The Cost of Chronic Homelessness and Solutions for the City of London
Chronic homelessness is a complex, national issue in Canada with many social, economic, and environmental impacts. According to Statistics Canada, over 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada every year (Strobel et al., 2021). Homelessness is classified as “chronic” when an individual has spent over six months without permanent shelter or has recurrently experienced homelessness for a cumulative duration of at least 18 months over the past three years (Sustainable Development Goals Data Canada).
In alignment with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 1, ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, and 11, making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, the City of London has greatly improved its efforts to address chronic homelessness. However, these efforts have been insufficient because the number of people who do not have adequate shelter has doubled since 2020, reaching 1,868 last October (Butler, 2022). As of last month, the three-year death toll of people experiencing homelessness (PEH) reached 200 (Richmond, 2023). These numbers may also be greatly understated, as they only account for those that access support services. As housing costs continue to rise, more Londoners are pushed into a state of poverty, and must turn to emergency shelters, food banks, and crisis lines to survive. Many emergency shelters in London have already reached capacity, leaving people with no other choice than to make makeshift shelters and tents in empty parking lots and river banks (Richmond, 2023). One need not look further than the Thames Valley Parkway to see evidence of extreme poverty in London.
Short- and Long-Term Social Implications and Impacts of Homelessness
The social implications of homelessness and poverty are multi-faceted. Social networks, which are a collective of social relationships, are vital in assisting PEH, because they provide emotional, financial, and material support (Anderson et al., 2021). However, those that are facing chronic homelessness gradually break social ties with their “housed” social network and develop social ties with other PEH (Anderson et al., 2021). While a social network among PEH may improve collective survival efforts, it can also encourage substance abuse and violent behaviour, which may exacerbate any preexisting physical and mental health issues (Anderson et al., 2021) impacting SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being). In the long-term, extensive social ties with other PEH further entrench people in chronic homelessness.
Gender equality (SDG5) is directly related to homelessness. Violent behaviour is particularly challenging for women. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), a non-partisan research and policy partnership housed at York University. Domestic Violence is commonly cited as the leading cause of homelessness for women (Ali, 2016). According to ANOVA (2023), a local organization that works to eliminate gender-based sexual violence and inequality by providing resources for abused women and their children, including shelter. They saw an increase of 12% in their outreach program over the previous year. ANOVA provided shelter to 351 women and dependents (and 41 pets!) and supported 25 women and 35 children housed in second-stage housing.
According to scholars Anderson et al., many PEH choose to forego using shelter services because of psychological and structural barriers. Addiction, fear of stigma and judgment, mental illness, and trauma from past incarceration are examples of psychological barriers that prevent PEH from feeling safe in shelters. Structural barriers commonly faced by PEH include not being allowed pets, strict curfews, inconvenient shelter locations, and heterosexual partners having to sleep separately if they are unmarried (Anderson et al., 2021). Thus, in achieving the outcomes of SDGs 1 and 11, and eradicating chronic homelessness, the City of London will have to take into consideration these social implications.
Short- and Long-Term Economic Implications and Impacts of Homelessness
The rising cost of housing in London creates a financial barrier to accessing shelter and leaves many Londoners with no choice but to take to the streets and parks to find shelter. Last October, rent prices in London increased by 33 percent as a result of limited supply (Juha, 2022). To achieve SDG11, London will need to continue to prioritize increasing affordable housing.
Although chronically homeless individuals only account for less than 15 percent of the homeless population, their struggles tend to be much more severe and require access to resources such as emergency shelter beds, food banks, and medical intervention more frequently (Homeless Hub). The City of London has also established rent-geared-to-income social housing (Community Housing) to keep families from losing their permanent shelter, for which the government allocates over $10 million a year (City of London, 2020). Nonetheless, to achieve SDGs 1 and 11, the City of London needs to eradicate chronic homelessness, meaning that it will need to continue to strategically plan its long-term budget to maximize the number of social and financial supports that can be provided to PEH.
Short- and Long-Term Environmental Implications of Homelessness
Without adequate shelter, PEH experience high levels of environmental exposure. Consequently, prolonged exposure to harsh environmental elements exacerbates the health conditions and vulnerabilities that might have initially pushed an individual into homelessness (Anderson et al., 2021).
