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‘Exciting opportunity’ for ministers of housing, mental health to join forces: Expert

OTTAWA — There is an “exciting opportunity” for the new housing minister and mental health and addictions minister to work together at the intersection of homelessness and mental health, says an expert.

Dr. Mary Bartram, director of policy and substance use at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said that while the two ministries working together could be powerful, the government needs to back them with funding.

“Absolutely, the opportunity of those new ministries is only as strong as the resources that follow in behind them,” she said.

Bartram said there are two steps the government can take to begin addressing the problems discovered in her organization’s research: one immediate and the other longer-term.

The first immediate step, she said, can be done before next year’s federal budget is created.

As Canadians head into the winter season, Bartram said focus could be placed on supports like emergency relief for those experiencing homelessness, and income supports for the homelessness service sector workforce.

“Now’s the time to be looking at those and getting those going,” she said.

Longer-term, she said that federally announced initiatives like increasing housing stock, a substance use strategy and mental health strategy sound good if they are intertwined.

“So, it’s not in silos, but they’re looking at this complex issue together,” Bartram said.

Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen said in an interview with The Canadian Press that he and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett “will be very closely aligned.”

Citing the Liberals’ national housing strategy, Hussen said the government understands “the importance of having a lens on our efforts to make sure that those experiencing mental health challenges are also addressed in our housing policy.”

The national co-investment fund, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation-administered fund to construct, repair or convert affordable housing, funds projects that incorporate other services like health, mental health, counselling and substance use services, Hussen added.

Bennett, whose position was recently created as part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, said in an interview that both the mental health and national housing strategy need to be executed from the bottom up.

“It is about working with those with expertise, but also lived experience, for us to be able to identify the things that are working and be able to scale them into a real integrated strategy,” she said.

She added that she will look to leaders at all levels of government for what can be put in place quickly.

In April, housing advocates applauded the government’s one-year, $1.5-billion extension in its budget of the rapid housing initiative, a program that funds the construction of modular homes and alteration of existing buildings to affordable housing.

The initiative originally planned to create 3,000 units but exceeded that goal with 4,500 units. Hussen said that number was closer to 4,700.

However, Canada’s budget watchdog said in an August report that the Liberals’ national housing strategy has had a limited impact, citing among other reasons that the government has spent less than half of the funding on housing programs, and community housing deals with the provinces have expired.

Yves Giroux, parliamentary budget officer, estimated the number of households in housing need will increase to about 1.8 million by about 2025 unless more funding is provided.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.