By Roderick Benns
Publisher of Leaders and Legacies, a social purpose news site
Having a reliable income creates stronger self-worth and leads to a better life, says Mayor Keith Hobbs of Thunder Bay.
That’s why the mayor supports a basic income guarantee policy, to help stem the tide of poverty, addiction, and homelessness that is afflicting too many Thunder Bay residents.
Hobbs was one of many Canadian mayors who were invited to complete a national survey by Leaders and Legacies, in order to gauge municipal level support for a basic income guarantee policy.
A common definition of a basic income guarantee ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status. It involves a regular, reliable distribution of money from government to people to help ensure total income sufficient to meet common, basic needs.
“If you have a basic income, you have a certain degree of self-worth. A set income and a ‘housing first’ strategy would work wonders,” he says.
About 17,000 people live in low-income situations in Thunder Bay, the mayor says, and “a basic income would help with their needs.”
Just as important as basic income is being housed, according to the mayor.
“Homelessness is a big issue in Thunder Bay,” says the mayor, and they want to move to a ‘Housing First’ model as soon as possible.
Housing first is an approach to ending homelessness that centres on quickly moving people who are homeless into independent, permanent housing. Additional supports and services are then provided as needed. The underlying thinking is that people can more easily move forward with a stable foundation — and studies show this is less expensive than constantly dealing with the social costs of homelessness.
The mayor is looking at both Edmonton and Medicine Hat, two Alberta cities, to find answers to his city’s homelessness issue. In Medicine Hat, for example, between 2009 and 2015, 885 homeless people were housed. Medicine Hat’s goal is to get people housed within 10 days of knowing they are homeless.
The catch, according to Hobbs, is that the Alberta city is funded at a much higher level by its province than Thunder Bay is. “All things being equal, we get very little from the Province and nothing from the Feds, who are getting out of housing supports.”
The mayor says he does walkabouts in his city, a picturesque centre of 122,000 on the north shore of Lake Superior, and he knows there are severe social issues. He points out that Thunder Bay has a significant indigenous population. People who leave their reserves from farther north end up in Thunder Bay, the largest urban area in northwestern Ontario. Once they leave their reserve, says the mayor, the federal government will no longer assist them. There are no immediate social safety nets to draw upon, he explains.
One of the city’s most widely admired programs is Shelter House, which was acknowledged to be highly effective in a study completed by the University of Victoria. The program helps 15 of the most marginalized people to be taken off the streets. Their addictions are treated and they are housed until they are ready to move on.
“They are not being arrested or taking up a hospital bed. This project is working and we’re going to keep funding as much as we can — and pitching it to the Province to fund,” so that more than 15 people at a time can be assisted, he says.
Where is the leadership?
Hobbs says people are starving for leadership on the question of how municipalities are supposed to cope with the depth of social challenges they are facing.
“The current (Conservative) party is not helping. The federal Liberals before them didn’t either,” he says.
While he acknowledges the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, said she’s committed to eradicating homelessness, it’s “not good enough” until we see action.
“Municipalities are left carrying the bag.”
Hobbs says citizens need to bring these issues of poverty reduction and basic income policy to the attention of federal level candidates and to the Province.
“People are acting apathetic. Talk to service groups. Talk to unions. Be vocal – election time is a great time for people to speak out.”
For his part, Mayor Hobbs says he will be “looking at parties and candidates who are going to help fix these issues.”