The long-term impact of climate change is increased instances of extreme weather events such as heat waves, storms, and blizzards. Climate adaptation and mitigation is part of SDG13 (Climate Action). These phenomena will directly impact PEH because they lack adequate shelter to protect them from extreme weather. According to research conducted by Anderson et al. in 2021, weather-related deaths are already one of the leading causes of death in homeless populations around the world. In the urban and suburban areas of London, PEH are also at increased risk of death from heat waves due to the “heat island effect,” the increased absorption and re-radiation of heat by concrete, asphalt, and metal (Ramin and Svoboda, 2009).
Homelessness is also a cause of environmental pollution in London. With nowhere to properly dispose of their waste, many PEH have had to leave their possessions on the shore of the Thames River, polluting the river and surrounding ecological area (Butler, 2022) and intersects with SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). Tom Cull, the cofounder of Antler River Rally, believes that “if you care about the river in London, then you should also be an affordable housing advocate” (Butler, 2022). In other words, to reduce the environmental impact of chronic homelessness, safe shelter and affordable housing need to become more accessible in London. In doing so, the City will also come closer to achieving SDGs 1 and 11.
Current Mitigation Strategies
The Housing Stability Action Plan (HSAP): The HSAP is a comprehensive action plan that outlines how the London community can collectively address housing stability (City of London, 2017). According to the HSAP, housing stability is achieved when “everyone has safe, appropriate, affordable housing and housing supports,” which directly aligns with SDG 11. The main goals of the 2019-2024 report are to transform London’s homelessness support system using a transparent, standardized, data-driven approach that tracks the City’s progress (City of London, 2017). In 2022, a key priority of the plan was initiating the “Roadmap to 3,000 Affordable Units” program, which aims to construct 3,000 new affordable housing by 2026. A staff report indicated that as of last November, 431 units were built, 614 units were in the construction process, and 1,107 units were being planned (City of London, 2022). The 2023-2027 iteration of the HSAP, which will outline London’s next action items, is being drafted at the time that this article is being written (Richmond, 2023).
Winter Response Plan: For the third consecutive year, the City of London has implemented a local Winter Response plan in collaboration with multiple partner agencies (London Cares, Unity Project, Safe Space, 519 Pursuit, the Salvation Army Centre of Hope, and more) to support the homeless population during the winter months (McInnes, 2022). Last November, the City drew from social services funding from the province, COVID-19 relief funding from the federal Reaching Home program, and available municipal funding to commit $5 million to the efforts for the 2022-2023 Winter Response plan (Graham, 2022). The funding was allocated to the opening of almost 400 additional drop-in sheltering spaces spread among its partner agencies, 138 of which include overnight beds. An additional 56 overnight spots were made available during cold weather alerts. Some organizations, such as Safe Space, are tailoring their shelters to couples, people with pets, women and non-binary people, and members of the Indigenous community (McInnes, 2022).
Chronic homelessness is a complex issue with many social, economic, and environmental implications. As PEH break social ties with their “housed” social network, they become further entrenched in the cycle of poverty. Psychological and structural barriers also prevent many PEH from accessing shelter services provided by the city. As rent prices and interest rates increase, affordable housing is becoming more scarce, which necessitates further funding to increase the accessibility of affordable housing. Without adequate shelter, PEH are heavily exposed to increasingly extreme environmental elements, resulting in severe health repercussions and even death. Homelessness is also directly linked to the environmental pollution of the Thames River because PEH do not have the resources to adequately dispose of their waste. Accounting for each of these aspects in London’s efforts to eliminate chronic homelessness will bring the City closer to achieving SDGs 1 and 11.
While the City of London has already implemented effective mitigation strategies, there is still much room to improve. London currently has a strong short-term Winter Response; however, to proactively address chronic homelessness, more long-term supports and institutions need to be established. Bolstering affordable and quality housing options, as well as ensuring that citizens at risk of losing their homes are kept housed will be critical long-term preventative measures. Furthermore, well-trained social and legal support should be made available for those at risk of losing their homes. To expand these teams, perhaps London can look to recruit student volunteers from Western University and Fanshawe College and provide free accredited certifications as an incentive for participation. For those that are already facing homelessness, increasing permanent shelter capacity should be a continuous, year-round priority. The City of London could also invest in an outreach team of professional health care and mental health support to assist those currently living on London’s streets and direct them to safe shelters.
