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Who is responsible for helping the city's homeless?

Ontario's Big City Mayors say a lack of support from the province to help those in need of urgent shelter and healthcare has forced municipal governments to step in to a crisis they say they "are not structurally or financially set up" to address
homeless camp - Oct. 5, 2021
Several factors are contributing to homelessness across the province but now municipalities are coming together to demand more funding from the province to deal with the crisis and support those in need.

Homelessness is affecting every region of the province this summer as inflation hits record highs, affordable housing gets further out of reach, shelters fill to capacity, and waiting lists grow for mental health and addiction services.

But who is responsible for managing the crisis and getting people the help they need? 

Regional councillor and chief executive officer of YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo Elizabeth Clarke said the responsibility of managing and funding the healthcare services many believe are necessary to tackle the root of the problem lie mainly with the provincial government.

“The Province of Ontario has responsibility for funding and delivering health services, including mental health and addictions services,” said Clarke. “Municipalities have no responsibility for delivering those things, and receive no resources to fund them.”

That distinction didn't stop the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Area from asking the City of Cambridge for emergency bridge funding last fall to keep its harm reduction and support services operating at the 150 Main St. drop in centre. The fact the funding ask broke all traditions in terms of government responsibility wasn't lost on Coun. Jan Liggett, one of three councillors who pushed back against the request she and others didn’t feel was within the municipality’s “sphere of jurisdiction.”

When the city granted the $10,000 to ACCKWA, it was seen as one example of how municipalities across the region have been reacting to the crisis; as best they can, while still realizing it's nowhere near enough. 

“In Waterloo region in 2022, we are spending several million dollars annually over and above the amount we receive from the province on shelters and housing supports,” Clarke explained. 

The estimated cost of providing around the clock security and other services to an encampment at Victoria and Weber streets in Kitchener is $80,000 a month.

Unlike the federal and provincial governments, however, municipalities are unable to run a deficit and must rely on property tax revenues to fund budget overruns. 

Clarke said every $6 million spent requires a 1 per cent increase to property taxes.

The region is tasked with the responsibility of providing shelter and housing supports through owning and maintaining affordable housing units. With provincial funding the region is also responsible for creating programs to maintain housing and provide incentives for property owners to create more affordable housing. 

When it comes to the lower-tier city governments, they usually work in tandem with the region on projects for shelters and housing. 

Although the city has no mandated responsibility for doing either of those things, they choose to take part in actively promoting these programs and services for the un-sheltered. 

When it comes to housing, the provincial government takes on the biggest chunk of spending, totalling over 57 per cent, while municipalities account for 26 per cent and federally for 17 per cent.

According to the provincial statistics, “across federal, provincial and municipal governments, approximately $5 billion was spent on housing and homelessness services in Ontario in 2017-18," the most recent year spending information is available.

“The city has been working with our regional and provincial and federal partners in order to add to the ambitious affordable housing plan that the region has,” said Cambridge Mayor Kathryn McGarry. 

McGarry said that this is not an issue the city can fix and needs all levels of government involved and willing to contribute. 

“In my opinion, we all need to be at the same table and we need a plan. It's not just Cambridge or Waterloo region that are faced with these challenges, it's nationwide and it's growing,” McGarry said. 

She wants to see the provincial government provide more funding for services and a change in the way funding is provided for these services. 

“Ontario's the only province in Canada that provides social services from property taxes, and this needs a total rethink in order to provide the amount of funding and resources in order to really solve the root issues or the root causes of homelessness,” McGarry said. 

On June 17, Ontario’s Big City Mayors called for an emergency meeting with the province to address “the chronic homelessness, mental health, safety and addictions crisis overwhelming our communities.”

In this meeting they discussed the lack of funding for services from the province and addressed the growing crisis that many communities are facing. 

“There is a clear lack of support for those in need of urgent shelter and healthcare, and municipal governments cannot continue to step in on this crisis when we are not structurally or financially set up to do so,” detailed the report. “These issues are the sole jurisdiction of the provincial government.”

Calls for the province to step in and give additional support to communities is ongoing and growing. 

“We are at a breaking point. The solutions to this crisis are already known by the province,” said Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie, chair of Ontario Big City Mayors. “This is unacceptable in the Province of Ontario and must be addressed immediately.” 

Attempts to reach someone at the province for comment on this story, including newly elected Cambridge MPP Brian Riddell, were unsuccessful.



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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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