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Saskatoon mayor asks provincial government to step up and house homeless people

Star Phoenix logo Star Phoenix 2022-07-15 Zak Vescera
Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark © Provided by Star Phoenix Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark
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Saskatoon mayor Charlie Clark says publicly-owned housing should not sit empty while a record number of people are homeless. 

Clark is challenging the Saskatoon Housing Authority — and by extension its parent organization, the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation — to reduce its vacancy rate after a one-day survey identified 550 homeless people on Saskatoon’s streets. 

Organizers said the survey is likely a gross underestimate but nevertheless highlights the worsening homelessness crisis in the city.

At the same time, more than one in 10 of Saskatoon’s social housing units is empty. 

The Saskatchewan Housing Corporation says 13.4 per cent of its 2,640 units in Saskatoon are vacant.

Roger Parenteau, executive director of housing at the corporation, said 140 units in Saskatoon, or 5.3 per cent of the total, are considered ready to rent.

That relatively high vacancy rate isn’t acceptable, Clark said.

“I think historically, the Saskatoon Housing Authority has been primarily just treated as another landlord. Right now we need that body that has access to all of these housing units to really innovate and re-think what role it can play to address these issues of homelessness.”

Saskatoon’s 2022 point-in-time homelessness count asked about 100 respondents about their biggest challenges in securing housing. Unsurprisingly, the biggest issues were a lack of income and difficulty finding an affordable place to live.

Professor Isobel Findlay, a University of Saskatchewan academic and the lead researcher with the count, said Saskatoon has about 4,500 affordable housing units, roughly half of them run by the housing authority. About 18 per cent of them are vacant, compared to a national average of 1.5 per cent, she said.

“There’s a big disconnect.”

In a prepared statement, Parenteau said the reason Saskatchewan’s social housing vacancy rate is so much higher than other provinces is because hundreds of empty units are maintained in rural Saskatchewan.

“In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Housing Corporation’s chronically vacant units are largely those located in older neighbourhoods. Due to their location, some approved applicants may choose not to move into those units and wait for a vacant unit in a neighbourhood that may be closer to their children’s school, their employer or has easier access to services and amenities,” Parenteau said.

One of the challenges, Clark acknowledged, is that many social housing units were built for families or seniors. Many people in need are single, and may be dealing with concurrent substance use issues. The provincial government has recently partnered with some non-profits to embed support services in empty homes, which Clark hopes will continue.

“We need more of that fast. We need it right away,” he said.

Tribal chief calls for action

The point-in-time count found around 82 per cent of homeless respondents are Indigenous. More than half of roughly 100 people who answered follow-up questions said they attended a residential school or were affected by inter-generational trauma from those schools, where many Indigenous children were forcibly placed in an effort to separate them from their culture and families.

“There’s a reality of hearing it from the individuals who are actually homeless,” Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand said. “People need to start acknowledging this as a community and listening to Indigenous people about how to fix this.”

 Tribal Chief Mark Arcand speaks to the media at the STC Wellness Centre on 1st Avenue. Photo taken in Saskatoon, SK on Thursday, June 9, 2022. © Matt Smith Tribal Chief Mark Arcand speaks to the media at the STC Wellness Centre on 1st Avenue. Photo taken in Saskatoon, SK on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

He believes that will require people to be willing to support initiatives helping the homeless, particularly in their own neighbourhoods. He warned a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude could hold back solutions.

“It doesn’t matter if you live in Stonebridge, Willowgrove, west side, east side. It’s our community. We all benefit. Whoever is upset about it, that’s on them. Whoever wants to support it, that’s better,” Arcand said.

zvescera@postmedia.com

twitter.com/zakvescera

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