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'We need a plan to end chronic homelessness': McKenney waiting on green light from City to go ahead with winter homeless plan

The 10-year plan initially presented to council earlier this year has become almost obsolete because of COVID-19. Coun. Catherine McKenney says it's time that we start looking at short-term homelessness solutions, especially for the upcoming winter.
File photo.

Short term. That’s the word du jour as Coun. Catherine McKenney imagines the City’s new approach when it comes to its winter homeless plan.

If it’s going to work, they say, we will have to be structured for the short term — not like what was in the 10-Year Housing and Homeless Plan that was revealed in January which has since become obsolete since COVID-19 came along.

Essentially, what would have worked pre-COVID will no longer work now, thanks to complications and changes brought on by the pandemic. 

“Without a plan for how we’re going to respond to what’s happened through COVID-19 and how we’re going to respond to the recovery as we come out of it, we’re going to find ourselves in a place where more ppl have fallen into homelessness,” McKenney said. “So it’s about doing two things: ensuring that doesn’t happen, and having a plan and knowing exactly what we’re going to do.”

If a family is struggling, for example, to pay rent or is unable to work and they’re on the verge of losing their home, there is a plan in place for them. 

Latest numbers by the City show that there were 6,825 individuals who accessed an emergency shelter in 2015.

McKenney also confirmed that 2,500 households are at risk of becoming homeless because of their inability to pay rent. Job losses, cutbacks and places of work that have faced mass layoffs or their business to close entirely have continued to make it difficult for some people and families to earn money and pay their bills on time — or at all.

There are also 400 families currently living in motels and another 500-600 otherwise in shelters who are chronically homeless.

While the overall homeless plan has yet to officially be in the phase of development, despite what the City told Ottawa Matters last week, McKenney says there are a list of things that should be included in the approach. 

McKenney, however, is aiming to have the plan completed and presented to council by the end of October. 

“I’ve spoken to many people about what the plan will look like. I’ve spoken to people who have been involved and understand the plans that have been put forward by Toronto,” they said.  

Last week, homeless advocates called for the City of Toronto to release its plans for Toronto’s homeless population, which the City of Toronto said would be released soon.

The City of Toronto is working towards a November 15 deadline. 

But if the plan is to work, the councillor says the City will have to take on a new approach —from one that makes homelessness a long term solution for individuals and families, to one that is a short-term solution, or seen as a transitional period. 

“We need a plan to end chronic homelessness in the next 12 to 24 months,” they said. “We declared this an emergency in January 2020, it’s become even more critical now. In January 2020, we had no idea what was coming, and today for people who are working in housing and homelessness, they are frightened because they can see what’s happening and coming.”

As this point, McKenney says they have asked for things to get rolling on developing the plan but meetings have yet to be set up to discuss its details. 

“So we know that the federal government has committed to some money to some acquisition fund, so we need to determine what can be acquired — what are the empty buildings in this city?” they said. “We know that we have student housing sitting empty, we know we got hotel rooms sitting empty, there are empty office buildings. We can’t have empty office buildings and empty student residences and have people sleeping on the street. You just can’t.”

McKenney says the City also needs to determine what is available, what will it cost — including modular housing — where the City land is located and how we can put down modular housing. 

Then, they add, how do we ensure that for the people who need support to keep their housing keep it, and that we have the operating dollars. 

“People coming out of chronic homelessness need supports — what is the plan for that and then how much will that cost,” McKenney said. “We also need to ensure that we’re not letting people to fall into homelessness anymore. We cannot afford for anyone else in this city to fall into homelessness today. So how much would those rent supplements cost — what will it take to keep people in their rental accommodation today?”

Up until this year, McKenney says, one of the most difficult things to do was to find empty units because the city’s vacancy rate was so low — but that is no longer the case. 

In fact, the city’s vacancy rate is climbing and there are more rental accommodations, meaning there’s more opportunity to house people. 

What it all comes down to, however, is funding and to coordinate the appropriate systems so the City can house people and make sure nobody is falling through the cracks.

And sometimes, McKenney says, that might mean acting first and getting the funds later, since they continue to wait on the federal government’s financial help.

But for some sleeping at shelters, it comes down to a feeling of safety — or lack thereof — that keeps individuals away. 

It’s something McKenney hopes the plan will also address. 

“I believe people feel unsafe in shelters because they are overcrowded and they’re over flowing with people who have been there for far too long and are no longer doing well,” McKenney said. “If I lose my housing today, and there is a shelter that I can go to that’s emergency, short-term, nobody’s been there for more than 30 days — so they’re not dealing with all the other mental health and stress and addictions issues — if I know that I can go into a shelter and it’s not chaotic, not overcrowded, and people are not angry, then I feel safe.”

It’s not the fault of the shelters, McKenney adds, there’s just no place to move people into. 

Then you have a portion of the homeless population who know that the shelter is their home and they’re stuck and they don’t do well, they say. 

That’s why short-term emergency shelters are the way to go, at least for the moment, McKenney says.

“So that’s how you provide a safe space for people — we’ll always needs some form of emergency housing — I shouldn’t say always because I hope one day we won’t need any form of emergency shelter — but I know today we do, but it needs to be short-term,” they said. “You need to be able to go in and then come back out. We need to rapidly re-house people and we need to find a way of doing that.”


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