Mayors press Freeland for direct funding for urban Indigenous housing

The mayors of Canada's biggest cities say they pushed Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland for a timeline on when the Liberals want to meet their goal of ending chronic homelessness in the country, and when extra housing help is coming for urban Indigenous people.

Speaking for the group, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said Freeland faced pointed questions about the homelessness promise, which the Liberals made in last fall's throne speech after previously committing to halving the chronic homeless population.

Chronic homeless people are often on the streets for long stretches of time and are difficult to house because many won't go to shelters and may be harder to reach through traditional support systems.

Iveson said after the meeting that mayors didn't come away with any timeline from the Liberals.

He also didn't draw a line in the sand about what target date the mayors had in mind, saying it was something to be worked out between federal, municipal and provincial governments.

During a virtual news conference with reporters, Iveson noted that the path to ending chronic homelessness needed to deal with the issue of housing affordability, made tougher by the country's hot market, and more direct funding to urban Indigenous providers.

Indigenous people living in cities make up a disproportionate amount of homeless populations, as well as people living in housing that they either can't afford or doesn't meet their needs.

"There is a direct link to a variety of colonial practices, including residential schools, that have created the intergenerational trauma that contributes to that," said Iveson, chair of the big city mayors' caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Iveson said the mayors made this point to Freeland, who is also the deputy prime minister.

"I think she heard us and felt us in her heart, that there would be no time like the present as a gesture of reconciliation to lay out a very clear timeline involving Indigenous organizations in providing adequate housing to end chronic homelessness in this country."

The Liberals have been pressed to close the funding and service gap that exists for Indigenous housing in urban centres, including in recent days by a House of Commons committee.

The committee recommended the federal government provide adequate, long-term funding for an Indigenous-led strategy to provide more culturally appropriate housing and support services for Indigenous people living in cities.

The committee report noted that affordability in general is a key issue for Indigenous people in cities as they can often struggle to find affordable housing in urban centres.

The situation has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as families have faced additional financial strain from lost income, in-person support services have closed due to public health restrictions, and rising housing and building costs.

"Currently, the number of housing units built cannot meet the demand for housing in many Indigenous communities," the committee report said. "If construction costs increase, the committee is particularly concerned about the potential effect on housing affordability in urban, northern, and rural communities."

Iveson said the country's hot housing market was of concern for municipal leaders seeing middle-class families unable to afford a house, and people lower down the income scale unable to find an affordable rental unit.

Unaffordable housing could also be a hindrance to the federal government's goal of creating an inclusive economic recovery from COVID-19, Iveson said.

He said boosting the supply of affordable rental units was one clear priority, noting the budget's influx of $1.5 billion for a rapid-housing program to quickly roll out new units, building on the $1 billion first announced in the fall that projects quickly gobbled up.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.