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Decent housing should be a right, not a dream

Kitchener Waterloo Record - February 5, 2001
by Lorraine Green

I met Carol just before her fourth move in barely two years. She's an interesting, articulate woman who's been bounced around like a ping-pong ball despite her best efforts to have an independent and stable life.

It started when her rent was raised beyond her ability to manage on a disability pension. Her social worker found a seemingly attractive basement apartment. Soon she was in hospital with breathing difficulties from dampness and mould in the apartment. After discharge and a stay at Mary's Place, she was harassed out of her next place. Now she has a comfortable place with a pleasant landlord, but she's wondering how long it will last if the building is sold.

A recent study on homelessness says 1,500 to 2,000 people in Waterloo Region experienced homelessness in the last year and spent time in shelters. This count doesn't even include people who are "sleeping rough," in alleys and under bridges, because they're hard to count. It's easy to get trapped by stereotypes like the wino in the park. Actually, according to the same study, more than one-third of those surveyed don't even use, let alone misuse, alcohol.

Right now more than 4,000 families are on the region's list waiting for help with housing. They'll be there, on average, for seven years or more. And all this despite our economic boom.

I moved to Waterloo Region just over 30 years ago after living in several other small and large cities in Ontario. One of the things that made me happy to stay here was the commitment of the people to one another in this community. Quality of life matters here and we achieve it by working together for things that are important to us.

Very important to me is the stability we provide for our children through safe, clean, affordable housing that doesn't include a move every year or less. Years ago, my husband and I were foster parents. One of our wards was seven years old, in her third year of school, technically in Grade 2 but barely doing senior kindergarten work. She had moved about three times each school year. Her education was so disrupted she hardly knew her alphabet, and not because of lack of intelligence. Through her, we saw the side-effects of a family's unsuccessful struggle to keep the same roof over their heads.

Since 1993, progressive downloads have moved assisted housing from the federal to the provincial sphere. The Harris government has now turned it over to the municipalities, who have neither funds nor infrastructure to handle the issue.

Now the ball is in our local court. The Compass Kitchener project states as one of its strategic directions that "we will actively work towards meeting the affordable housing needs of the community." But concrete outcomes to this dream-value seem years away. We're still tearing down houses and factories to "put up a parking lot," as the song says. We should be refurbishing solid buildings and maybe even questioning some of our less-flexible zoning practices to meet the human need.

In the last municipal election, housing was the great non-issue, though some of the candidates talked about the importance of affordable housing, especially in the core. An increase in housing spaces would also revitalize the downtown.

What we've seen instead are two major fires that put nearly two dozen people out of their homes and further decreased the housing supply. So far, those great pre-election speeches feel like empty platitudes.

Individuals and agencies across Ontario are backing a plan started at the University of Toronto called "the one per cent solution." The phrase arises from the statistic that less than one per cent of total government spending at all levels goes to housing. The plan calls on government as a whole to double that. This means spending a mere one per cent more to get people off the streets and into safe, affordable dwellings.

Decent housing is a basic right. Every day should not be a struggle just to stay warm and dry and keep one's family together under the same roof. Should our priority be a new market for people who have housing, or more housing downtown for people who would like to go to a market?

Maybe affordable housing spaces should be a required part of the whole market project.

Lorraine Green of Kitchener is a semi-retired family life educator. She also does volunteer work at The Working Centre.

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