The Conservative party has strongly criticized the BC government’s approach. This backlash by the Conservative party and the broader Canadian right extends beyond just the discussion about decriminalization and Safe Supply as this backlash involves people expressing a great degree of concern, frustration and sometimes anger about authorities’ alleged leniency to drug use and other criminal activity by the homeless across Canada. This backlash championed by the right is best exemplified by the popularity of right-wing political commentator Aaron Gunn’s documentaries Vancouver is Dying and Canada is Dying which both discuss homelessness with a particular emphasis on drug use among the homeless and the allegedly lenient policies that enable this use. Vancouver is Dying amassed more than 2 million views on YouTube during its first month online.
Outside of the exclusively-political realm of popular culture in our society, the internet, especially YouTube, is full of popular content that is geared towards generating widespread empathy for people who are currently experiencing homelessness and people who formerly experienced homelessness through fostering understanding of their lived experiences. Media outlets like Soft White Underbelly and Invisible People have accumulated hundreds of millions of views on YouTube through videos that allow vulnerable and formerly vulnerable people to discuss their experiences in their own words. Embodying the spirit and potential of people-driven new media, these sorts of intimate interview videos have become a staple of YouTube, with the two channels mentioned having accumulated 4.99 million and 1.11 million subscribers respectively and 981 million and 285 million views respectively at the time of posting this article. Although, in fairness, it is worth noting that these YouTube channels have been popular enough to pull in millions of views for much longer than just the past two years and it is also worth noting that Invisible People is the only channel of the two that often interviews Canadians.
The fact that homelessness has become a larger public concern and the fact that it is being discussed by major political figures are important facts when it comes to fighting homelessness because this discourse has the potential to translate into real substantial political agendas that propose real action and real solutions to deal with homelessness. Since homelessness is on people’s minds, this has the potential to shift how people vote and what ideas politicians choose to champion in order to appeal to voters. Remember, politicians prioritize and work quickly on issues that they know are very concerning to the public, at least in order to appeal to them and get their votes. This increased prominence of homelessness as a political issue may lead politicians to increase the resources dedicated towards fighting homelessness. This rise in the issue’s profile may also prompt politicians to be more willing to explore and implement innovative new ideas and approaches to fighting homelessness. None of this guarantees positive change, but it does change the context to make it easier for positive change to be made.
Ultimately, there is a good chance that we will soon have the best shot that we have had in decades to address homelessness and significantly reduce the number of people experiencing it. This opportunity will likely be driven by numerous concurrent forces that include housing becoming the defining political issue of the period, knowledge being gained from past successes, improvements being made to treatment drugs and increased amounts of public attention being paid to the issue.
If we miss this opportunity, there is no telling how long it will be before another chance that is just as good will emerge. None of us want to be stuck in our current stagnant situation in which everybody’s best efforts to fight homelessness do not yield the desired results. We must get out of the rut we are currently in for the sake of the most vulnerable in our society.
There are many ways to get involved in efforts to combat homelessness. If you want to learn some ways to join the fight and help drive the efforts to take advantage of our great opportunity while we have it, I have written another article about that subject. Regardless, the main lesson to remember from this article is that there is hope for us if we act on our desire to make change while the situation is on our side. When the time comes, we must act!