Region spends millions on hotel accommodation as shelter system struggles
The Region of Peel has been struggling with its growing housing and homelessness crises for years. From the announcement of ambitious construction plans without realistic roadmaps to rhetoric for change not backed up in budgets, council is expert at hiding the rot.
Years of neglect eventually become impossible to ignore, something evident in the number of people using the region’s stretched shelter system. Figures in annual Community for Life reports illustrate this, with 13,398 shelter visits in 2016 rising to “nearly 15,000” in 2017. In 2018, the number of visits passed that mark at 15,741, with 2019’s unreleased numbers expected to be higher still.
Emergency shelter structures similar to ones used by Toronto
These numbers demonstrate the high level of cyclical homelessness in Peel. The Everyone Counts Peel survey, conducted across three days in April 2018, found 922 people experienced homelessness on the streets of Mississauga and Brampton. Meanwhile, 11 separate homeless encamps were discovered by regional staff in 2019.
Even in the context of high homelessness, the region has a policy of turning nobody away. This principle, while admirable, faces significant challenges given the region’s shelter system has been in overflow since 2016. Last year, for example, one shelter (Peel Family Shelter with space for 225 people) was in overflow every single week.
To operate this policy, the Region of Peel uses local hotels and motels for those it can’t fit into shelter spaces. With overflow inevitable, particularly on the coldest nights of the year, the region budgets $750,000 annually to house residents in private accomodations for the night.
However, in 2019, demand for shelter space in Peel was so high the region spent $1.8 million more than it had budgeted on short-term hotel or motel accommodation. This sum exceeded the region’s budget by 240 percent, representing an average total daily spend of more than $6,900 per day.
In the moment, for those seeking shelter from the harsh Canadian winter, Peel’s system is great. But for a regional government that is supposed to plan for decades ahead in addition to next week, it represents a significant loss. Every cent spent on hotel or motel shelter is money the region is not investing in the accommodation infrastructure it so desperately needs.
In Toronto, for example, additional shelter space is created at times of heightened demand through the erection of temporary respite centres. These structures take the form of giant tents and generally offer beds for between 80 and 100 people, along with temporary bathroom and shower facilities.
According to the City of Toronto, these temporary shelters cost between $2 and $3.5 million to construct and the process, from approval to erection, happens over an 18 month period, with an operating cost of $400 to $1,600 per day. Based on Peel’s current overspend, investment in a similar structure could save the region money in the long-run while providing a physical space to help future residents suffering from homelessness.
Things are never that simple. Toronto’s respite centres, while popular with some advocates, have come under fire from others. Many residents believe shelters are bad for their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, serious questions have been raised about the space, overcrowding and living conditions for those who spend the night there.
Back in Peel, it is currently the responsibility of each shelter to contact a hotel to put up those who arrive seeking a bed for the night. This rather erratic and uncoordinated policy means it is unlikely the region is getting the best deal.
“The hotels we use for overflow are contracted by our shelter operator,” Aileen Baird, director of housing services for the region, told The Pointer. “Moving forward, the contract with hotels will be with us. This is one of several changes underway to try and address overflow costs and pressures, which is scheduled to be reported to the Strategic Housing and Homelessness Committee in April.”
Housing stock popular in Brampton and Mississauga
The key issue with the region’s current reliance on hotels to accomodate those living in shelter spaces is its short-term nature. Shelter spaces are designed to offer protection from the cold, but also act as an access point for a myriad of services including addiction therapy, mental health services, debt advisors and housing information.
In addition to the region getting no return on its tax dollars for hotels, those experiencing homelessness in Peel get less too. While a hotel may be a nicer experience than a shelter, they don’t serve the same functions.
From the perspective of growth, there are also no real winners. The total 2019 hotel spend of more than $2.5 million offered no progress towards its long-term goal of eradicating homelessness and everyone in Peel has a place to call home. Money that could be spent on the capital cost of expanding shelters is instead sunk into an operating cost that does not provide beyond the morning.
As Baird implies, the region has been slowly moving to clear up its shelter system. After years of staff warnings that short-term solutions wouldn’t cut it, councillors have moved to make changes.
On Feb. 13, councillors approved a staff plan to cancel ineffective grant funding and reallocate funds. The move recovered $4.2 million in funding, with $2.5 million being allocated to upping shelter service outreach levels, including the purchase of an additional eight new beds for Ellen House, a halfway home for women in Brampton. The remaining $1.7 million will go into a new subsidy for secondary unit construction, aimed at increasing the supply of suites in Peel to reduce rental prices by meeting demand.
Until a staff report is released in April, details remain scarce on changes to the Region of Peel’s hotel program. In the meantime, it is showing signs of moving towards long-term solutions to rising unaffordability and homelessness.
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