Summary Report: Calgary Roundtable on Housing and Homeless Issues for Vulnerable Populations

August 29, 2017

This session was co-sponsored by the Calgary Jewish Federation and the Intentional Community Consortium.  Approximately 70 participants were in attendance, including the Federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, four MLA’s, senior staff from the Province of Alberta and City of Calgary, several housing providers and community service agencies and families of vulnerable individuals.

Gary Gladstone, Manager of Stakeholder Relations for Reena and the Intentional Community Consortium, welcomed delegates and spoke about the urgent need to expand housing choices for persons with development disabilities and other vulnerable individuals.  He noted that in Ontario alone, there is currently a waiting list of 40 years for individuals with developmental disabilities to find suitable housing with supports and that the situation is similar across Canada.  He urged delegates to be a strong voice to advocate for change in this sector and to continue to meet and network to share ideas, information and resources.  He noted that the ICC is an organization comprised of agencies serving persons with development disabilities that has been established to help address this situation.  It envisions a community that completely and successfully integrates people with developmental disabilities into all aspects of society.

There is an urgent need for affordable, accessible and supportive housing that redirects some of the most vulnerable in our community out of basements, hospitals, prisons, shelters and long-term care facilities back into homes of their own with the supports they need to realize their full potential as individuals.

This can be achieved by dedicating 5% of any funds flowing through the National Housing Strategy for people with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.

He then turned the session over to Darby Young, Principal of Level Playing Field.

Darby Young, Principal of Level Playing Field Inc., spoke about their efforts to enhance accessibility and break down barriers facing vulnerable individuals.  In particular, having an accessible place to live makes a huge difference in the lives of these individuals.  She said it was critical that delegates “get the word out” to policy makers and decision makers in order to bring about positive change.

The Honourable Kent Hehr, newly appointed Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, commented on his new role and noted that sport was a powerful tool to change lives and promote inclusion and achievement.  He went on to emphasize that it is impossible to build your life without a home and that the upcoming National Housing Strategy aims to help achieve this goal for vulnerable Canadians.  He noted that there will be more than $11.2 billion invested by the Federal Government in the next ten years on housing programs for those in need and that this would be not only an important social policy, but also sound economic policy, as every $10 invested in affordable housing saves $22 in social services spending.  He concurred that the statistics on wait times and lack of suitable housing supply for persons with disabilities are grave in Calgary and across the country and that more needed to be done.  He strongly supported the concept of the Intentional Community Consortium to bring people together around this issue.

Following a brief question and answer period with the Minister, a four person panel addressed the Roundtable and fielded questions.  The panel session was moderated by Lyndon Parakin, Executive Director of Autism Calgary.  Prior to introducing the panel, he noted the extreme difficulty in Calgary at present finding suitable housing for persons with autism and developmental disabilities.  He emphasized the need for everyone in the room to work together on solving this most urgent problem.

Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, was the first panelist to speak.  He echoed the comments of earlier speakers that Calgary was growing quickly but the supply of housing for persons with disabilities was not keeping pace.  He noted that new housing is not being designed to be accessible for the whole population.  He said that Calgary is an affluent city, but has not paid attention to these needs and that government and the housing sector should be held accountable to fill these gaps and make the city accessible to all.  He emphasized that Calgary is known as a City of Resiliency and has the will and resources to tackle these issues.  He said there is a great emphasis on “smart” cities these days, but what is really needed is “wise cities”.  He pointed out that 20,000 new immigrants and refugees come to Calgary annually and that they are very vulnerable due to lack of income, language issues and other barriers.  He said we all need to work together to make them welcome and to integrate them into the fabric of the city.

Bernadette Majdell, CEO of Homespace Society, explained that they are developers and owners of affordable housing projects in Calgary.  They were originally part of the Calgary Homeless Foundation but are now an independent Charitable Corporation.  They simply provide the “bricks and mortar” for these developments and let support agencies provide the services required by residents, most of whom are vulnerable individuals, including persons with mental health challenges, addictions, physical disabilities and developmental disabilities.  They work with 15 agencies in 24 buildings around Calgary.  She pointed out that location and project size are the most important elements for a project to succeed.  They try to keep projects no larger than 25-30 units and integrate them fully within established neighbourhoods.  They also place a strong emphasis on securing community support, adequate funding and technical expertise.  They see themselves as expanding housing choices for these individuals.  They spend a lot of time and effort at community relations and education.  Despite their excellent track record, they still run into a lot of community opposition, which they find “tragic” in view of the important need they are filling.  She emphasized that the whole city needs to work together to find solutions to this issue.  They also have developed a strong understanding of specialized design for vulnerable individuals and place a lot of thought on the needs of the residents in designing these buildings.  They have found that the impact of housing on vulnerable individuals is profound – educational achievement increases, housing stability increases and crime rates decrease when people are adequately housed.  She strongly argued that permanent supportive housing is vital to achieving meaningful results.

