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Federal budget addresses the mental health crisis—but what about substance use and housing?

April 23, 2021 – News
CNH3 Budget 2021 ResponseBudget 2021 makes key investments in mental health and housing, but it does not go far enough to address the life-threatening health and housing needs of the growing number of people experiencing—or at risk of—homelessness.

On Monday, the federal government tabled Budget 2021. In it, we saw crucial investments of nearly $1 billion towards mental health supports for everyday Canadians as well as over $2.5 billion in new funding for the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), a pilot project for housing veterans, and a vacancy tax on underused, foreign-owned properties.

COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of many—particularly seniors, youth, Indigenous peoples, Black people, racialized folks, healthcare workers, and frontline workers. Investments in mental health are therefore a welcome and important part of an equitable recovery from COVID-19—but what about Canada’s growing substance use and evictions crises?  

 “The [federal] recovery budget, while focused on mental health, does not specifically address the worsening substance use crisis that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Monty Ghosh, Internist and Addiction Specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital. 

Moreover, the federal government’s proposed investments in housing are not adequate to address Canada’s growing housing unaffordability and evictions crises: the Canada Housing Benefit is not reaching the people who need it most and Budget 2021 does little to address the ongoing financialization of housing which continues to take affordable rental properties off the market at a faster rate than the National Housing Strategy and RHI are producing them. 

We are therefore disappointed to not see a full adoption of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ Recovery for All plan in the federal budget, or any program dedicated to meaningfully addressing the imminent evictions crisis set to spike in the fall when CERB ends and evictions resume. 

We also urge the federal government to supply further wrap-around supports for individuals to maintain their housing. Social and health supports need to be integrated with housing to ensure that vulnerable individuals who obtain housing do not drift back into homelessness. While the government has included wrap-around services in the veteran housing pilot project—and we applaud them for this—all vulnerable individuals seeking housing should be able to access similar social and health supports. 

Mental health, substance use, housing precarity, and homelessness are often overlapping and mutually reinforcing issues. We are currently witnessing crises in all of these arenas and cannot hope to achieve a full recovery from the pandemic without significant investments in each. 

Time to make housing for all the “new normal” 

We at the Canadian Network for the Health and Housing of People Experiencing Homelessness (CNH3) have long recognized that housing is a critical determinant of health—but the pandemic has made this even more stark.  

COVID-19 has cast thousands of people into homelessness and housing precarity and put people experiencing homelessness at a dramatically increased risk of illness and death. People experiencing homelessness are more than twice as likely to catch COVID-19, 20 times more likely to need hospitalization, 10 times more likely to need intensive care, and over five times more likely to die.  

How can we expect a person experiencing homelessness to abide by stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols meant to keep themself and their community safe? Outbreaks in overcrowded shelters are near-impossible to contain, and healthcare and service providers in the sector are also at increased risk of catching COVID-19 and suffering serious health outcomes. 

While we are glad to see some investments in the health and housing of people experiencing homelessness in Budget 2021, these investments are simply not enough to address Canada’s growing housing crisis that is rapidly plunging low-income and already-marginalized peoples into homelessness. Homelessness already harms the health outcomes of more than 235,000 people in Canada every year, and will harm tens of thousands more if we do not address the imminent evictions crisis. 

We will continue to advocate for a more holistic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—one that accounts for the health and housing needs of all people in Canada. It’s time to make housing for all the “new normal.”