Since March 2020, we’ve been in what has been called a “housing crisis” in Sarnia-Lambton (and the rest of the country). Before the pandemic, Sarnia-Lambton had 60 shelter beds and in the last year and a half we’ve seen that increase to 200 individuals that are “living in our shelter system.” It was just announced a few weeks ago that Lambton County received more funds to help with the housing crisis. In the article, there are some numbers that jumped out at me. Valerie Colasanti, general manager of Lambton’s social services division, stated that “the costs to run those additional services will eat up most of this money.” I can’t help but wonder why these additional services cost so much money?
Let’s do a bit of math:
- 2019 – 60 Emergency Shelter beds
- 2019 – $4,000,000 a year spent on preventing homelessness
- $9 million in extra funds received since March 2020 (so $15 million in funds in the last year and a half)
- 200 individuals living in shelter system today
This means that in 2019, we were spending approx $66,000/yr per shelter bed, and in 2021 we are spending $75,000/yr per shelter bed. In the last year and a half, we’ve spent $15 million dollars taking care of a few hundred people. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Where in the world does this money actually go? My guess is that they go to the payroll of social workers and the owners of hotels who are charging full price per evening for extra beds. Take away those two primary expenses, and I’d bet we would still have a majority of that money left over. Imagine if we just gave $3000 a month to anyone that asked for it to pay for an apartment, food and other necessities? We’d be able to care for double the number of people, and they’d actually be living somewhere other than an old motel. You don’t have to get too deep into this to understand the merits of universal basic income (UBI) and the benefits of just giving funds directly to the people that need it rather than shuffling them through a system that employs a bunch of middle-class workers and pads the pockets of hotel owners. Or imagine if governments approached housing like Habitat for Humanity did, where instead of the money going to administration, it actually went to building up equity and ownership. Imagine governments created an opportunity for homeownership rather than being stuck in a rent or hand-out cycle?
One of the things that got me interested in politics was my skepticism about the engrained belief that bureaucracy can fix complex social issues. We seem to think the only way forward is to continue to increase funding for doing things the exact same way. Typically any criticism of social programs gets you pinned as a conservative who just wants to gut funding and offer subsidies to those who don’t need it. Or those that promote and celebrate funding victories are so blinded by the way things are (and their job security) that they consistently fail to think creatively or to understand how their solutions are actually increasing the problem systemically. So we end up stuck doing the same thing over and over again hoping for different results.
We desperately need a new vision for housing in our community and no matter how much more money we throw at it, we will continue to see an increase in people suffering and having nowhere to go. How many apartment buildings could be purchased for $15,000,000 where a progressive cooperative style living arrangement could be organized to not only circulate and keep the funds in the community but also provide safe and respectable places to live as launch pads for people to live the life they want?
I know it’s complicated. I know these numbers don’t say it all. But I also know that what is happening is a colossal misspending of money, that is happening across the country, that is not having any meaningful or long-term effect for those that need it the most and is actually preventing us from imagining a new way forward.