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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Homelessness and Affordable Housing

Homelessness and affordable housing have become pressing issues for those at the bottom of the economic ladder in Canada. Alberta in particular has been experiencing a housing crisis as affordable housing has drastically declined thereby exacerbating homelessness in the province. Homelessness can be defined in one of the following ways and refers to a person who:

  • Does not have a place of residence and is living on the street
  • Is living in dwellings that are not permanent residences (i.e. shelters or friends' houses) or are not meant for human habitation
  • Is at risk of losing their residence or income support and as a result becomes homeless
  • Has nowhere to go after being discharged from an institution or facility and as a result becomes homeless

The homeless come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, ethnic groups as well as age ranges. For the majority of people, becoming homeless is not a choice. Instead, there are a myriad of reasons why some become homeless - such as poor economic circumstances, physical or mental health conditions, abusive family environment and/or addictions etc. Many homeless people face high levels of poverty, societal prejudice, inequality and chronic or potentially lethal health problems.

The most recent survey of homelessness by the Edmonton Joint Planning Committee on Housing (now called Homeward Trust Edmonton) in 2006, found that there are approximately 2618 homeless people in Edmonton. Out of these, 1774 fall under the category "absolute homeless" (those who have no housing) while 844 are "sheltered" (those who live in emergency accommodations). In other words, 68% of Edmonton's homeless have no housing options because shelters frequently experience overcapacity (50% of those seeking shelter are turned away). Moreover, while homelessness cannot be associated with one gender specifically, it has been determined that 70% of those who are homeless are men. Moreover, those who are single make up the majority of the 'absolute homeless,' while homeless families mostly reside in shelters although they too face the risk of absolute homelessness. Also, over half of those who are homeless are between the ages of 31 and 54. Finally, homelessness cannot be correlated to a particular racial background. Caucasians make up 47% of the homeless, Aboriginals 38% and other groups make up 15% of the homeless population in Edmonton.

While Alberta has experienced boom-time conditions in the last few years, economic prosperity for the most part has not trickled down to those in the lowest income brackets. Ironically, it is during this prosperous period that the incidence of homelessness has increased. Since the last count in 2004, it has been found that homelessness has increased by an astounding 19%. Homelessness is currently the highest it has been since 1999. Many have pointed to the decrease in the availability of affordable housing to explain such a sharp increase.

Affordable housing consists of a hybrid of low-cost market and subsidized housing made available either for sale or by rent to those who are on modest or fixed incomes and are unable to afford housing at market prices. Such persons usually include low income or immigrant individuals and/or families, the elderly and/or persons with disabilities. Affordable housing is intended to alleviate financial burdens by enabling low income households to spend no more than 35% of their gross monthly income on housing costs. Affordable housing is provided through government initiatives such as municipal planning conditions, legal arrangements and through registered social landlords. Property reserved for affordable housing usage requires those in need to demonstrate adequate evidence of financial insufficiencies. Individuals eligible for low-income housing must demonstrate that they fall within what is considered to be a "low income" bracket - the bottom 40% of all incomes measured on a regional income distribution scale - in order to qualify for affordable housing.

In the last two decades, the availability of affordable housing has significantly decreased in Alberta. Relative to living costs, median incomes have stagnated since the early 1980s. Moreover, average monthly rent and residential selling prices have skyrocketed since 2004. As a result, those at the bottom of the income scale can barely afford rent let alone have the means to purchase expensive accommodations. They have no choice but to turn to affordable housing. Because there is so much competition to obtain the dwindling housing possibilities in the province, low-income individuals usually get last priority. Poverty levels have amplified and income gaps have widened by $200,000 in the last decade. Income support payments, for example, sit at a record low for single adults as well as low income families. Today, 1.5 million households in Canada face core housing needs and one in five households in Edmonton are unable to afford basic necessities. In light of these conditions, many have no choice but to turn to shelters or worse - the streets - due to the lack of available affordable housing.

Numerous provincial and federal initiatives have been created to respond to the housing crisis currently plaguing Alberta. Strategies include enhancing and increasing social and private housing units to expand the availability of affordable housing, providing people with sufficient income assistance as a means to address affordability problems, increasing shelter allowances, reforming the tax system to encourage market-based house rentals and, expanding the supply of affordable housing when the market fails to provide low-cost housing. While these initiatives have potential to increase the availability of affordable housing, they have yet to be implemented so as to fully address the current housing crisis in Alberta.

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