Through a new plan developed by senior city staff, Toronto is making a “big step” toward providing more supportive housing, advocates say — and there’s hope it could help thousands of homeless and vulnerable residents find a pathway off the streets for good.
The plan offers a roadmap for creating 600 units of supporting housing each year starting in 2020, according to a new report released Wednesday by the deputy city manager for community and social services Giulana Carbone.
Hitting that target would involve renovating and converting existing units — including shelter sites and Toronto Community Housing rooming houses and vacant units — and connecting wraparound support services with private rental housing.
“It’s a big step forward toward ending chronic homelessness,” said Coun. Joe Cressy, a vocal advocate of supportive housing on council.
“For years, the city has appropriately invested in shelters to provide emergency relief for the homeless,” he added. “But where the city has not stepped up is providing a pathway out of those shelters — that is where supportive housing comes in.”
What is supportive housing?
Found in cities across North America, it’s an approach that combines housing with wraparound services — such as on-site staff or partnership-based supports for people with chronic illnesses, mental health issues, or disabilities — to ensure that people are able to stay in their homes.
In Toronto, current supportive housing programs promote independent living by providing services through personal support workers, including help with personal care and light meal prep, housekeeping and laundry, medication reminders, referral to community services and help navigating the health care system.
In November, council backed a motion from Cressy calling for this new plan. It sees the city contributing a third of Toronto’s total annual goal of 1,800 new units of supportive housing built each year over the next decade, in hopes of hitting an overall target of 18,000.
The plan is heading to council’s housing committee for approval on Feb. 12.
The federal and provincial governments need to contribute their share as well to make Toronto’s approach succeed, Cressy said. The report also outlines the need for ongoing operating funding and partnership with higher levels of government to continually operate wraparound services in the units once the city gets them up and running.
Mayor John Tory is in Ottawa this week meeting with federal government officials, calling for them to fund more supportive housing in Toronto.
The city’s broader housing plan “is predicated, as it must be, on a three government funding partnership to get supportive housing built and staffed,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “There is no other way.”
So what does supportive housing look like in practice? According to Cressy, it’s entirely case-by-case.
Some of the supportive units could be in a designated home for adults with mental illness where there are on-site staff, he said, while others could be in standard, private market rental buildings involving partnerships with the Ministry of Health to offer regular services.
“It could be a case worker visiting them in that suite. It could be twice-weekly check-ins,” Cressy said.
Staff recommend pilot converting shelter into long-term housing
One recommendation from the plan involves exploring a pilot project to convert a city shelter site into supportive housing for some of the long-term clients, who Carbone said sometimes stay in the system for a decade or more.
“We’ve been asking for that for a long time, and it’s so the right step to take, because it creates real, permanent housing for people,” said Kira Heineck, executive lead at the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness.
“And we can target those in the shelter system who have been there for years.”
Providing 1,800 supportive housing units in total each year in Toronto — with each level of government kicking in a third — is projected to provide supportive housing pathways out of homelessness for “everyone currently experiencing chronic homelessness in our system” within just three years, Carbone wrote in her report.
Right now, close to a quarter of people in the city’s shelter system meet the federal definition of chronic homelessness for six months or more, which totals more than 5,000 people a year.
“While for most people, homelessness is a relatively brief experience caused mainly by economic circumstances, those experiencing longer term homelessness frequently have more complex challenges such as serious mental health issues, addictions and other disabilities,” Carbone wrote.
According to the report, the estimated operating cost tied to adding the city’s share of 600 units is close to $14 million annually, with estimated capital costs would be between $160 million to $213 million.
While existing funding is available for 2020, Cressy said to ensure the plan succeed long-term, council needs to consistently allocate cash in the city budget for supportive housing — so that it’s not an annual ask.
Housing advocate Sean Meagher, coordinator of the Housing Issues Network, said council needs to go even further.
“We don’t have stable, long-term capital funding invested in bricks-and-mortar housing — which is what we’re missing,” he said. “We need affordable units getting built, and this doesn’t add a whole lot of affordable units.”
Heineck agreed, saying there needs to be a clearer commitment to adding more supportive housing in the city’s affordable housing efforts, including Mayor John Tory’s Housing Now plan, an initiative to build affordable units at 11 city-owned sites.
As it stands, the city is only committing to build supportive homes on “at least one” of the sites.
Still, Heineck said the latest plan shows “real progress” compared to where the city was at as recently as a year ago.
“The city is showing us in this report that they’re not going to leave any stone unturned.”