Calgary homeless in from cold

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Tue Jun 22 2010.   By Gillian Steward, Columnist

At the height of Alberta’s frenzied oil boom there were so many homeless people in Calgary that civic leaders and the business elite were eventually shamed into doing something to help them. They took their lead from the U.S. where several large cities had undertaken 10-year plans to end homelessness, rather than simply manage it, and decided to come up with their own plan — the first city in Canada to do so.

That was only three years ago and it appears their efforts are already making a difference. Last winter the number of people bunking down in temporary shelters was lower than the previous winter, the first recorded decline. There’s no question that fewer people are coming to Alberta to look for work since the recession brought an abrupt end to the boom, so that could account for the lower demand.

But the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the main driver of the 10-year plan, can also point to the fact that since the plan was launched 1,200 people have been housed and more affordable housing has been built in the past two years than in the preceding decade.

One of the foundation’s top priorities was to provide homes for parents and their children who find themselves on the street or being shuffled from shelter to shelter at night. About 220 families were rehoused in two years against a target of 200. Plans are also underway to provide housing for people discharged from hospitals and detox facilities who have no place to go, as well as people released from jails and juvenile detention centres.

The overarching goal of the foundation’s work is huge: by January 2018, a person or family facing homelessness will stay in an emergency shelter no more than a week before moving into safe, affordable housing and receiving the help they need to sustain their new home.

Like other plans to end homelessness in cities such as Portland, Ore., Calgary’s plan is based on the principle that people need secure housing before poverty, addiction or mental health issues can be addressed. This is also considered smart economics since research shows that homeless people with the highest needs can cost publicly funded shelters, hospitals, detox centres and police up to $100,000 a year — about two to three times higher than the cost of providing housing with supports.

Calgary’s plan to end homelessness wouldn’t have come about without the concerted effort of some powerful business and community leaders. They exerted the kind of pressure that produced significant and sustained funding from both provincial and federal coffers as well as the private sector. They also partnered with religious organizations and many non-profit groups who were doing much of the front-line work with the homeless. So instead of a fractured system in which homeless people were thrown from pillar to post, there is a responsive and coordinated effort to find them homes as soon as possible.

The shame in Calgary was that many of the people seeking a mat on the floor of a shelter during the boom times were actually working. They just didn’t earn enough to afford a place to live in a city awash in expensive condo construction projects.

It was clear the market was not going to provide the kind of housing they needed. Governments and other funders would have to step in or Calgary would continue to have Canada’s fastest growing homeless population.

There’s still a lot to do before all the foundation’s goals are reached but so far this cooperative effort appears to be working.

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