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Opinion: We need new policies to combat homelessness

The Canadian government is failing people facing homelessness
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People who face hidden homelessness are often overlooked by policies or programs meant to mitigate issues associated with homelessness. COURTESY OF JON TYSON/UNSPLASH
People who face hidden homelessness are often overlooked by policies or programs meant to mitigate issues associated with homelessness. COURTESY OF JON TYSON/UNSPLASH

Content warning: This article mentions domestic violence.

Homelessness is a prevalent issue in Canada: approximately 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness any given year, and an additional 450,000 to 900,000 people experience ‘hidden homelessness.’ Hidden homelessness refers to people who experience homelessness but can find temporary accommodations by living with friends or family.

A 2014 study reported that eight per cent of all Canadians had experienced hidden homelessness in their lifetime. The study also found that Indigenous peoples in Canada are twice as likely to experience hidden homelessness compared to non-Indigenous populations, and 13 per cent of Canadians with disabilities have experienced hidden homelessness. Hidden homelessness affects an unimaginable number of Canadians, and it impacts marginalized groups even more acutely.

People who face hidden homelessness are often overlooked by policies or programs meant to mitigate issues associated with homelessness. Factors that can lead to homelessness include living in poverty, being unemployed, being a migrant to an urban centre, and the local area’s lack of affordable housing. The most common reason for homelessness is unforeseen circumstances or crises, like losing a job or the death of a family member. 

Risk factors for homelessness have been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns leading to layoffs, a ‘shadow epidemic’ of domestic assault forcing women to flee their unsafe homes, and housing prices rising almost 30 per cent in the last year. Most individuals facing homelessness simply cannot afford rent, do not have access to affordable housing, or cannot find jobs that would allow them to pay for housing. 

If someone facing homelessness doesn’t have the education or job experience required to be employable, it is impossible for them to get back on their feet. We need a dedicated program to help people facing homelessness find employment in competitive job markets. In lieu of a comprehensive program to end homelessness, more feasible policy options could fill the existing policy gap.

One such option could be a Canadian tax incentivization program for businesses to hire people experiencing homelessness, which would be similar to how Ontario incentivizes hiring postsecondary school graduates through the Co-operative Education Tax Credit. 

In addition to stimulating the economy, this type of policy would give businesses an incentive to hire people facing homelessness who may otherwise be unable to find work, afford shelter, or obtain necessities of life. Although this program would not address needs for physical shelters or counselling, it would mitigate the issues stemming from stigma related to homelessness and lack of education or experience that precludes individuals from finding jobs.

People experiencing homelessness would be able to enter the job market without needing references or a home address, could obtain valuable work experience to include on their résumé, could have opportunities for further employment at the same company after the incentive ceases, and would make money to pay for housing.

Incentives like these exist in other countries already. In the United States, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program offers a federal tax credit to businesses if they agree to hire individuals from specific groups, including those experiencing barriers to employment. This program — and its predecessor, the Welfare to Work Tax Credit — have been available to employers in the US since 1996. Canada needs to follow suit and create a reason for businesses to hire employees who are facing homelessness. 

Although an incentive like this could be expensive for the federal government to implement, the cost of the program would be paid back to the government through the income tax of the newly hired employees if they make less than $50,197. For example, if the incentive paid for 15 per cent of an eligible person’s wages, the federal government would receive this money back when it charges the employee 15 per cent on their taxable income.

Along with reintegrating people who are facing homelessness back into the workforce, this incentive would allow these Canadians to make money they would then spend in the economy by paying for goods, services, and housing. This policy recommendation would help to reduce the number of people facing hidden homelessness and would benefit Canada’s economy.

Canada is currently failing to address issues surrounding homelessness and, more specifically, hidden homelessness. Creating a tax incentive for businesses to hire people experiencing homelessness is one concrete step that the federal government can take toward reducing the number of Canadians who face homelessness and helping these individuals get back on their feet.

Katherine E. Todd is a fourth-year student studying political science and public law at UTSC.