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Where will homelessness rise or fall? A federally funded AI has some predictions

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Driving into York Region on Toronto's northern border, what first stands out to most people are the large houses and vast estates that Michael Braithwaite says leaves the impression that homelessness isn't an issue here.

But it is — and Braithwaite says people in the sprawling region of nine municipalities are seeing the pressure points and trying to address them.

"The region has a plan and they've got some good service providers like Blue Door and others in the community that are going to make it happen," said Braithwaite, the CEO of Blue Door shelters.

"A lot has happened in the last 10 years, so I can't wait to see the next 10."

Predicting the next decade is difficult, even more so in the next year or two given the impact of the pandemic on the country's economic and social services.

A federally funded project is trying to peer into the future through a unique computer algorithm that suggests York Region could see an expansion of its homeless ranks over the next year at 75 times the national average.

The prediction is experimental: It is based on 3,000 variables fed into an algorithm that tries to model different social and economic impacts in provinces and 62 cities not only for homelessness, but for suicides and domestic abuse.

Alina Turner, who heads the group Helpseeker that received the funding through the federal superclusters program, says the numbers should help policy-makers decide on where to put resources.

As is, much of the money the federal government gives to cities or provinces is based on how many people live in a given jurisdiction, which Turner said may not accurately reflect the need or the nuances between provinces and communities.

The trick now is for policy-makers to reframe how they do social policy, and not separate it out from other areas like economic policy.

"This whole concept that we should do them separately, or that this is in the realm of this jurisdiction versus that jurisdiction — people don't experience the world that way," Turner said.

"It's time for governments to step up their game in how they deliver these solutions in a more holistic and productive way."

Assuming the pandemic has a small impact on the trajectory of social and economic need in Canada, Turner's team estimates that homelessness will rise by just under two per cent by next year, or an extra 1,236 people living on city streets.

The growth is expected to be fastest in Ontario, which would grow at five times the national rate, followed by British Columbia at three times the national rate.

Part of the calculation in areas of those provinces has to do with the cost of living and housing affordability that is out of reach for many in places like York Region, says John Taylor, the mayor of Newmarket, the fourth-largest municipality in the region.

The regional population is growing at a faster rate than the national average, according to the most recent census figures from 2016.

What hasn't kept up with that population pace is the number of available rental units. While new home builds spot the landscape, the region just recently landed its first purpose-built rental building in three decades.

"The region said, 'We really don't want to focus on building massive amounts of emergency housing. We don't think that's the path out of it.' I think they're correct," Braithwaite said.

"But the amount of housing available, both emergency, transitional (and) permanent, is really far behind the need."

The percentage of renters in the region has been on the rise, Taylor said. Renters are also likely to have been hit hardest financially during the pandemic, unlike many homeowners in the region who have reported few financial consequences from COVID-19, he said.

"You cannot think of an issue of people experiencing homelessness without understanding the full housing continuum and the need to have in communities targeted, thoughtful approaches," Taylor said.

Braithwaite said the region's plan to get to "functional zero," meaning more people are housed than the number who become homeless in a month, has likely been set back by a year or so because of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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