Viewpoint (May 01, 2004)

In the springtime we begin think about home renovations and cottages. As the first long weekend in May approaches, the privileged territory north of Toronto known as “Cottage Country” comes alive with the arrival of mid-sized BMWs racing north out of the city on Friday afternoons. Back in the city, there are those who may not even have a home, let alone a private retreat in the Canadian wilderness. As we celebrate the winners of this year’s Governor General’s Awards with considerable attention given to private residences, it may be useful to ponder the issues surrounding the provision of housing for those who have no adequate shelter whatsoever. While we have one project geared toward low-income populations, the necessity for government to provide long-term solutions to the housing needs of the homeless and the poor has in recent memory, never been more acute.

Now in its second phase of operation, the federal government is in the process of continuing its National Homelessness Initiative (NHI), a program designed to ensure greater access to social programs, services and support networks across the country. The NHI encourages cooperation between governments, agencies and organizations to provide services for the 61 communities across Canada that have developed comprehensive plans addressing the needs of homeless people. Since 1999, over 1,000 projects have benefitted.

During the first years of the NHI, communities focused on the most immediate needs of the homeless by investing primarily in emergency shelters and enhancing support services and facilities such as food banks. By extending the NHI for an additional three years (2003-2006) with a new $400 million injection of funds, the federal government is working toward reducing and alleviating homelessness by advancing the program towards longer-term solutions such as transitional and supportive housing. This will allow the homeless to achieve greater self-sufficiency as well as reducing their dependency on emergency shelter use. During this phase of the program, it is expected that architects can play a more proactive role in meeting the objectives of the NHI.

As for Aboriginal issues in urban areas, the NHI funds over 200 projects (amounting to over $50 million) that are allocated for the needs of Aboriginal people through the homelessness component of the Urban Aboriginal Strategy (UAS). The five-year old UAS program brings federal departments together to serve the needs of urban Aboriginal people in specific communities and regions across Canada. Projects relating to Aboriginal housing in Canada include: Urban Native Homes in Hamilton, the Red Lake Area Emergency Shelter Corp., the South Peace Social Housing Plan in Grande Prairie, Alberta or the Gignul Non-Profit Housing Corporation in Ottawa.

Community plans relating to homeless facilities may include either transitional or supportive housing. Essentially, support facilities for the homeless include food banks, drop-in centres and soup kitchens. Funding the development of facilities that support housing services include health and counselling services, education and life-skills training, and employment and legal/financial services.

This level of planning requires strategic transition and takes time to complete. As each individual carries with him particular circumstances, housing policies should ensure that a strategic long-term planning solution be formulated to prevent a return to homelessness. This is all food for thought as we contemplate the rebirth of spring, award-winning residences, and opportunities to lend our expertise in supporting housing initiatives for both rich and poor. Ian Chodikoff