Community & Current Events

A solution to homelessness

By: Jill Buchner
A solution to homelessness

How housing programs can help. Author: Jill Buchner Credits: Getty Images

Community & Current Events

A solution to homelessness

By: Jill Buchner
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Housing programs offer a real solution to Canada's homelessness problem. Here's how.

The rain beat down on Joe Hatch as he made his way back from playing guitar at a bar in Winnipeg. His clothes hung, heavy with water, over his gaunt frame. After about four hours of walking in the cold spring night, he reached his destination, a private little junkyard, unofficially named Metal Park, where he found the large pipe-like aqueduct in which he often slept. The rain had dampened any hopes of a fire that night, but he took a piece of wood and laid it down for a bed. Then, wrapping a tarp around his soaking clothes, he ducked inside. "I just shivered and shivered," Joe recalls of the hours he spent there, waiting for daylight.

Joe is one of the estimated 30,000 Canadians who were homeless that night.  But his life hasn't always been like this. He grew up in a middle-class family and never wanted for anything. Though he was kicked out of school as a kid after struggles with insomnia and ADHD led to problems in the classroom, he eventually got his high school diploma and went on to earn his bachelor's degree in sociology. He got married and got a job at the University of Winnipeg before he began to experience the panic attacks that eventually led to a bipolar disorder diagnosis. As the illness took its toll, he had to take a leave of absence from work and his marriage dissolved. Years passed as his mental health struggles continued, and he made ends meet for his inexpensive rental house with monthly disability payments. But when his landlord got sick and had to sell the house, Joe quickly realized he couldn't afford to live anywhere else.

In spring of 2009, Joe found himself without a roof over his head. "I was utterly homeless," he says. The first night, he stayed in a shelter, but as someone who struggled with insomnia, he found it difficult to wake up and leave the shelter at 7 a.m. He found more comfort in parks and under bridges, except in the winter, when the Manitoba wind chill would drop to −40 degrees Celsius and he was forced to take refuge inside.

Food was hard to get, and Joe, once a 175-pound man, had shrunk to just 125 pounds, a shadow of his former self, his skin hanging off the bones of his face. He was strong from carrying around a 70-pound black hockey bag filled with all his clothes, but it, too, lightened up when his guitar was stolen and he lost many of his belongings. "The worst part was being out on the street, totally alone and feeling worthless, knowing there was no help anywhere," he recalls.

One day, when he arrived at the local food bank looking for something to eat, Joe was turned away. The rules stated that you had to call the food bank before coming and he hadn't. Hungry and manic, he yelled threats at the priest who'd shut him out. That's when Joe was thrown in jail.

How housing can help solve homelessness
Around the same time, the Mental Health Commission of Canada was looking into a new approach to get homeless individuals off the streets. In 2009, the Commission launched a study called At Home/Chez Soi, which tested the effectiveness of the "Housing First" approach to homelessness. The study provided housing to more than 1,000 homeless Canadians in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton, N.B., in many cases, letting them choose where in the test city they wanted to live. With Housing First, people were moved in quickly, then given access to health and mental health care, addictions counselling and other supports, such as work opportunities.

Joe was lucky enough to participate. Upon his release from jail, Joe's probation officer saw his need for housing and connected him with the study. In April 2010, Joe moved into a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Winnipeg. "That first night of sleeping in my own bed was just," he pauses, "I can't describe how nice that was." Though it took time for it to sink in that the place was hishe wouldn't hang anything on the wallsit didn't take long to see the benefits. "My health immediately started to improve. And after a while, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen twice a week," says Joe, who was also seeing a psychiatrist at the time.

Today, Joe is 55, happy, housed and working as a community liaison coordinator for the University of Winnipeg. "Being housed allowed me to progress in my life," he says. "You can't accomplish anything until you have a home."

The results of the study were phenomenal. Cities reduced their rates of homelessness, people stayed housed and their social functioning improved. "The study's success belies some of the myths about homelessness," says Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a centre for research on homelessness in Canada, and professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto. "You can take a person who has been homeless 20 years, with addiction and mental health issues, and if you give him housing and the right supports, he stays housed."

But one of the biggest triumphs was monetary. While homelessness costs Canada $7.05 billion a year through health care, justice and social service useincluding the cost of shelters, emergency rooms, social services and correctional facilitieshousing people through this initiative brings major cost offsets. According to the At Home/Chez Soi study, as much as $21.72 could be saved for every $10 invested in Housing First services.

Canada needs more than just housing to solve homelessness

It seems like a simple solution: provide homes to end homelessness. But it's a bit more complicated and requires many supports. "It's not like you give people rent and an apartment and it's all OK," says Paula Goering, affiliate scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and lead researcher on the study. "There was a lot of hard work that had to be done to help people to stay housed." Offering housing on its own would never end homelessness. "We will be chasing the problem continually if we don't do more to prevent homelessness through reforms to child protection; better discharge planning and support for people leaving corrections; better early prevention strategies (and, for youth, this means working in collaboration with schools); and provincial and municipal government support for initiatives, including an investment in improving the supply of affordable housing," says Gaetz.
 
Those who work with homeless youth also caution that living independently in a Housing First model might not be best for young people who've never lived alone. "It can't be one-size-fits-all," says Melanie Redman, director of National Initiatives at Eva's Initiatives, a homeless youth charity. "We're going to need a range of supports and interventions. All responses to youth homelessness, including Housing First, must be conceived, planned and implemented based on the needs of the developing adolescent and young adult."

Conor, 19, is a former homeless youth who now sits on the Youth Advisory Committee for Hamilton's Street Youth Planning Collaborative. He became homeless at 16 and eventually got off the streets through a transitional housing program in Hamilton, where he lived in a building with other youth but had his own space to learn to cook, clean and budget. "I knew I wasn't ready for independent living at that time," says Conor.

Other youth might benefit from reconnecting with their families. At Covenant House, youths' need for life skills and relationships are fostered through traditional family activities like Sunday dinners and a Christmas celebration, which brings out 300 kids with no other place to go. "The most important thing we can offer to youth is a trusting relationship," says Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto.

How our approach to homelessness is changing
Gaetz says the good news is that we now know many of the things we need to do to end homelessness. And some places are already getting to work. Alberta is now leading the pack, having adopted 10-year plans to end homelessness at the provincial and municipal levels. The focus is on collaboration with different levels and departments of government and prioritized groups, such as aboriginals, who are disproportionately homeless.

"Let's house every single person in this country, then count the number of people who would still choose to be homeless," says Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust Edmonton. "I don't believe people with options will make that choice."

Unfortunately, not everyone is given the choice to be housed. And for some, like Phillip*, who has been  living on the streets of Toronto for more than 10 years, a home is hard to even imagine. As he sits across from me at a downtown drop-in centre, he holds his hand over his chest and explains he's afraid that the stress of life on the streets is taking a toll on his heart. "At least when I die, I want to have a room to die in," he says.

As he gets up to go, he turns back for just a moment, his hand on the doorknob. "Pray for me," he says and then heads back onto the street.

*Name has been changed.

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