“Addressing Chronic Homelessness.” The Homeless Hub. York University. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/prevention/addressing-chronic-homelessness.
Ali, Nadia. “Domestic Violence & Homelessness.” Candian Observatory on Homelessness, October 03, 2016. https://www.homelesshub.ca/blog/domestic-violence-homelessness
Anderson, Mary-Catherine et al. “The Ecology of Unsheltered Homelessness: Environmental and Social-Network Predictors of Well-Being among an Unsheltered Homeless Population.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 8, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8306744/.
“Answering the Call: 2021-2022 Annual Report.” ANOVA. Accessed April 3, 2023. https://www.anovafuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Anova-Annual-Report-2021-2022.pdf.
Butler, Colin. “How Many Londoners Are Sleeping Rough Tonight? The Numbers Have Doubled in 2 Years .” CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, December 13, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/homeless-london-ontario-1.6683006.
Graham, Andrew. “London, Ont. Winter Homelessness Response Looks To Support 400 People Daily.” 980 CFPL. Global News, November 10, 2022. https://globalnews.ca/news/9268519/london-ont-winter-homelessness-response/.
“Housing Stability for All Action Plan – 2021 Update and Priorities for 2022.” The City of London. Accessed February 13, 2023. https://london.ca/sites/default/files/2022-08/CofL_HousingStablityReport_2022.pdf.
“Indicator 11.1.1 – Growth Rate Of People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness.” Sustainable Development Goals – 17 Goals to Transform our World. Accessed February 19, 2023. https://sdgcif-data-canada-oddcic-donnee.github.io/11-1-1/.
Juha, Jonathan. “London Hit By Biggest Average Rent Increase In Canada – 33% In One Year.” The London Free Press. The London Free Press, October 25, 2022. https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/london-hit-by-biggest-average-rent-increase-in-canada-33-in-one-year.
McInnes, Angela. “Winter Homelessness Response Plan Underway As London Approves $5M In Funding.” CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, November 10, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/winter-homelessness-response-plan-underway-as-london-approves-5m-in-funding-1.6647651.
Ramin, Brodie, and Tomislav Svoboda. “Health Of The Homeless And Climate Change.” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 15, 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704276/.
Richmond, Randy. “London Homeless Death Toll Passes Grim Milestone, Advocate Urges City Hall Help.” The London Free Press. The London Free Press, January 5, 2023.
Strobel, Stephenson et al. “Characterizing People Experiencing Homelessness And Trends In Homelessness Using Population-Level Emergency Department Visit Data In Ontario, Canada.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, January 20, 2021. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2021001/article/00002-eng.htm.
“Tax Supported Budget – March 2, 2020.” The City of London. Accessed February 15, 2023. https://london.ca/sites/default/files/2020-11/2020-2023%20MYB%20Document%20Property%20Tax%20-%20AS%20OF%20OCTOBER%2028.ah%20FINAL.pdf.
“The Housing Stability Action Plan for the City of London (2019-2024).” The City of London. Accessed February 10, 2023. https://london.ca/sites/default/files/2020-10/2020-01-24%20181029038-COL-Homeless-Prevention-And-Housing-Plan-Report-EMAIL-WEB%20%28002%29.pdf.
This blog post series is an ongoing partnership between the SDG Cities program at Pillar Nonprofit Network and the Environmental Stewardship course in the Governance, Leadership, and Ethics program at Huron University. As part of their assignments, students are required to write about real-world challenges using the UN Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) as a holistic framework to analyse the problem and propose solutions that could lead to systemic change and a better future for all. The series presents an opportunity for students to address practical and meaningful challenges that their communities are facing currently, and an opportunity for SDG Cities to enrich their program by including youth perspectives.
All opinions expressed by the guest authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SDG Cities program or Pillar Nonprofit Network.