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Homelessness in Canada up 20% since federal strategy launched in 2018

Parliamentary Budget Officer report: "The program is not on track to meet its targets with respect to reducing homelessness."
The number of homeless people in Canada increased by 20 per cent since the federal Liberals launched their national housing strategy in 2018 to decrease homelessness by 2028. Pictured above is Vancouver's CRAB park on the waterfront, as seen in March 2024.

The number of homeless people in Canada increased by 20 per cent since the federal Liberals launched their national housing strategy in 2018 to decrease homelessness by 2028, according to a new report released from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO).

The report said Infrastructure Canada’s most recent point-in-time homeless count shows the 20 per cent increase amounts to a current total population of 34,270 unhoused people. More than 24,000 were considered chronically homeless.

“The best available evidence suggests that homelessness has increased in spite of [the strategy] and, as a result, the program is not on track to meet its targets with respect to reducing homelessness,” said the report posted in May to the PBO’s website.

To put the national homeless population into context for Metro Vancouver, 4,821 people were identified as homeless during a count in March 2023 — a 32 per cent increase over the last regional count in March 2020 when 3,634 were recorded without a home.

The Liberals’ plan is falling short, despite investments and various programs dedicated to reducing homelessness, with the report noting spending has been much greater than it was 10 years prior to the plan being launched.

From 2019 to 2023, the government provided $1.6 billion to 6,855 projects.

Of that money, the majority ($921 million) went to large urban centres under the “communities fund.” Significant funds also went to address Indigenous homelessness ($249 million), rural and remote homelessness ($68 million) and territorial homelessness ($24 million).

“These activities have provided housing supports and associated services to tens of thousands of people who were either homeless or at risk of imminent homelessness,” the report said.

The investments led to stable housing for 17,849 people annually (71,395 total over four years), emergency housing funds for 5,399 people annually (21,595 total over four years), and “core prevention services” for 31,164 people annually (124,655 total over four years).

“Progress has fallen somewhat behind the program’s initial target to place 71,500 individuals in more stable housing by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year, but this may reflect in part challenges and shifts in priorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said.

“The program exceeded other targets, such as its target for core prevention services delivered.”

Housing strategy announced in DTES

The Liberals announced their housing strategy in Vancouver in November 2017 when Jean-Yves Duclos was the minister responsible for housing in Canada. At the time, Duclos said the strategy aimed to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent by 2028.

“The federal government is back in housing — and in a big way — with more ambition, more money and a greater desire to collaborate,” Duclos said at a news conference at the Woodward’s building in the Downtown Eastside.

The PBO report said meeting the 50 per cent goal would require an additional $3.5 billion per year, approximately a seven-fold increase in funds over the housing strategy’s average.

Actual and planned spending on the strategy is $561 million per year, which is an increase of $443 million per year in nominal spending over the prior 10 years. This includes an additional $1.287 million allocated in the 2024 federal budget.

“A key reason why increased federal spending has not resulted in a proportionate reduction in homelessness is that federal spending represents a relatively small share of total spending to address homelessness,” the report said.

“As a result, a given increase in federal spending does not result in a proportionately large increase in total spending.”

$13.02 for every federal dollar

The report noted an evaluation done for the 2015-16 year found that provinces and municipalities spent $13.02 for every dollar contributed by the federal government, meaning that federal funds covered 7.1 per cent of spending.

When the housing strategy was first announced, federal funds covered 14 per cent of planned spending to address homelessness under municipalities’ 2019 to 2024 community plans.

“A second key challenge is that housing placements do not reduce future homelessness on a one-for-one basis because some of the homeless people placed in stable housing would have found housing anyways and some people placed in stable housing return to homelessness,” the report said.

“Even without any intervention, less than half of periods of homelessness exceed three months, and less than 10 per cent exceed one year.”

However, placing a homeless person in stable housing increases the probability they will be housed months and years later, added the report, which cited an example of a federal “housing first” experiment in five Canadian cities, including Vancouver, that operated between 2009 and 2011 with positive results.

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