Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Housing First in the Deep Cold

On December 30th I visited some friends. It was a cold night, a very cold night. We were in relative comfort and spent an evening playing board games and enjoying each other's company. I even managed a second place finish in Lords of Waterdeep, which is a rare feat. I tell this story for what happened at the conclusion of the evening.

When we were all done I climbed into my vehicle, started the engine for a moment and began to drive. My friends live ten minutes away from me, so waiting for the car to heat up for such a short drive seemed silly on the face of it. So I got in and drove. I made it a few hundred meters when despite a nice coat, hat and gloves I started shivering in the car. It was -24 degrees centigrade.

During the recent cold weather an error was made at a Toronto emergency shelter and people were turned away while there was still space available. During my brief ride from my friends to my house I was deeply uncomfortable, though not in any serious danger. I can scarcely imagine sitting out in the cold all night. The consequences could be, and often are, lethal.

Canadians rightfully complain about living in one of the coldest countries on the planet. Our major cities, I'm sure, are some of the coldest in the world for their size. As a result, our urban leaders have to confront a simple truth: if we do not provide adequate housing in the winter, people will die.

It's conversations like this where we need to separate questions about general housing affordability from the crisis that is homelessness. A person with an addiction, or mental illness isn't a family making $42000 who can't afford to rent in Toronto. Increasing supply or rent control will not ultimately get us to address this particular problem.

Cities in Canada need to adopt a housing first strategy. It is unconscionable to rely on temporary and emergency housing and turn these people out into the streets. Housing first means that people in bad situations are given a stable place to live. It makes the provision of care and social services much simpler. Experts argue that it costs less in the long run, but it is by no means cheap. Worst still any housing first program would disproportionately benefit those that society currently pushes as far to the margins and away from our mental landscapes as we can. Moral choices are not always cheap or easy ones, but acting in immorality for the sake of some savings at the cost of human suffering is difficult to stomach. 

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