Can we really end homelessness?

Posted on November 18, 2015 in Inclusion Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – Why our effective response to the 2013 floods in Alberta suggests that solving homelessness in Canada is within reach.
Nov 18 2015.   By: Tim Richter

Last month Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario joined Alberta in making provincial commitments to end homelessness. Plans to end homelessness have sprung up in Victoria, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Fredericton, and St. John’s and across Alberta.

Depending on who you talk to these efforts are either revolutionary or foolhardy, but beg the question either way — can we really end homelessness?
We need to look no further than our response to natural disaster in Canada for the answer.

In June 2013, floodwaters devastated southern Alberta in what has since been recognized as the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, costing an estimated $6 billion. In Calgary alone, over 75,000 people were displaced. Tragically, three lives were lost.

When faced with the incredible devastation of the floods in southern Alberta, citizens rushed to the aid of their neighbours and complete strangers. Well-oiled highly sophisticated municipal emergency systems kicked into gear, the province came quickly to the aid of communities and the prime minister flew in to offer the federal government’s immediate and long-term support. The work of rebuilding started as the floodwaters receded and planning for prevention began immediately.

The floods in southern Alberta were truly epic but are eclipsed by the unnatural disaster of homelessness afflicting every Canadian city. Tonight more than 35,000 people will languish in Canada’s emergency shelters, on the streets or in some form of provisional accommodation. Over the course of a year that number grows to an astounding 235,000 people at an estimated annual cost of over $7 billion. We know with grim certainty our newspapers this winter will carry the stories of poor souls lost to the lethal combination of extreme cold, homelessness, disability, poor health and systemic neglect. In Toronto alone, there are over 750 names on the homeless memorial.

Homelessness caused by natural disaster is swift, violent and doesn’t discriminate. Homelessness caused by poverty, policy and disability is also often violent but unfolds one family or individual at a time like a drip feed of misery and happens mostly to those on the margins of society. One is an act of god. The other is man-made.

Both however, are resolved in the exact same way. Ending homelessness requires an immediate emergency response, strong local leadership supported by senior levels of government, urgent and immediate action to begin rehousing people and a focus on prevention wherever possible — all put together in a co-ordinated local plan.

Homelessness that happens to poor people is no more complex or unsolvable than homelessness caused by natural disaster. We’ve proven beyond any doubt that we can take people directly from the streets and put them into apartments, and by providing them the support they need, we can permanently end their homelessness. Thousands of people have been housed through Housing First programs right across the country.

What’s most important about Housing First is that it puts our focus on housing and recovery, recognizing that every person has a right to housing and everyone is perfectly capable of having a home. Just as our goal in disaster response is housing and recovery, so too must be our response to homelessness.

In Alberta, a provincial commitment to ending homelessness in support of local community plans with strong local leadership, an investment in affordable housing and Housing First has led to province wide reductions in homelessness. Medicine Hat, Alberta is on the verge of becoming the first city in North America that can lay claim to ending homelessness.

Does ending homelessness mean there will never be another homeless person in Canada? No — but we can ensure homelessness becomes rare, brief and nonrecurring by having systems in place to deal with disaster when it strikes.

Tim Richter is the President & CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

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One Response to “Can we really end homelessness?”

  1. JBradley1 says:

    The political view in this article is liberalism. The provincial government helped the flood victims and the federal government also offered immediate and long term help to flood victims through Housing First programs.
    There are many factors that come into play to cause an individual to become homeless, however, regardless of the reason each province needs to get on board and provide an emergency response to all homelessness; for example, more mental health resources need to become available in a timely fashion, more funding needs to be distributed to each province to create more affording and safe housing for the homeless population If all of Canada can adopt the emergency response, urgent and immediate action plan that will certainly help in reducing the amount of homeless caused by natural disasters or homelessness caused by poverty, mental health or disability. A long term action plan should be set in place in every city in every province and instantly when a person is left homeless from a natural disaster they have a place to go to rebuild their lives, this should also be the case for homeless due to poverty, mental health and disability. It would cost the government far less in the long run to prevent homelessness than it would be to carry the cost because each year the number of homeless is increasing, the cost of health care will also decrease because there would be less trips to the emergency room by the homeless population; prevent homelessness before it happens.


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