Monday, December 30, 2013

Rupert Hotel Fire and Canada's Hidden Emergency

(This story originally appeared at

Last Monday December 23rd was the 24th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed nine men and one woman in Toronto.

In 1989 the Rupert was overcrowded and badly maintained.  The tragedy served as a wake up call and for a time new safer accommodation was designed and built.

For those of us who are involved with individuals and families forced to live in rooming houses or other inadequate housing, the anniversary is a time to reflect on whether things have improved.

Rupert Hotel, Toronto 1980
Photo from flickr collations photostream

In that spirit, I’ve been reading results of a multi-city study that looks at health impacts on people living in this housing.

The study is called Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency.

It was put together by the Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness and Health (REACH).  The research was based on the health and housing status of 1,200 vulnerably housed and homeless single adults in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.

First, some definitions.

Homeless, for the purposes of this study, referred to someone “living in a shelter, on the street, or in other places not intended for human habitation.”   Couch surfers also were considered to be homeless.

Who are the “vulnerably housed?”

The authors used this definition to describe an individual who had their own place but at some point in the previous year had been homeless or had moved at least twice.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the study found that there were really no differences in the health of those people who were homeless and those who were vulnerably housed.

Both groups had serious physical health problems.  We are talking about significant chronic health conditions here.  Rates of 33% for arthritis, 30% for Hepatitis B and C, 18% with high blood pressure and so on.

More than half of those surveyed reported a past diagnosis of a mental health problem. Sixty-one percent had had a traumatic brain injury at some point.

Individuals surveyed had problems accessing the health care they needed for various reasons.

In the year prior to the survey, more than half had visited an emergency department and a quarter of those surveyed had been hospitalized for at least one night. (That figure does not include emergency room stays.)

Thirty eight percent (38%) had been beaten up or attacked in that past year.

Getting adequate and sufficient food was an issue.

An earlier study that examined the deaths of 15,000 people living in such housing had some shocking results.  For example, average life span of these 15,000 was “7-10 years shorter than the life span of the general Canadian population.”  Women had about the same chance of living to the age of 75 as an average women in Guatemala, a country where many lack access to basic health care.

The takeaway from the Housing Vulnerability and Health research is this:  On any given night in Canada for every one person sleeping in a shelter, there are 23 more people living with housing vulnerability.  It is indeed “Canada’s Hidden Emergency.”

Hamilton’s Recent History

More than a decade ago, a number of housing advocates and workers, led by outreach worker Suzanne Swanton, put together a film. The film documented the situations of people living in rooming houses in Hamilton.  We had hoped the movie would spur change, would help people understand not only what a rooming house is but also what the conditions are like in rooming houses.
For example, over the years the legislation has changed so that most residents in rooming houses are considered to be tenants and have rights and responsibilities of tenants.  (See a blog piece from earlier this year for more on this including comment from Mike Ollier, the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s Director of Legal Services.

Beginning in the nineties this kind of housing had become the only real option for many Hamilton residents with low incomes. Our experience was that while some of this housing wasn’t bad the conditions in most were deplorable.

Our film didn’t really look at the kind of health issues portrayed in the REACH survey. That research suggests that nearly nine thousand households (8,755) in Hamilton experience housing vulnerability.  (This figure is from 2006 data and includes all households not just one person ones.)

What’s Next?

The fact that the City of Hamilton is finally moving to proactive enforcement of zoning and licensing regulations is a positive step.

However, these actions don’t really address, and shouldn’t be expected to address, health issues.  The solutions, though, are well known and outlined in the research paper.

We need housing that is of good quality and affordable.  Some people could use on site services (supportive housing) or service provider visitations (supported housing).  Ideally, single dwelling units with their own kitchen and bathrooms will become more available.

In Hamilton, we take great pride in striving to make the City the best place to raise a child. In that context, the situations of single unattached individuals often are forgotten.
A story written four years ago for Raise the Hammer provides more history on rooming houses in Hamilton and the Rupert Fire. (

The REACH paper can be found at

Friday, December 27, 2013

Make the Transitional Funding Permanent

Here is a story I wrote that appeared December 3rd at  As far as I know nothing has been heard from the province yet. 

Over a year ago, the City of Hamilton and other municipalities were struggling to figure out how they would address a problem caused by the provincial government.

That problem was the cancellation of the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit program (CSUMB).  This benefit had been available to people on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to cover costs like last month’s rent, rent and utility arrears and other housing related expenses.

