The City That Ended Homelessness

Different communities respond to homelessness in different ways. In Toronto, they do things like pass a “Safe Streets Act”, making it illegal to panhandle and do things like squeegeeing windows for change. It has the effect of criminalizing poverty while doing nothing to address the root cause of chronic homelessness. What’s more, the law costs the city – specifically, the city’s taxpayers – more than a million dollars a year to enforce.

We hear how Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old World War II veteran from Fort Lauderdale, Florida was arrested several times for just trying to feed the homeless. He had to resort to a lawsuit in order to force the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance that bans feeding the homeless in public places. At least 33 other cities in the United States already have or are considering similar bans.

Then there are cities like Medicine Hat, Alberta – Population 62,000 – and their “Housing First Initiative“. This year, in 2015, Medicine Hat will become Canada’s first community to eradicate chronic homelessness. The program is only 5 years old, and in those 5 years, Medicine Hat has assisted over 1,000 homeless people to find housing.

The initiative was born out of a remarkably different way of looking at a very simple question – “What is it that homeless people need most?” Charity is great, but typical charitable efforts are temporary or short-lived measures that respond to specific crises, and do not offer a long term solution. In many cities, charitable groups will work in competition with each other. In Medicine Hat, they worked together.

The Housing First Initiative concluded that what homeless people need most …is a home. Not emergency shelter, not a place to crash for the night, not crisis centres… a home. Permanent housing. While emergency shelters and homeless centres can fill an immediate need, they do little to move people toward a permanent solution.

The move required a significant philosophical shift, away from charity and toward investment. It also required that people learn to ignore certain misconceptions about homeless people and people living in poverty. As Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston said, “I used to say … if you need a place to live, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get a job. And that’s the way I was raised”. As a councillor for the City of Medicine Hat, Clugston was opposed to this initiative, but as he became mayor, he became convinced that this was a strategy that works.

It is a simple concept, really, based on the belief that homeless people and families are better able to make use of the support services available to them with the stability provided by living in their own homes.

Homelessness and poverty go hand-in-hand, and there are three generally-accepted root causes to chronic homelessness – lack of employment, mental illness, and chronic substance abuse. Probably the biggest hurdle to achieving gainful employment is not having a fixed address. When someone is properly and safely situated in a home they are in a much better position to effectively deal with mental health issues, and the same for substance abuse problems. In all three cases, assistance given to someone who has a home has a much greater opportunity for long term success. Mayor Clugston, again, summarized it as “The old adage used to be, ‘if you want a place to live, get off the drugs, get off the alcohol, and THEN we’ll talk about a place to live. Housing First puts this right on its head.”

The Housing First Initiative is also based on the recognition that nobody chooses to be homeless. As Jamie Rogers of the Community Housing Society put it, “We forget that those numbers and those people have families and stories. No one wakes up one day and goes, ‘today is the day I want to be homeless.'”

Under Housing First, emergency shelters become transitional accommodations, with the city committing to placing a homeless person or family into permanent housing within ten days.

The emotional plea to end homelessness is an easy sell for any compassionate human, but the Housing First Initiative has a pitch that even the coldest-hearted dollars-and-cents person can get behind. Chronic homelessness costs Canadians about $7 billion a year. In Medicine Hat, the cost associated with housing one homeless person through Housing First is estimated at around $20,000 annually, whereas if they were “sleeping rough” and receiving acute care, it could cost $80,000 a year. When you realize that there is really only one taxpayer paying these bills, the decision over which is the better approach is fairly easy to make.

Probably the best thing out of Medicine Hat’s experience is that they are teaching other cities about it. 7 other cities are learning from Medicine Hat’s successes and mistakes. One such mistake was that their initial construction projects were built on a flood plain. They experienced significant losses early on, but remained committed to the program. One of the more notable cities who are learning from Medicine Hat’s experience is the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, about ten times the size of Medicine Hat.

What we can all learn from Medicine Hat is the value of an investment. When we invest in bettering each other, we invest in better communities. When you make it possible for people to LIVE there, people will THRIVE there.

Until this approach is taken in your community, charity is still probably the best way that you can individually make a difference in the lives of a homeless person or family. Personally, I suggest checking out your local #OpSafeWinter effort.

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