Ottawa’s housing strategy falls short in fight against homelessness

There is nothing so cruel in politics as a broken promise to the vulnerable.

In fixing things, politics can help people fix themselves. But a broken promise is further trauma, insult to injury for those too familiar with disappointment.

And when that broken promise was originally a false hope, then the public has every reason to lose faith in politicians and government.

Such is the case with our never-ending campaign on homelessness.

The promises about ending homelessness are nearly as harmful as the experiences of it, for they fake the capacity of public institutions to provide simple and short-term remedies to complex and long-term problems.

Last week the Trudeau government added its name to the list of offenders on the file in claiming, without more than just optimism, that its new housing strategy would cut in half the chronic homelessness in this country.

Its conceit is borrowed from the most corrosive page of the Vision Vancouver administration’s playbook, the often-cited 2008 pledge to eliminate homelessness (then modified to street homelessness) by 2015.

This kind of promise relieves the wider public of the need to examine the root causes of homelessness, reflect on the contributing systems and focus energy into the challenges of case-by-case remedies.

Instead: Poof! No need to fret any longer! The problem shall be solved!

It did not honour Justin Trudeau to immerse himself so last week, just as it has been a stain on our city to hear our administration make those claims for nearly a decade.

Under its watch, the numbers have only increased, 30% since 2014 alone. But rather than admit its promise was a vain and pretentious appeal to our innate feelings that it would be great were homelessness banished, it has simply blundered and blustered in digging the hole deeper each year.

Last week’s commitment further took credibility from Trudeau’s national housing strategy, but it wasn’t the only flaw in the overdue blueprint to resume after decades a fulsome federal presence in the housing sector.

There were many potentially innovative ingredients – a low-income renter subsidy of $2,500 a year, for instance, would be a side-door attempt at a guaranteed income supplement, but it is insufficient to the task in a city like ours. Ottawa’s intention to steadily if slowly supply low-income housing would – if done efficiently – help address an important element of the national challenge.

And we have to accept that the strategy is glacial in speed. You don’t take three decades off exercise and suddenly decide to run the marathon this afternoon.

But the principal thrust of the strategy – the big pouch of dough – is its principal flaw. It, too, was a sleight of hand in need of a magician’s assistant.

The supposed $40 billion initiative is really about half of that. The full amount depends on matching provincial investments, yet there is nothing approaching a pact.

It was a curious way to announce such a significant policy, in the absence of the partner necessary to make it happen, rather like the groom announcing he was marrying without a bride at the altar.

Most disappointing, though, was the absence of a discussion on the wider requirements of the housing sector and how the senior government wishes to help guide it.

There was nothing to suggest any support for a pressing need in this and other communities: housing for the elderly. There was little to indicate a vision for expanding the range of purpose-built rental housing, a critical need in this and many other cities. Nor was there attention on the so-called missing middle of our housing problems.

And when the City of Vancouver released its latest reset of policy on the same day, what it offered was more notional than practical: a target of building affordable rental housing units without any real plan to secure the land or furnish the significant subsidies necessary to make those units affordable. Experts dismissed it, and we will see soon enough if the public does, too.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.