In 2012, the province passed on only half of the funds to cities for a new program called the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. 
You may remember a public outcry followed. Then, at the 11th hour, the province provided transitional funding to cities to cover the gap.   (We wrote about it at the time

However, that transitional funding runs out on March 31, 2014.

What will fill the gap?

Recently a letter was sent  to the government by a number of organizations urging that the $42 million be made a permanent part of the CHPI fund.  A decision to do this needs to happen soon as municipalities are in the final stages of planning their budgets for next year.

While many municipalities like Hamilton created their own local programs to address the gap, some, unfortunately, did not.  But all municipalities need more funds to meet the need in their communities.

We are writing to political leaders to ask them to reinstate the program.  We hope you will too.
You can read the letter the community organizations sent on the Clinic's Fast Facts page at

The letter and more background information is also available at

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Tenant Votes Matter

  Here is a story that I did (slightly edited) that appeared in a recent edition of Sherman Hub News.

Hamilton Community Legal Clinic/Clinque juridique communautaire de Hamilton is a community based not for profit agency. We provide legal services to low income individuals and communities.

Our goal is to promote access to justice and to improve quality of life. We’ve been asked to make a regular contribution to the Sherman Hub News. This will be our first piece.

At the Clinic we practice what is referred to as poverty law. Put simply, our work is in those areas which disproportionately impact on low-income individuals or disadvantaged communities.

As you can imagine one of the busiest areas of our practice is landlord and tenant law.

We offer information, advice and representation to low income tenants. If a tenant is having a problem with their landlord or rental unit, we can help explain rights and obligations under the law. We can also advise tenants when to get help from another service and how to take legal action to deal with issues. In some cases we will represent tenants at a hearing.

Tenant Advocacy

Another part of the clinic’s mandate is to provide community development, law reform and public legal education. Here case work intersects with advocacy. Over the years we’ve been actively involved in tenant advocacy initiatives. We’ve worked with groups like the Solutions to Housing Action Committee (SHAC), the Tenant Outreach Education and Information Committee and others.
There have been times when tenant work has been relatively well resourced. This is not one of those times. Some of you will remember a group called the United Tenants of Ontario. Many years ago UTOO, as they were known, provided a strong voice for tenants. The group faded away in the nineties. In Hamilton tenant advocacy projects have come and gone over the years.

Left off the List

But that work is important. A recent article in the Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) newsletter hints at why it is.

According to the CATCH story, “(t)housands of Hamilton adults are missing from the city voters’ list and the main cause appears to be long-suspected discrimination against tenants.” (See

In Ward 3, where about half of all the housing is apartment or duplex, nearly a fifth (20%) of residents are left off the list.

The omission of tenants is becoming more of a problem. No one comes knocking at your door to put your name on the list of electors any more. Since 1999 enumeration has been taken over by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC). MPAC’s mandate is more about determining property values for taxation purposes than maintaining accurate and updated voters’ lists.
It is not news that tenants need to step up to the plate to represent their own interests. One way to do this is by participation in municipal elections. Historically, municipal politics has been about property and protecting householder’s property values. However, about twenty percent of the average rent payment goes to city hall in the form of property taxes. In addition, much of what gets debated and decided upon at City Hall impacts tenants.

In the 2006 election, the Clinic was involved with an outreach effort called I’m a Tenant and I Vote. We distributed flyers and had a media campaign pointing out to tenants the importance of voting. We had some success when we argued that tenants needed to know how much of their rent went to pay property taxes. Now, the city notifies renters how much they are paying in taxes based on their building’s tax totals. Tom Cooper, who worked at the Clinic at the time, remembers that a tenant in a $700/month unit paid equivalent tax to somebody who owns a $150,000 home.

Another issue we pushed in 2006 was the need to establish appropriate and fair municipal tax rates. We did this because the current system is not fair. Multi-residential taxpayers pay nearly three times the rate of residential (single unit) taxpayers. Tom Cooper, now with the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, documented that reality in a story in Raise the Hammer. (

A city committee looked into this but nothing has changed. With the municipal elections less than a year we’re concerned that tenant voices won’t be heard.

What can be done?

Some municipalities are taking the issue seriously.

As the CATCH story points out:
“Toronto has recognized the voter participation shortfall among tenants and taken specific steps to tackle it, including locating nearly half their polling stations inside or within 800 feet of an apartment building. That was partly in response to a campaign calling for a polling booth in every apartment building that has more than 100 units.”

A campaign like that needs to happen here. Perhaps the neigbourhood hubs can take a leadership role in addressing the voter participation shortfall. The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic will help.