Regina’s housing summit took a few timid steps towards solving a big problem

by Paul Dechene

Michael Fougere

As the Mayor’s Housing Summit was wrapping up on May 14, word went around that Mayor Michael Fougere would close the event with a big announcement, and I have to admit there was a tiny, not-so jaded part of me hoping he’d reveal that an ambitious housing initiative had emerged from those two days of talks.

If you read last issue you know that didn’t happen. Instead, we were informed that there will be a second housing summit held in 2014, a committee will be set up to encourage housing, and several parcels of city-owned land will be sold to non-profits for housing.

So, no nine-figure, stadium-sized investment in housing.

Guess I let my imagination run away with me. That not-so jaded part of me actually entertained the thought that Fougere would do something really unexpected. Like adopt a plan to end homelessness.

End it completely.

It’s not as crazy an idea as it sounds. And it was on top of my mind because the last talk at the summit that I’d attended was by Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Their goal is baked right into their name: to mobilize cities and towns across the country to adopt plans to end homelessness. It’s an idea that originated with the National Alliance to End Homelessness in the United States, which has already inspired 240 U.S. communities to work to end homelessness.

Here in Canada, Richter says there are several cities on board with the idea. Calgary is already five years into a 10-year plan to end homelessness and Edmonton is four years into theirs. Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer have also adopted multi-year plans of their own.

Here in Saskatchewan, a United Way-led group in Saskatoon took the first steps towards ending homelessness in their city with the release of a draft plan on May 16.

Key to getting so many cities to undertake such an ambitious project is all the research Richter can point to showing how it’s cheaper to end homelessness than to ignore it.

During his presentation at the summit, Richter noted that the usual response to a homelessness crisis is to expand emergency services such as shelters, day programs and soup kitchens. And while such services are put together with the best of intentions, people who endure prolonged homelessness see their health decline due to their insecure living arrangements.

As a result they wind up needing frequent trips to the E.R. and time in hospital. And because many homeless are also dealing with addiction and mental health issues, they also wind up spending time in other public institutions.

All together, these services carry a heavy cost for a community.

“[Alberta was] spending $320 million a year and the problem was getting worse so the government had to figure out something different,” says Richter.

That something different involves bringing together all levels of government and the private sector to tackle the problem. But according to Richter, at the heart of a successful strategy to end homelessness is the Housing First philosophy.

“Housing First basically turns the traditional response to homelessness on its head,” says Richter.

Traditionally, homeless people are only given housing after they’ve been through shelters, gotten sober and spent time in transitional housing. With Housing First, homeless people are moved directly from the street and into an apartment where they’re supported with rental supplements.

“You can’t address addiction and mental illness from the stress and chaos and insecurity of homelessness. I’ve had a lot of homeless pals who’ve said you can’t do homelessness sober. So once you get them into an apartment they can begin to deal with all of that other stuff from the safety and stability of a home,” he says.

And according to Richter, the program works like a charm. In Calgary they found that providing housing along with other supports and services costs only $30,000 to $35,000 per person per year. Conversely, one homeless person was costing the system on average $95,000 a year — and often much more.

And not only is the Housing First model cheaper than the traditional one, Richter says they see 85 per cent of people who find housing this way, retain that housing.

Still, as sensible as that all sounds, it might be hard to sell people in Saskatchewan on the idea of investing public funds in homes for the homeless when the problem is still largely invisible and we don’t have tent cities popping up the way Edmonton did in the summer of 2007.

But, Richter says, now is exactly the time to start.

“You have an opportunity to get ahead of this. What happened in Alberta is it got completely out of hand. You have an opportunity here in Regina and in Saskatchewan to get at this and fix it while it’s a million dollar problem before it’s a billion dollar problem”

Unfortunately, after seeing the three pillars of Mayor Fougere’s rather cautious post-summit announcement, it’s pretty clear city hall is unlikely to take the lead on such an idea.

“I think the issue of homelessness was an extremely interesting talk,” Fougere told the media after the summit. “And I know with our provincial partners we could maybe talk about what we can do there in the future. That is primarily the responsibility of the province with health issues and social service, those kinds of issues. The [Housing] First initiative can’t be done by the city, it’s really a provincial and federal joint initiative. Those discussions we’ll have with [the Federation of Canadian Municipalities] and the Big City Mayor’s Caucus to talk about what that would look like.”

And considering the city has been waiting years for the provincial and federal government to tackle the lack of affordable housing in this city — and have seen only modest investments on that front recently — it seems unlikely they will move terribly swiftly to end homelessness without someone pushing hard for them to do so.

That means with ending homelessness off the radar of all three levels of government, we’ll probably see little happen on this in the near future.

That is unless a group of citizens were to get together and mobilize local non-profits and the private sector to get behind the idea. (And to be fair, these initiatives to end homelessness often start out as bottom-up affairs.)

If they were to do that, Tim Richter and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness will be only too happy to help them get started.