Let’s Not Think Too Big

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.

2013-05-30

4 thoughts on “Let’s Not Think Too Big”

  1. I think there’s only one statement that needs to be made here. The City of Regina is all talk. This has been proven. The RM of Sherwood: Seem to want to walk the walk. As demonstrated by their MEGA PROJECT announcement this week. You can’t get a better real-world example of a situation where talk means nothing without action. I heard very little need for BS talk from the RM, and pretty much all action. I guess we will see who actually cares to address the affordable housing situation in Regina. So far, RM of Sherwood: 1 City of Regina: 0 (Hell the RM, in my opinion, deserves bonus points for not spending months upon months promising something and delivering nothing – like a certain other former mayoral candidate, now mayor)

  2. Fun Sunday Regina City Council policy looksee…YAHOO! : )

    p. 56 & 74 of CITY OF REGINA (May 2013)
    Comprehensive Housing Strategy IMPLEMENTATION PLAN

    Unbelievable! The City’s definition still reads:

    -“At or Below Average Market Rent – Affordable rental housing is housing with rents at or below average market rent.”

    NOPE. NADA. NO! “market rent” is NOT equal to “affordable rent” by any stretch of the English language. What nonsense.

    Humm, all to be able to subsidize market rental construction in one of the country’s hotest markets and say the city’s program is creating “affordable” rental units. Please we are not that naive? ARE WE? Yes market rent, but not affordable rent…

    What next, we start saying the Beatles are playing Regina in August since Paul McCartney will be?

    To see the Implementation Plan document:
    from Florence Stratton:
    1) Google City of Regina
    2) Click on City of Regina Residents
    3) On left, click on City Council and Committees
    4) Scroll down to View Meeting Calendar, Agendas and Decisions and click on it
    5) Scroll down to Executive Committee Wednesday May 29 and click on Agenda
    6) Scroll down to Comprehensive Housing Strategy Implementation Plan and click on it.
    7) A bunch of documents will appear on the right side of the screen. Appendix A is the Implementation Plan

  3. Did anyone really expect anything different from the most inept mayor in the history of this city?

    He knows we are in debt, spends more money for various sports events to make more debt? This already on top the stadium debt home-owners have to incur for 30 years. As well, privatizing water only means more $ to sustain the system (so that cost will also increase in years to come). Wants to build housing down-wind from factories in the North end of the city? Huh, smell test anyone?

    He’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to running a city is all I am saying.

    I mean, any quick watch of this person’s policies and it is crystal clear he is not going to support an initiative to end homelessness, in fact, we know for sure he is going to create more via his stance on 4 to 5 issues thus far. The housing summit was a f*ckin sham and to think he would make changes is to believe stuff like ‘santa is real’. Personally, I would start calling this mayor on his bullsh*t and ASAP before this city becomes too indebted to his policies.

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