Homelessness in Canada is an insidious, growing problem that directly and indirectly affects millions of people. At least 235,000 people experience it every year, according to Statistics Canada.

Based on estimates from the Homeless Hub, a research library, this costs Canada anywhere from $5.45 billion to $30.74 billion per year, including direct costs, such as shelters and services, as well as indirect costs (which economists refer to as externalities), such as increased use of health services, policing and the criminal justice system.

Two overlapping factors are helping to fuel this epidemic, which can appear like an unsolvable riddle.

First, we have a significant housing supply shortfall. In September 2023, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) estimated Canada needs to build 5.8 million housing units by 2030 to restore housing affordability. That’s 3.5 million units more than the current pace.

Second, we have a significant shortage of skilled labour, especially in the construction industry. In Ontario alone, there is a forecast deficit of 23,200 construction workers by 2027.

Many other complex factors also contribute to the homelessness epidemic, making it a compound problem that involves a dozen federal departments and Crown corporations.

But, by design, those government departments operate in silos. This disincentivizes collaboration and leads to a narrow scope of work.

These are issues, however, that necessitate a much broader and more co-ordinated response. Such an overarching shift in approach would better direct resources and ultimately help more people.

Siloed governance: to be or not to be?

Government departments often focus on a single policy area with interdepartmental co-ordination inconsistent and at times non-existent. This siloed approach can have significant ramifications.

A recent example was the federal government’s decision to cap international student visas to decrease pressure on the rental housing market. This decision was made in the absence of adequate co-ordination between the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and the CMHC.

Had immigration and housing policies been considered in tandem, it is possible that capping student visa permits may never have been necessary.

This example serves as a teachable moment about the importance of shifting to an un-siloed approach to policy management and programs defined by shared governance and funding.

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Two recent examples from Australia show the success of a co-ordinated approach to major policy challenges involving multiple departments.

First, a federal initiative there called “rewiring the nation” aims to transform Australia’s electricity grid. This initiative saw multiple federal agencies collaborate toward the creation and delivery of a fund worth the equivalent of about $17.7 billion Cdn with the equivalent of an additional $6.9 billion Cdn delivered in partnership with the state government of New South Wales for other projects.

Second, New South Wales created its digital restart fund for cross-departmental transformation projects. This fund is worth the equivalent of $1.9 billion Cdn and has led to a whole-of-government approach in areas including workforce capacity-building, shared digital assets and the modernization of outdated systems.

A case study of co-ordination at work

In Canada, there is one example beyond the halls of government that is demonstrating success using a de-siloed approach to help grow the construction workforce, boost housing supply and reduce homelessness.

Launched in 2020, Blue Door’s Construct provides a rapid pathway to secure a stable career in the skilled trades for vulnerable individuals stuck in a cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Blue Door partners with organizations such as LiUNA Local 506 Training Centre, Humber College, Durham College, The Home Depot Canada Foundation, the YMCA, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, ACCES Employment and Ontario Works to provide a robust employment training program and wraparound support to participants.

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The precedent for a federal leadership role in housing

In three years, close to 500 participants have graduated from the program while completing hundreds of high-quality and competitively priced construction jobs in the York, Peel and Durham regions of Ontario. Eighty-two per cent of Construct’s graduates have found employment or a pathway to higher education within six weeks.

Construct also saves money, offering a pathway to self-sufficiency for a one-time cost of $21,000 per participant. By contrast, Homeless Hub estimates that in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available), the average monthly cost of a sheltering someone while homeless ranged from $1,932 for a shelter bed to $10,900 for a hospital bed. That is $23,184 to $130,800 per year.

Construct demonstrates that multiple policy problems can be addressed using a concerted approach and can have a positive impact on people’s lives. Governments should take a cue from this experience to address these and other issues at a national scale.

Close-up of the building, which has large square windows with a space underneath them for air-conditioning units. Pink sheets of insulation and an off-white membrane are visible on the exterior walls.
On Dunn Avenue in Toronto, the University Health Network has donated land to the city where a four-storey modular apartment building is under construction. It will provide 51 units for hospital patients within the UHN system who are, or are at risk, of homelessness, focusing on seniors, women, Indigenous Peoples and racialized persons. It is expected to open in this summer. (Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail)

An interdepartmental funding program

The country desperately needs a Team Canada approach to drastically increase housing supply, with the federal government shifting toward shared governance and funding programs that transcend departmental boundaries.

There would be significant benefit from the creation of an interdepartmental funding program jointly overseen by Infrastructure Canada, and Employment and Social Development Canada to support social enterprises such as Construct. Effectively tackling these complex challenges requires not just know-how but a co-operative approach in place of our current siloed system.

This could be achieved by establishing committees or working groups across departments, fostering collaboration among departments with shared goals and adopting shared-funding mechanisms.

Governments can facilitate this transition by revisiting historical governance policies and frameworks that impede cross-sector financing, thereby enabling more comprehensive solutions to challenges using a whole-of-government approach.

This article is part of a series called How does Canada fix the housing crisis?

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Michael Braithwaite
Michael Braithwaite is the CEO of Blue Door and a leader and advocate for holistic housing, homelessness and employment solutions in Canada. X: @mbraithwaite72
Jacob Gorenkoff
Jacob Gorenkoff is the founder & CEO of Homeward Public Affairs, a public policy and advocacy firm focusing on affordable housing. X: @jacobgorenkoff

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