“I like to call it a perfect storm that’s happening right now that’s causing a lot of families to be at risk, and who is at risk most of all? Low income [households]. Because what happens in economics when supply is lower than demand is that the price is driven up. We have high rents right now and the issue is that we are not creating supply”
St. Catharines, and by extension the Niagara region, is facing a rapidly worsening crisis: homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.
It would be impossible to highlight every factor that leads to homelessness in the region at once as the scope of the issues that locals face is massive. One of the biggest issues that community members have the most power to change, though, is the economic factor of the whole homelessness equation. Providing affordable housing is well within the reach of our community and is something each individual can contribute towards. For the already homeless population, establishing and maintaining shelters is a great way to offer support.
According to Niagara Counts, 80 per cent of the region’s homeless population cite rents being too high, or their income level being too low as the biggest challenge for them when trying to find housing.
“I like to call it a perfect storm that’s happening right now that’s causing a lot of families to be at risk, and who is at risk most of all? Low income [households]. Because what happens in economics when supply is lower than demand is that the price is driven up. We have high rents right now and the issue is that we are not creating supply,” said Lori Beech, executive director of Bethlehem Housing and Support Services.
The rental market report created by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) shows that, at the end of 2018, the vacancy rate in St. Catharines rose to two-and-a-half per cent, though demand for rental accommodations remained strong. As a result, rent growth has accelerated to levels that are significantly higher than those outlined in the provincial annual rent increase guideline. Presently, the average rent is approximately $979 monthly, which is a four-point-three per cent increase from the previous year.
“Despite an increase in the vacancy rate, the primary rental market conditions in St. Catharines remain tight,” said Inna Breidburg, a market analyst for CMHC.
This year, the attractiveness of renting real estate relative to purchasing a home further increased. By the end of 2018, there was a notable tightening in mortgage qualifications and the threshold between average homeownership payments and the average rents widened. Altogether, these factors resulted in more households opting to seek and maintain rental accommodations as opposed to purchasing a new home. The issue with this is, with increased rent rates, the only individuals who can afford to live on rental properties are those who are making more than minimum wage but are unable to secure a home. This leaves the individuals who are making minimum wage with little to no options for accommodation.
“Young people are not buying houses, so then where are they living? Well for the ones that can afford it, they take up all the rentals,” said Beech. “If vacancy rates are still relatively low and there is nowhere for people to go then that’s when you find them taking up residence in the shelters, renting units that are deplorable and staying in motels.”
The flow of new renters slowed due to a weaker employment situation among the younger population. New jobs were created between 2018 and now resulting in slightly lower unemployment rates, however most of the employment growth in St. Catharines was driven by workers over the age of 24. By the end of 2018, the youth unemployment rate was about three per cent higher than it was a year ago, and so fewer young people were able to get into a position where they could separate from their parents’ houses and own a household of their own.
In some parts of the region, such as Niagara Falls, vacancy rates are around zero or slightly above. As a result, many workers who cannot afford accommodations near their workplaces have to travel long distances from where the cheap housing options are. These long commutes can be costly, further putting workers at risk of poverty. With adequate affordable housing, the people who make the community work can live near their jobs and enjoy the direct and indirect benefits this provides.
Any region that suffers from a lack of affordable housing quickly becomes characterized by a separation of individuals based on income level. Providing for the needs of families at every income level is necessary to make the region more equitable.
Local businesses need to maintain access to a diverse pool of workers in order to thrive. Not being able to live affordably and comfortably in a location can create a serious hit to the local workforce as individuals will tend to move outside of the region to enjoy ‘better’ conditions. These working families and young professionals provide the labour that makes the local economy grow. In addition, encouraging working-class people to settle in the community helps encourage students to remain inside the region after they graduate and further boost the economy. Reasonably priced rentals and houses allow individuals to remain in the community even when they experience temporary job loss or any other income fluctuation.
Real estate in both the rental and homeownership market are equally important. For many low- and middle-income households and families who have recently lost a home, rental homes are the most financially stable option. For other families, affordable rental housing is an important step in the process of accumulating savings and preparing for eventual homeownership.
Homeownership is also an important part of the housing stock and can be a feasible option assuming that the mortgage and pricing of the home are within reach of a working-class individual or household. For this reason, communities should strive to provide affordable and sufficient rental and owned housing stock to meet the needs of as many individuals as possible at a variety of income levels.
As students, oftentimes we neglect thinking about things such as housing and job security. These issues seem distant when many of us are more concerned with our education and student loans. For the majority of the population, after graduating from university, most available jobs compensate no more than minimum wage. Not having the ability to purchase or even rent a property even after graduating with a degree and working a 40-hour week is a big deal and is something that at the very least, is worth thinking about.
For many who simply cannot find the resources to maintain living costs within the region, they end up becoming homeless.
