The Housing First Model -- cure to homelessness in Canada?

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Recent weather reports have left many Canadians feeling cold, if not freezing. But some people experienced these extreme temperatures under equally extreme circumstances.

According to a 2013 report by the Homeless Hub and The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or insecure housing at some point during the last five years.

At least 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year and there are 30,000 homeless people on any given night in Canada. Among those, 2,880 are unsheltered -- meaning they are surviving the -30 to -40 degrees Celsius temperatures. An estimated 50,000 Canadians may be "hidden Homeless" on any given night -- they are the ones that fit in the "being insecurely housed" category.  

A 2009 UN report on access to affordable housing painted a grim picture. The report blasted homelessness as a national emergency in Canada. It brought to light the fact that Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a national strategy on homelessness; it also has no enforceable laws on affordable housing, one of the warning signs and indicators of homelessness.

According to the Homeless Hub, a group of experts researching and sharing information on the topic, homelessness "describes the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it."

This definition reflects a spectrum of housing situations, ranging from living on the street to insecure housing. 

"In most cases across the country we have an Emergency Services model, that is, we look to solve the issue of people who are already homeless. What we need to do is focus on upstream prevention -- how do we stop people from ending up on the streets or in the shelters," explains Tanya Gulliver, Project Coordinator at the Homeless Hub and Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN).

The solution, according to Gulliver, is to diversify models of housing and support. She adds, "The biggest barrier is affordable housing." That, and, "access to employment or income opportunities and access to social and community supports." 

Between 1980 and 2005, average earnings among the least wealthy Canadians fell by 20 per cent. Increased poverty coupled with increasing housing costs creates a fertile environment for homelessness.

"Support services differ from community to community. Some have no services at all and some have unique and varied services to meet the diverse needs of people experiencing homelessness," says Gulliver. The variation in serves levels makes it difficult to create a lone solution that fits all situations. All three levels of government need to collaborate in order to solve the problem.

"Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Wood Buffalo and Grand Prairie have made huge progress in reducing homelessness," says Gulliver. "They have done this through clear plans to end homelessness, the use of Housing First, regular counts of their homeless populations to measure progress and the use of systems responses."

The Housing First Model, which aims to house the chronically homeless without asking them to be ready or to comply to any rule (for instance, sobriety) seems to be the preferred solution to end homelessness. The reasons are obvious: homelessness costs the Canadian economy $7 billion annually. This includes not only the cost of emergency shelters but social services, health care and corrections.

These services seem to be overused by a small fraction of the population, particularly the chronically and episodically homeless that make up an estimated 15-20 per cent of the homeless population. Apart from this group, 29 per cent of people who use a shelter stay there one night. In fact, most people are homeless for less than a month and manage to leave homelessness on their own, usually with little support

As Gulliver states, "if 20 per cent of the people use 50 per cent of the resources, when you remove that group you have a lot. And that money can solve homelessness."

Through its 2014-2019 Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the Federal government will continue to provide funding to 61 designated communities across the country and the focus is on Housing First. As Tim Richter, President and CEO CAEH explains, "the federal government has been giving money to the Homelessness Partnership Strategy for years. They’re looking for evidence-based, results-oriented priorities to end homelessness, and the Housing First Model is it."

But that doesn’t solve the lack of a national policy to end homelessness or access to affordable housing.

"To me it borders on crazy that there’s no right [to] housing in Canada, if for no other reason than our weather," explains Richter. "Housing rights are a basic human right because without the safety of a home you are beholden to systems that make you dependent on them for food and shelter. If you don’t have a home, how can you have liberty and pursuit of happiness, which are basic preconditions to human rights?”

Since the 2010 Charter challenge on the issue failed, CAEH has focused on changing the system from the community up instead of top-down.

"We can ask for constitutional change and that would be an impossible hill to climb," says Richter, "Or we can begin granting homes to individual through the housing first model and end homelessness one person at time."

The positive results of Calgary’s rock solid plan to end homelessness echo the CAEH’s move away from the language of dreams into the realm of concrete results. The CAEH’s 10-year plan to end homelessness is practical, cost-efficient and evidenced-based, all attributes that appeal to the current government.

The current Homelessness Partnering Strategy is in its planning stages and we’ll have to monitor its progress in the years to come. Let’s hope that Gulliver’s prediction proves right when she says, "When we solve chronic homelessness we are essentially solving homelessness."

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Sanita Fejzic is an Ottawa-based literary author and freelance writer. She freelances for a number of newspapers, magazines and blogs including, The Ottawa Magazine and Apt 613. She was also the author of "The Beaver Tales" blog for Xtra newspaper as well as the Ottawa correspondent for 2B, Être and Entre Elles magazines. Sanita's first novella, To Be Matthew Moore, was shortlisted for the 2014 Ken Klonsky Contest, and she has published her poetry and short stories in various literary magazines including The Continuist, Guerilla, Byword and The Newer York.

Photo: flickr/mark.watmough

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