Homeless an election issue

  • October 5, 2006

TORONTO - As Toronto's homeless face another winter on the streets and in the shelters, their fate is again an election issue.

Mayor David Miller's principal challenger, Councillor Jane Pitfield, made a bid to project herself as a candidate with alternative solutions for the homeless population while at an open house in the Good Shepherd Centre on Queen Street East Sept. 29. The right-wing alternative to the left-leaning incumbent said the city needs to put more of its homelessness program funding in the hands of church-run agencies because they are twice as cost efficient as city-run shelters.

"The best service is provided by the faith communities," Pitfield said. "For some reason the city is twice as expensive."

The Good Shepherd Centre, operated by the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, has 91 emergency shelter beds, serves 750 meals and snacks per day to everyone from homeless drug addicts to the elderly poor, provides supportive housing for AIDS patients, mental health patients and recovering addicts and runs drug rehabilitation programs.

Executive director Br. David Lynch said that while it may appear that the Good Shepherd Centre is half as expensive as city shelters, which get anywhere from $70 to $120 per bed per night from city council, the Good Shepherd's $41 per bed per night funding from the city covers less than half the real cost of providing services to their clients. Lynch and the brothers rely on donors for the balance.

Pitfield called for shutting down the city's 65 shelters in favour of rent supplements. She advocated requiring 25 per cent of new condominium developments to be made affordable, and said that the Options for Homes program that makes condo ownership possible for people with incomes as low as $40,000 per year was also a good way of reducing Toronto's homeless population.

She identified the concentration of services for homeless and the poor in a few neighbourhoods as the number one problem with Toronto's response to homelessness.

"We're too fast to push people into just one neighbourhood," she said.

Toronto spends $160 million per year on homelessness programs. A survey in the spring of 2006 found 5,052 people living on the city's streets. Shelter use by single adults and youth peaked in 2001 at 33,400. By last year the number had fallen to 28,837.

The Good Shepherd Centre's resettlement program put 150 people – some former street people and some refugee claimants – in permanent housing in 2005. Helen Winters, the Good Shepherd's resettlement program director, expects to beat that number this year.

Ultimately the money spent on social workers who can find people housing and keep them there saves taxpayers money, Winters said.

"Keeping people in a shelter costs a lot more money than getting them housing," she said.

For the homeless looking ahead to this winter, "not much has changed," said Lynch.

The city's Streets to Homes program has housed 783 people since February 2005. Such successes, however, haven't really filled the gap at the low end of the housing market, Lynch told The Catholic Register.

"We need more safe and affordable housing," he said.

At the event to say thank you to donors and volunteers who keep the Good Shepherd Centre running, Lynch noted that since 1995 the centre has gone from serving 250 meals a day to 750.

"Society has changed. The problems of the poor and isolated have changed as well," Lynch told his audience of donors and volunteers.

"I have to acknowledge my belief in angels," he said. "You are our angels. It is because of you that our brothers and staff can do what they do."

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