The magic of “ending homelessness” — and ending up with more

Posted on March 22, 2016 in Inclusion Policy Context – Full Comment
March 21, 2016.   Colby Cosh

Bad news comes to Edmonton, courtesy of the CBC: the local homeless shelters are full to bursting. In an item about an annual roast beef dinner for the indigent, we learn from an official of Boyle Street Community Services, which you may think of as “Ground Zero” if you are not from around here, that the BSCS shelter has been “packed” all winter despite warm weather. (Edmonton had no February in 2016. We got a double helping of March.)

In nine months the number of people receiving mail at the centre has increased by about 60 per cent. Staff report a 42 per cent increase in outdoor sleeping. Low oil prices are biting hard. Donations are flagging.

The CBC mentions, in passing, that Edmonton, like many other Alberta cities, is in the eighth year of a 10-year plan to “end homelessness.” Just days after that plan was announced, back in 2009, the Alberta government announced that it also had a plan to “eradicate homelessness” in 10 years. The province formed an Alberta Secretariat for Action on Homelessness, an Alberta Interagency Council on Homelessness, and an Alberta Homelessness Research Consortium. The Council formed six working committees, all with ambitious chairpersons. They generated a snazzy report in 2014 announcing that 9,451 homeless Albertans had passed through “housing first” programs at a total cost — to the provincial government alone — of close to $600 million.

Certainly most of the 9,451 people helped must have ended up better off. Indeed, there are figures to indicate that they visited the emergency room less and had fewer run-ins with police. For all one knows, the $600 million paid for itself and then some. And, of course, a few hundred more people made a bit of coin administering, developing, and delivering the programs. Lord knows they all gave each other awards. Every agency, and every inter-agency co-ordinating agency, got a free chicken dinner out of it sometime.

You will have perceived the problem. None of this ended homelessness. Right now we seem to have as much of it as ever; maybe more. Homelessness was not even reduced much, except temporarily. Edmonton’s last local homeless count, taken before the oil shock, showed a slight uptick after a couple of years of progress; provincial data on the use of emergency shelters showed the same bounce.

(There is now, I note, a fierce theoretical debate over whether moment-in-time “homeless counts” are a good thing and who ought to conduct them. This seems to somehow involve the “hidden homeless,” which is a social worker’s term for “disadvantaged people who do, in fact, have insecure or transitory homes.” One would imagine that if you set out to eliminate a thing you would agree upon a way of measuring it and defining it at the outset. Perhaps it is a coincidence that these theoretical difficulties arose just as “ending homelessness” began to reek like a dead haddock, all at once, in many Canadian cities.)

Partly the failure to end homelessness in Alberta is a result of the province giving up on the idea. The original expenditures proposed over the life of the plan came to more like $10 billion, not $600 million. Construction of actual housing for “housing first” programs ended in about 2012, at least in Edmonton. These programs, you’ll recall, are supposed to pay for themselves in health care and police savings; in principle, Alberta’s fiscal desperation ought to have led to more up-front spending, not less. Could it be that the actual savings claimed for “housing first” might not have passed muster with an auditor-general?

Only a fool could ever have imagined that Edmonton or any other large city would “end homelessness,” in 10 years or 20 or 30, except by means of fascist methods or wild, unforeseeable social change. Nevertheless, this sappy utopian vision got a bunch of now-superannuated Alberta politicians celebrated for their heroic vision-y-ness. No one is now eager to point out their humiliating total failure — to point out that an entire professional class collectively promised the public something specific, and came nowhere close to delivering. They did not deliver half of what they promised. Not a quarter. Not a tenth.

Again, I am not suggesting that thousands of people were not retrieved from the streets and riverbanks and rescued from misery. I am not even arguing against a housing-first approach to homelessness. But if you sell a program on the basis of an unconditional and explicit promise to “eradicate homelessness,” should you not reduce it a smidgen? Should the people of a city not be left with some general sense that matters have improved?

Surely one valid way to view homelessness is as an ecological niche. Cities, almost by definition, end up with as many panhandlers and tent-dwellers as they are prepared, culturally and financially, to pay for — one way or another. If that is the case, then the homeless can never be made extinct as a category by evacuating the niche. More will always arrive to fill it.

On the basis of pure mathematics, it seems impossible to argue that this has not happened in Alberta, and maybe where you live, too. Both hard data and casual observation suggest that our cities have as many homeless persons as ever. (Edmonton’s train-station-elevators-used-as-toilets index? Still sky-high.) Where did they come from? Did they fall from the heavens? Did they sprout from the cracks in the pavement?

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