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Public Policy Hasn't Solved Homelessness


Public policy is not only failing to solve the homelessness problem, it is a significant cause of the problem in the first place.

Previously published in the London Free Press, December 22, 1998


David Gratzer

 Author Notes

Student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, where he served on the university's Board of Governors for four years. Author of a weekly column for the Halifax Herald and contributor to over a dozen newspapers and magazines including the National Post, the Calgary Herald, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Toronto Star. Author of Code Blue (1999), winner of the Donnor Prize for outstanding books on public policy.

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Code Blue: Reviving Canada's Health Care System
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 Essay - 12/22/1998

Ouch! Criticism from the United Nations? Aren't they only supposed to criticize the United States and Israel?

But, alas, in a report released earlier this month, the United Nations committee on social, economic and cultural rights expressed deep "concerns" about Canada. The most noteworthy criticism -- and the one that has received the most media attention -- is the committee's displeasure with the "crisis" levels of homelessness in our country. According to the report, "the committee is gravely concerned that such a wealthy country as Canada has allowed the problem of homelessness and inadequate housing to grow to such proportions that the mayors of Canada's 10 largest cities have now declared homelessness a national disaster."

To Canada's left, the report was another shining example of the need for government action. Poverty advocates from coast to coast explained homelessness is the result of government gutting our social programs and failing to act on housing policy.

Such comments make for good sound bites, but they also betray a fundamental misunderstanding of our homelessness problem.

Homelessness is a fairly recent North American problem. When researchers from Columbia University searched through four parks in Manhattan in 1964 to count the number of people sleeping there, they didn't find any. Clearly, this wouldn't be the case today. We associate major urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and New York as much with big skyscrapers and overpriced restaurants as with homeless men and women sleeping on the sidewalks.

What happened between then and now? It is not, as poverty advocates maintain, that social programs were gutted. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when homelessness became commonplace, social spending dramatically increased in both Canada and the United States. Nor is it that governments have ignored housing policy. Quite to the contrary, laws and regulations govern housing as never before.

Writing in the latest issue of Next City magazine, editor Lawrence Solomon argues: "One factor, and one factor alone -- changes in housing policy -- accounts for the immense rise in homelessness: governments outlawed much of what was then the bottom of the housing markets while legalizing vagrancy."

Solomon finds an unlikely ally in John Norquist, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee and author of The Wealth of Cities. "(Until recent decades, North) American cities offered people without much money a variety of choices in shelter. Not all of that housing was pretty or spacious. But the options were numerous, and included walk-ups, apartments over stores, triplexes, duplexes, single-family houses, apartments over garages, flats in back, boarding houses, tenements, low-rent hotels and row houses." Norquist observes that many of these choices are no longer available.

The numbers support their claims. The great period of urban renewal in North America, marked by a host of new laws and regulations aimed at improving housing, saw a dramatic decline in the availability of low-income housing. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the typical U.S. metropolitan area lost roughly 54 per cent of its unsubsidized low-cost units. In Canada, the trend was similar. All of Toronto's flophouses and a third of its rooming houses, for example, closed to business during this period.

As Solomon notes, government actions have further limited the poor's ability to house themselves. Through rent control, governments hoped to make housing affordable but, instead, reduced the profitability of renting. Investing in housing became less attractive and the number of new units built declined. Through tenant rights legislation, governments hoped to protect tenants from the whims of their landlords but made it almost impossible to evict even the rowdiest of renters. Landlords became exceedingly cautious in choosing their tenants.

And so, the poorest of citizens lost out. Writes Solomon: "In this way, and with only the best of intentions, governments replaced a vast supply of substandard, but low-cost housing with a much vaster, much more substandard, and much lower-cost supply of housing in the form of streets, back alleys, and parks."

When doctors prescribe the wrong treatment for a patient, we call it malpractice. When politicians pursue the wrong solution to a problem, we call it progressive public policy. Our housing strategy falls into this category.

It's time to allow the private sector back into low-income housing. It's time to do something about homelessness.

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