This op-ed was first published by the Winnipeg Free Press on Oct 25, 2022.
Next council must focus on real poverty solutions
Homelessness in Winnipeg has become more visible during the pandemic. Less visible are the thousands of Winnipeggers living in poverty who have a roof over their heads. Almost half are working or looking for work, but their income is not sufficient to cover their basic needs.
The city’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, published in 2021, estimates poverty affects one in eight Winnipeggers, which is 13 per cent of the population, or 92,000 people. Many others live only marginally above the poverty line. That’s 92,000 Winnipeggers who may be living in inadequate or unsafe housing, regularly going without meals, or forgoing medicine or dental treatments they desperately need but cannot afford.
By approving the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Strategy, the City of Winnipeg has recognized that it has an important role to play in addressing poverty. This is good, but we still need to invest in implementing the strategy. On Oct. 26, Winnipeggers have an opportunity to elect a mayor and city council that will do just that.
As election day approaches, Make Poverty History Manitoba has outlined three policy priority areas that require specific, concrete investment by the city: housing, transit, and safety.
We are calling for the city to commit to building 150 new rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing units annually over 10 years and to providing a total of seven full-time city staff dedicated to supporting their development.
In an RGI social housing model, low-income renters pay 30 per cent of their household income as rent. In contrast, “affordable housing” rental rates are usually a percentage of private market median rents and are often still out of reach for people living on social assistance or minimum wage. Winnipeg is facing a desperate shortage of RGI housing.
Currently, the city only employs three people to co-ordinate the housing file, which is insufficient. To support the creation of 150 new RGI units per year, we are calling for three additional staff to be hired, based on the recommendations of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ 2021 report on staffing capacity in municipal housing departments.
We are also calling for the city to provide eligible low-income Winnipeggers with 80 per cent off the cost of a monthly transit pass, and to commit to a timeline for introducing fare-free transit for all.
People living with low incomes often rely on public transit to get around the city, but at $106 for a monthly pass or $53 for a low-income pass, transit is out of reach for many. For context, social assistance gives only $245 per month for all expenses outside of rent — that’s $245 to cover a month’s worth of groceries, transportation, phone, internet, medication, clothing, household supplies and other basic needs.
Reducing the cost of a bus pass will support low-income people in accessing much-needed services and job opportunities. Going one step further to make the transit system free for all riders will have the added benefits of lowering administrative costs, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion and pollution.
We are calling for the city to redirect at least 10 per cent of police funding to expand support for community organizations that address the root causes of crime and for 24-hour safe spaces.
Mental illness or unsafe substance use stemming from poverty, marginalization and trauma can contribute to criminal or other harmful behaviours. We must look beyond police responses and invest in preventive, evidence-based initiatives led by community organizations that support mental health, safer substance use and diverse treatment options for people living with low incomes.
Poverty is a Trap
People struggle to escape poverty because of the relentless barriers that block them from exiting poverty once they slip into it.
How can someone attend job interviews if they have no way to get around the city? How can they even think about finding employment if they are homeless or sick and chronically sleep-deprived owing to their apartment being overcrowded, full of bugs or mouldy?
By excluding people from access to basic infrastructure such as housing and transit, we leave them no choice but to take shelter in bus stops and turn to potentially harmful survival strategies to access income. If we want to put an end to these harmful situations, the solution is to remove the barriers that prevent people from meeting their basic needs in the first place.
People living in poverty want autonomy, just like the rest of us, but are stuck in a desperate situation and, in many cases, very sick. For some, sickness is the cause of their poverty. For many, it’s the other way around.
It’s time to call on our next mayor and city council to invest in housing, transit and safety solutions that will get our city on the road to health and prosperity for all.
Samantha Klassen is a member of Make Poverty History Manitoba, a multi-sector coalition committed to public policy changes that eliminate poverty in Manitoba.