OTTAWA — Cities working to get homeless Canadians off the streets and into homes will face fewer spending restrictions under a revamp of the Liberal government's centrepiece homelessness program.
New rules unveiled Monday will give cities leeway to spend money on local initiatives and experiments — so long as they can meet Ottawa's goal of cutting in half the number of chronic homeless people in their midst.
Chronically homeless make up a small number in the overall homeless population, but they are among the heaviest users of emergency shelters.
The changes also mean cities can spend less on projects that fall under the "Housing First" umbrella, a doctrine that stipulates governments find housing and services for people right away, rather than requiring them to seek treatment first.
The federal government had required communities spend specific amounts of funding on "Housing First" projects, but many cities complained they couldn't spend the money fast enough.
The minister in charge of the file said the spending floor will be no more when the new rules come into effect next year, letting cities spend more or less on "Housing First," depending on local conditions. Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also said "Housing First" helps groups that are visibly homeless, but not the so-called "hidden homeless," who don't use shelters.
"This (request for) greater need to adapt funding to local challenges and therefore to adapt programs to people as opposed to adapt people to the program, that request has been heard loud and clear," Duclos said in an interview.
Conservative critic Karen Vecchio said the change opens the door for cities to divert funding away from "proven methods of ending homelessness." Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said cities may find themselves having to come back to "Housing First" spending if they want to meet the federal government's homeless reduction targets.
The latest iteration of the program is the largest shift it has seen since it was first introduced in the late 1990s. Eligibility is still based on the original demographic information, which is being updated to account for population shifts — particularly out west — to make more communities eligible.
The Liberals took a long look at the homeless program after hearing complaints from cities about cumbersome reporting requirements, inadequate funding and unrealistic expectations about how quickly the money should be spent. There were also limits to the program: federal officials admitted that the homelessness program alone couldn't address the high cost of living in some cities.
Vicki May Hamm, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the changes give "critical flexibility" to cities and local housing providers "that fit their local realities."
The revamped homeless strategy, dubbed "Reaching Home," will spend $2.1 billion over the next decade. There will be additional funding for Indigenous Peoples — a group over-represented in shelters compared to their percentage of the general population — with a specific spending figure to be unveiled in the fall.
The new program puts a heavy emphasis on data collection. The Liberals want to have new ways to count and track the country’s homeless — often an elusive and challenging endeavour — so communities can set baselines and track progress towards the government's goal.
More cities could use "by-name" lists, which give housing and homeless service providers a real-time view of almost everyone in a community who is homeless, what services are in demand and what services are missing, and better co-ordinate access to service for the people who need help the most.
"We need to do better at measuring homelessness," Duclos said.
"We've made progress over the years, but there are still very significant holes in not only the amount of homeless Canadians, but also who they happen to be and where they happen to come from."
— With files from Colin Perkel in Toronto
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press