By Connor Simonds, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Homelessness has become a critical issue in York Region, which is one of Ontario’s 47 Service Managers responsible for housing and homelessness services, as required by the Housing Services Act, 2011. This article explores the complexities of the situation, shedding light on the region’s efforts, the challenges faced, and the urgent need for collaboration and strategic planning.
In Ontario, service managers plan and deliver housing and homelessness services for their local service area. York Region plays a pivotal role in planning, developing, and delivering housing and homelessness services, aligning with the Housing Services Act, 2011. This encompasses homelessness prevention, housing stability support, emergency and transitional housing management, and fostering partnerships with non-profit agencies.
In response to the escalating crisis, a Homelessness Service System Plan is set to be developed in 2024. This plan, informed by stakeholder consultations, aims to address current challenges and long-term needs, focusing on areas such as homelessness prevention, early intervention, housing stability, and a coordinated system response.
Understanding the underlying causes and implications of homelessness is crucial, given rising housing costs, a scarcity of affordable options, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a critical level of need for immediate attention.
Kevin Pal, York Region’s General Manager of Social Services, states, “The Regional Municipality of York and community partners recognize homelessness is a growing challenge requiring a system response.”
He continues, “As part of the development of the Homelessness Service System Plan, York Region engaged in preliminary discussions with key partners in the homelessness sector and conducted research on trends and best practices which helped identify two aspirational goals and three priority areas for the Homelessness Service. Goal one: End chronic homelessness in York Region. Goal two: Use a Human Rights approach to guide decision-making and service provisions.”
The lack of affordable housing remains a key issue, with supply not keeping pace with population growth. Reports highlight the in-affordability of rents, with average costs soaring and vacancy rates falling below healthy benchmarks. The housing crisis was officially declared in 2021, and the cost of housing was a top concern for York Region residents in the Spring 2023 Community Opinion Report.
The continuously rising cost of living, indicated by inflation rates and the living wage, has led to a surge in residents relying on financial assistance and social supports. The number of individuals receiving Ontario Works benefits has increased, and more people are accessing food banks due to financial constraints.
“The response to homelessness requires collective planning, ongoing public education, and community partnerships,” Pal says. “The whole-of-community approach requires collaboration with all levels of government, service delivery partners, local businesses, and residents who each have a role to play in responding to homelessness holistically.”
The 2021 Point-in-Time Count revealed key trends, including the impact of insufficient income on housing, a rise in mental health issues among those experiencing homelessness, and an increase in chronic homelessness. Despite pandemic challenges, this count emphasized the need for comprehensive solutions.
Data from York Region’s ‘By Name List’ and ‘Emergency Housing Central Intake Line’ show consistent challenges in accessing emergency housing. An increase in unsheltered individuals and outreach services indicates a pressing need for suitable housing options.
The caseload for homelessness programs has increased, reflecting a growing demand for services. The average length of stay in emergency housing has nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, highlighting the need for more long-term housing solutions.
To address the crisis, York Region Council has allocated significant funding to homelessness programs and critical social infrastructure. Additionally, York Region has seen substantial funding increases in 2023.
When asked about the collaborative strategies used to face homelessness in York Region, Pal states, “Many municipalities and regions have either developed or are developing and/or implementing strategies to address homelessness and housing in-affordability.” He speaks about three key pillars the region will lean on while combating homelessness.
“Coordinated Access,” he says, “which helps individuals experiencing homelessness access housing resources through a coordinated approach,” he continues, “Housing First, which focuses on rapid rehousing as the primary goal, making the experience of homelessness as short as possible, while providing additional supports to help people remain housed long term (and) Human Rights-Based Approaches, which helps to ensure York Region’s actions to address homelessness are rights-based and person-centred and services are delivered with dignity and respect.”
Recognizing the regional nature of homelessness, York Region acknowledges the importance of partnership and collaboration. Similar initiatives are being undertaken in other regions, emphasizing the need for a collective, evidence-based approach.
In conclusion, homelessness in York Region demands urgent attention, strategic planning, and collaborative efforts. The development of a comprehensive Homelessness Service System Plan, increased funding, and ongoing partnerships are crucial elements in addressing the multifaceted challenges posed by homelessness. The commitment to evidence-based decision-making and learning from other jurisdictions is key to creating lasting solutions and ensuring a better future for the residents of York Region.