Ed Starr, Partner with SHS Consulting and consultant to the Intentional Community Consortium, described the work of the Consortium in bringing together agencies from across Ontario involved in providing housing and supports for persons with developmental disabilities.  They meet on a regular basis to share ideas and information, to discuss practical solutions to the provision of housing for vulnerable populations and to advocate to governments at all levels about the need for greater funding to meet the gap in this form of housing.  They are guided by the following values:

  • Members are dedicated to help meet the growing demand for accessible supportive housing for persons with developmental disabilities.
  • The ICC supports an inclusive community-based housing strategy that envisions collaborating partners building housing developments in communities across Ontario that provide independence and support modeled after the success of existing projects such as the Reena Community Residence.
  • We believe a co-ordinated multi-community effort is the best way to generate significant positive results.
  • Using scale and shared learning will result in creation of a significant number of housing units designed for individuals with developmental disabilities and other similar support needs.
  • We are committed to the rights of each and every individual supported, and increasing choices and opportunities for the individual.
  • Members will aim to develop projects of at least 20 units and to contribute at least one third of the cost through their own contributions/community fundraising.
  • Members will encourage governments at all levels to dedicate 5% of housing funds towards persons with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.

ICC members in Ontario are aiming to secure $66 million in government funding over the next 3-5 years, which would be supplemented by an additional $33 million from their own resources, resulting in $100 million being invested in expanding the supply of housing for persons with developmental disabilities.  This would be sufficient to develop some 500 new units.

Ed reiterated the statistics about the 40 year waiting list in Ontario and about some of the problems facing persons with developmental disabilities when they are not adequately housed. He said the ICC would welcome members from Alberta and that, by expanding its reach, a greater voice would be heard across the country.

John Seigner, Accommodation Ambassador for the Ability Hub at the Sinneave Foundation, noted that they did consultations in 2012 around the issue of homelessness among vulnerable populations.  They found that family driven solutions are most effective.  Close to 100 Calgary families came together on a regular basis to discuss the issues and work on solutions.  The problem is growing rapidly in Alberta as the population continues to grow and the gap in availability of suitable accommodation with supports is growing.  One solution they came up with was a family sponsored program where families choose their housemates and negotiate with the government for funding that enables them to find their own suitable housing in the community.  This enables them to control the type of housing and supports provided.  They provide an “on site concierge” to help with life coaching and support.  He advised that there needs to be additional regulation to ensure new housing is accessible and includes a percentage of affordable units.  This would come in the form of inclusionary zoning, better building codes, more public/private partnerships, etc.  He suggested that there should be a Provincial Housing Trust established to hold property and provide funds for families to meet these needs.

Marty Hornstein, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service of Calgary, was the final panelist.  He has dealt with persons with developmental disabilities for more than 14 years and noted that these types of discussions and sessions have been going on in Calgary for more than 25 years.  He feels group homes should include no more than 4 persons.  He emphasized that persons with developmental disabilities understand what is being said about them but cannot articulate what they need – we need to ask them in order to understand their needs.  We need to talk to them about how they want to live – they want a good social outcome and don’t necessarily want to be dependent on support workers.  He also said it is difficult to attract support workers into the sector due to low pay levels – this needs to change.

A question and answer session followed.  There were a variety of opinions expressed about the most suitable forms of housing for vulnerable populations, but it was generally agreed that the goal was to increase choice so that these individuals can function like the rest of society.  There was also general consensus that asking for government to set aside 5% of housing funding for vulnerable populations was not enough – the goal should be higher.  The Manager of Affordable Housing for the City of Calgary commented that the City had just approved a Housing Strategy and had undertaken 6 initiatives to address a wide range of housing issues.  They are trying to ensure affordable housing is included in all neighbourhoods across the city – only 3% of the housing stock in Calgary is affordable housing vs. the national average of 6%.  This represents a shortfall of close to 15,000 units.  They have set up a Collaborative Housing Committee which includes 29 agencies that represent a collective voice for Calgary.  Part of their Strategy includes providing surplus City lands for affordable housing, as well as promoting partnerships and new affordable housing development.

Another key point that was emphasized is that solutions need to be inclusive, not “competitive”.  We need to break down “exclusivity” and change the current mainstream system.  It was noted that the City collects development charges for public art, but has never collected development charges for affordable housing and needs to start such a policy.  It was also suggested that we should use the word “appropriate” housing instead of “affordable housing” because that better describes the need.  Many thought the Alberta Heritage Fund should be used as a source of funding for affordable and appropriate housing.  An MLA in attendance encouraged everyone to lobby their MLA’s and municipal councillors to support these initiatives.  It was pointed out that the “Good Neighbour Agreements” used by the City are discriminatory – most people are not required to sign such agreements when they move into a neighbourhood – why should vulnerable persons have to sign them?  There needs to be a strong effort to stand up to NIMBY attitudes – the goal is to balance transparency while not allowing others to dictate who can live where.  Some parents in the room also said that better information sharing about resources and choices would be of great benefit.  Everyone also agreed that there should be greater effort by different government departments to break down silos and work together, as solutions require cross-ministerial effort.  Minister Hehr pointed out that there is good cooperation at present between the Federal and provincial governments and they are trying to take a “whole of government” approach to addressing these issues.  Calgary’s City Charter was held up as an excellent approach to supporting affordable, accessible and appropriate housing.

Anam Kazim, MLA for Calgary Glenmore, thanked everyone for their participation.  He brought greetings from the Minister of Seniors and Housing.  He said the government understands that everyone deserves a home and that the Provincial Government came up with a Provincial Housing Strategy in June that provides direction towards that goal.  He noted that the Province of Alberta has committed $1.2 billion over 5 years to affordable and appropriate housing.

Gary Gladstone wrapped up proceedings and reiterated the ICC goal that 5% of government funding for housing should be invested in housing and supports for persons with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.  He invited any interested delegates to contact him should they wish to become members of the ICC and expand its voice to a more national scale.

The session ended at noon and many stayed to network and share their thoughts further.