According to Niagara Counts, at least 625 people were homeless in the Niagara region by the end of the second quarter of 2018. One in five of the people represented in this count were youth aged 16-24 and 144 total were children under 15 years old. 55 per cent of these individuals have been homeless for six months or more over the past year.
According to Reverend William ‘Bill’ DeGuire, who has been involved with the Out of the Cold Overnight Shelter program for over 10 years and hosts the overnight shelter at Knox Presbyterian Church, follow-up is one of the two main problems when trying to make a difference to the homeless population. There is often no effort made to ensure that individuals who graduate from needing the shelter are experiencing an appropriate quality of life.
“It is sometimes hard to get volunteers to consistently come out and help past maybe once a month. Nothing is wrong with only volunteering once or twice each month but the only way we really reach these people is if they get used to us being here with them consistently,” said DeGuire. “It all depends on the volunteer though, and I understand that. Some people have the mindset that allows them to come out night after night and take on the job but there are others who can sometimes get so involved in the lives of the people they are working with, that it takes a serious toll on them. After [volunteering] for five-plus years it can become unbearable and they don’t ever return.”
Apart from volunteering consistency, Rev. DeGuire also highlighted that there was a lack of consistency and coordination between the different locations where the shelter is hosted. At Knox Presbyterian Church, for example, women are separated from men to create a more tension-free environment, especially given the ratio of women to men is about 80:20. There are frequent cases where individuals will enter the shelter and voice displeasure about being separated since the practice is not common amongst all shelters. Since the rules differ from shelter to shelter, there is often unnecessary discord created between those who stay at these locations and the hosts and volunteers who run the overnight shelters.
The volunteers from the shelter, including city councillor Karrie Porter, believe the number one thing that the homeless population needs is support. Support not only in the form of housing and transitional housing services, but in the form of kindness — a listening ear and most importantly, services that cater to both the physical wellbeing and psychological needs of the individuals. Many who frequently visit the shelters suffer from various degrees of mental illness and/or other disabilities, which volunteers are not truly trained to handle. Placing an individual who is homeless and also suffers from mental illness, a disability or even substance abuse into housing that lacks supportive services does very little to curb the real underlying problems that they face.
“One of the most important things that we have to do is listen to the guests that we support here and know what they need. We never know what they go through during the day, so we have to show them that they can count on us to listen to them. The best part of the job to me is connecting with each of the homeless who stay with us, listening to their stories and encouraging them. Working at the shelter is very humbling,” said one of the regular volunteers at the shelter. “You realize that any one of us can be placed in the position to lose our homes and livelihoods.”
Volunteering at a shelter is a truly eye-opening experience, even for those who have conducted research or read about the plight faced by those experiencing homelessness and poverty. Witnessing the silent struggle that an ever-increasing number of individuals young and old are going through in the region shows that there are definitely more conversations to be had and there is more work to be done to subvert the affordable housing and homeless crisis. There is change to be made from a community level all the way up to a provincial and federal government level, but it has to start somewhere.
Bethlehem Housing and Support Services is a multi-service non-profit organization serving the diversified needs of Niagara residents by offering support for individual growth through housing and other focused services. As such, the organization is building a new affordable housing development project that offers over 120 rental units in downtown St. Catharines. This development offers a made-in-Niagara solution to provide affordable housing and support services for individuals and families of low to moderate income. The housing development is slated to be complete by the end of the year and will mark the fourth complex built by the non-profit.
The organization also recently launched an initiative called Bethlehem Housing Heroes and there is currently a branch starting at Brock. Notably, Bethlehem Housing and the Housing Hero initiative focus on helping those who struggle to find affordable housing, more so than on providing shelter for the individuals who are homeless in the region presently.
The Out of the Cold program in St. Catharines is an initiative that takes place under the banner of Start Me Up Niagara and has been in operation for over 20 years. The overnight shelter is held at different locations (churches) every night of the week and provides a warm and safe space for 35 to 45 of the city’s homeless adults every night. It is run in conjunction with the hot meal program that also operates near the shelter on a nightly basis. Interested students are encouraged to volunteer at either the overnight shelter or the hot meal service. Volunteer hours are flexible, and students need not commit to volunteering in a scheduled manner. The schedule for both initiatives can be found on the Start Me Up Niagara website.
There are many other services that both students and community members can become involved with apart from the few highlighted in the article. There are a number of both government initiatives and private initiatives designed to help alleviate the housing crisis. When it is feasible for families, especially of young professionals, to remain in the community, they more often than not become part of the social fabric and give tremendously to their environment, whether directly or indirectly. Advocating for affordably-priced housing creates stability, community, and engagement. Indeed, there are a number of other issues apart from economic factors that affect the local region, especially when it comes on to housing and homelessness. However, as a unified community, every issue can be tackled one by one and vast improvements are possible.