People working in the housing and homelessness sector continue to be concerned about decreasing vacancy rates in Halifax that are leaving vulnerable people without a place to live.
Meghan Hansford, housing support program manager at Adsum for Women and Children, said a severe housing market can present particular challenges for single parents, many of whom are women.
In 2018 the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS) released a point in time count, which analyses survey results from the visibly homeless population. Of the people they surveyed, they found that only 32 per cent were women.
But Hansford said this number can be easily misinterpreted because women are less likely to go straight to a shelter when they are experiencing homelessness. Lack of visibility is more likely when women have children because shelters aren’t equipped with the space to take in a family.
“Women often face invisible homelessness more so than men do. So they’ll try to make it work in all sorts of situations before they access a shelter,” Hansford said in an interview.
“When we do point in time counts, it doesn’t really capture all those women who are trying to make it work in different situations.”
Adsum for Women and Children introduced the Diverting Families from Shelters to Homes program in 2017, with the goal of minimizing the amount of time families spend in shelters. They’ve noticed that as rent prices increase, it’s been harder and harder for families, particularly those with single parents, to afford housing.
Nova Scotia’s new standard household rate allocates $913 per month to parents with two or more dependents who are income assistance clients. With the average cost of a three-bedroom apartment sitting at $1,307 per month, Hansford said this amount simply isn’t enough.
“With the vacancy rates in Halifax being so scarce, it’s really challenging for us to find affordable housing, suitable housing, any kind of housing to move our clients on to,” she said. “So it kind of creates a backlog in the system.”
Shelby Millen knows this struggle firsthand.
Millen is the single mother of a nine-month-old child. She has been struggling with finding affordable housing for years.
Millen, who has a history of drug addiction she said contributed to her experience with homelessness, has been sober for over five years now. She left her job after the birth of her son and is currently on maternity leave, but is concerned about her ability to return to work as her son deals with some health conditions.
Currently, she lives in transitional housing provided by Adsum, where she will stay until she can find a place of her own. She worries that the housing subsidy the province provides her with won’t be enough to get her and her son into a safe and affordable housing situation.
“Being with my history and stuff…I don’t have a problem, I don’t think I would ever go back to something like that, but I still don’t want to be put back into a really negative area,” she said in an interview.
A vacancy rate of 1% may as well be 0 for folks we know. People need #housing they can truly afford. The crisis won't be solved by the private market; we need Leadership Investment Political Will at all levels of governments if ppl in #halifax are to enjoy the #right2housing https://t.co/0zTG15j13H
— Adsum for Women & Children (@adsumforwomen) January 15, 2020
Lynette Macleod, spokesperson for the Department of Community Services, said in an email that the standard household rate, implemented on Jan. 1, has provided more financial support to individuals on income assistance.
“All Income Assistance clients now receive the policy maximum, as well as rate increases of either 2% or 5%, depending on the individual circumstances,” she wrote. “When annualized, this change is the largest increase to the income assistance budget ever.”
Macleod also highlighted other ways the province’s employment support and income assistance program have offered increased support. This includes exempting child support from income assistance calculations, which means parents can still access full funding amounts while receiving child support.
Lisa Roberts, MLA for Halifax Needham and the NDP’s housing spokesperson, said the provincial government can do more to control the rental market and make it more affordable.
In an interview, Roberts said she hopes to reinstate rent control in the province, and to apply stricter regulations around short-term rentals, which have had significant impact on the rental market.
“It feels like we’re at a moment when there needs to be some balance returned to the housing market, in terms of balancing the power that currently landlords have a great deal of and tenants have none of,” she said.
In the long run, though, Roberts said there needs to be more investment in affordable, social, and non-profit housing.
“In Canada — and in fact in most jurisdictions — we have recognized that housing is a human right, and that it is a social good,” she said. “To allow housing to just become a financial asset and to allow that to happen at the same time that people are struggling to find a place to call home I think is unacceptable.”