"On average, about 3 to 4 per cent of beds are empty every night. How many empty ones should we have?"
The mayor got it half right: the city is overspending on shelter housing for the homeless.
But it's not too much ($165 million yearly) in the way he thinks. It's exorbitant because shelters are a pricey way to ensure that people aren't doing without a roof over their heads in this wealthy city.
And regardless, the system isn't doing well. As of the start of 2013, the province, which adds its own contribution to the city's $165 million, capped funding under the positive-sounding Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. Cash allotted will no longer be adjusted for inflation, nor for actual need based on the number of clients.
The single biggest gap in CHPI, besides the lack of new affordable housing, is the failure to offer adequate mental health services. More than 90 per cent of homeless people self-identify as needing access to such help.
Over 50 per cent of young people in shelters cite family problems as the reason for leaving home. So investing some cash to expand the limited network of youth workers, plus new supportive housing, could easily relieve this pressure on shelter beds.
But the larger issue is that many of those without homes are actually eligible for disability supports, welfare, private pensions, Old Age Security or Canada Pension but aren't receiving that money because of mental illness or lack of a proper residence.
It costs over $2,000 a month to house people in shelters, $65 a day. But the costs of disability benefits, social assistance, Canada Pension and Old Age Security are mostly borne by the feds and province. (Only a small percentage of social assistance is paid by the city.)
On the province's side, savings on expensive health care for people on the streets might compensate for the increased cost of social assistance.
The trick is to help the homeless with the paperwork to connect them to the services they're owed, and, at the same time, find them decent places to live. The seven-year-old Streets To Homes program is mandated to do this, but despite the fact that it's managed to help more than 6,000 people get off the street, it lacks the resources it needs. Again, it's a case of spending more money to achieve greater long-term savings.
Another way the city could make a difference is by using its land holdings to spur new housing. Current policy allows spending on subsidies to help the homeless move into permanent housing, and requires that spare municipally owned land be given over to affordable housing. But the city is ignoring its own rules.
Instead of selling off public land for condos, Toronto should respect its own mandate and work with a community partner to build new housing. Even low rents would likely fund a mortgage to pay for construction.
]To see how the city messes with its mandate, consider the partnership that Build Toronto (the city-owned corp that disposes of surplus land) signed with Tridel to develop a 68-storey condo south of Union Station at 120 Harbour. Yes, this will add over 700 new condo units to the area, but none will be affordable - a situation that in theory isn't allowed under existing policy.
And imagine if Toronto used New York City's model requiring that 10 per cent of added density above what's allowed under zoning rules be set aside for low-income housing.
The irony is that with a couple of proactive measures and a few extra mil, Toronto could actually shift the financial burden to the province and feds, where it belongs, save long-term cash and actually help the people who need it most.