The Toronto Homeless Memorial added seven names to its list last month. As many as 90 people have died in Toronto as a result of homelessness in the last two years. That's one person every 10 days.
Toronto's homeless shelters are inundated. Chronic overcrowding, bug-infested dormitories and the spread of contagious diseases continue to plague the system.
The city's Housing Stabilization Fund (HSF) is supposed to focus on preventing homelessness. It's a lifeline for many poor people who need the emergency money it provides to prevent evictions, replace furniture lost to bedbugs, pay utility arrears or rent deposits and relocate due to domestic violence, flooding or fire.
Last year the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) released Left In The Lurch: The Destabilizing Reality Of Toronto's Housing Stabilization Fund. That report exposed the fact that policies underlying the administration of the fund have led to the reduction and even the elimination of the entitlements of disabled people and people with children.
Now, after spending the better part of a year combing through dozens of city reports and fighting denials of numerous Freedom of Information requests, OCAP is raising more questions about management of the fund by Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS).
The city has under-spent the amount budgeted for the HSF by an average $3.5 million a year since 2013.
What did the city do with the $14 million it saved?
In 2013, the city had $32.2 million available for the HSF under the provincial Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. The fund's restrictive policies resulted in only $25 million being distributed, leaving $7.2 million unspent.
Under provincial policy, any such unused money has to be repurposed, with city council's approval on programs tackling homelessness.
The city announced that it was creating a new housing allowance reserve to which it would transfer about half the unspent amount, some $3.7 million. It promised that this money would be spent, through an agreement with the Ministry of Finance, on providing housing allowances (that is, rent subsidies) of $400 per month to 260 households. The city department responsible for such housing allowances is the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA), although TESS is supposed to refer about half the recipients to the program.
After months of frustrating email and phone communications, neither SSHA nor TESS can say what that housing allowance program is called, how people are referred to it or if they have reports on its utilization.
A year into the program, SSHA dropped an additional $1 million into the reserve. In 2016, the city approved a transfer of another $3.8 million, the HSF surplus from that year, into the same fund. In 2017, SSHA added more than $2.7 million. All of this is demonstrative of the city's faith in a program it cannot name and whose operation it cannot confirm. By the end of the year there will be about $7.7 million in this reserve, but there is apparently no plan to spend any of it.
As for the under-spending of the HSF, after months of queries on where this money went, we received a response from Anna Fiorino, manager of strategic issues, policy and research at TESS, SSHA and the Corporate Financial Planning and Management division of the city. She stated that the money contributed to an overall surplus for TESS, which was then "distributed in accordance with the [city's] Surplus Management policy."
In other words, money transferred out of homelessness prevention was clumped together with TESS's general surpluses, which were then deposited into a number of different reserves. So money earmarked for preventing homelessness can now be used, for instance, to build highways at some undetermined point in the future, despite the current crisis in homelessness.
This month, the volunteer-run Out of the Cold program that functions during the winter as a release valve for the overcrowded shelter system closes down. This means conditions for an increasing number of people who live on the streets will deteriorate. Contrary to the city's claim that it lacks resources to open additional shelter spaces, it has had access to millions of dollars that can be used to do just that.
OCAP has gone to city council meetings about the HSF and the shelter crisis, talked to councillors, signed petitions, written letters and reports. We have rallied and marched. While we have made important gains, things keep getting worse for people on the streets. Money that could have prevented homelessness was used instead to augment city coffers to subsidize other projects.
Shelter Now! protest: Sleep Out at John Tory's Saturday (April 22), Bedford and Bloor, 7 pm-7 am. Dinner and rally 7-9 pm.
Yogi Acharya is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
Housing Stabilization Fund factsheet
Bungled background The HSF was created in 2013,the same year the province downloaded onto municipalities the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), a crucial social assistance program relied upon by tens of thousands on social assistance in Toronto.
Municipalities forced to do more with less Municipalities created their own systems to replace the benefit, with differing entitlements and eligibility. Some municipalities put no benefit in place at all. Overnight, access was reduced drastically, with people able to access the fund going from 49,500 in 2012 to 24,500 in 2015.
Revolting game of political dodgeball Municipalities say they are dealing with a reduced budget and have no option but to tighten the screws while the province says it's giving municipalities more flexibility.
Shelter crisis count
5,000+ Estimated number of people who are homeless in Toronto
16 Volunteer Out of theCold shelters set to close this week. The last one willclose next week.
97% Overall occupancy of the Toronto shelter system in mid-March. Some centres for women were close to 99 per cent full.
Approximately 300 People who stayed at 24-hour drop-ins or warming centres this winter. Also, the number of emergency beds that need to be added at armouries, gymnasiums orother public spaces.
1,000 New shelter beds needed to bring shelter occupancy rates below 90 per cent.
2.5 feet Minimum spacebetween sleeping surfacesthat agencies serving homeless people say should be requiredin shelters.
Source: Street Health