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Column: Sask. homeless out of sight

My latest in The StarPhoenix

The Star Phoenix logo When I started working at the Salvation Army homeless shelter, we had two dorms for men. While working at our front desk, I had clear instructions to fill up our larger dorm first as a resident in the second dorm didn’t play well with others.

We had filled up enough that by 2007, we added another large dorm. It filled up on the second night, stayed full for almost three years. There still wasn’t enough space, so we started to refer the homeless men to the Lighthouse’s emergency shelter by suppertime because we had nowhere else to put them. If that shelter filled up, we put men on mats on the floor.

One of the reasons why the shelters stayed full was that after getting here, many men could not take the next steps to securing an apartment because of their mental health or addictions issues. As hard as it is for the men to find housing, the problem is even worse for single moms with children.

For generations, the idea was that if you get your act together, you will be able to find a place to call home. Across North America, being clean, sober and presentable were prerequisites to finding housing, with the predictable result: Those who were not clean and sober lived on the streets.

One of the first to challenge this thinking was Sam Tsemberis, who formed Pathways to Housing in New York City He said the proper order is to first find housing and then deal with the other issues.

Instead of waiting for a client to get his or her life in order, Tsemberis found and furnished an apartment in a neighbourhood the person liked, got the client settled in and then provided followup supports to help the person integrate into his or her surroundings.

The City of Toronto runs a similar program and its research shows that once people are housed, things change for the better: Mental and physical health improve, alcohol and drug use decline, and the associated arrests and emergency room visits decline. It also found that clients were using a family doctor and/or accessing psychiatric care, and dealing with problems before they contributed to homelessness.

Similar results are seen in other North American cities that use a housingfirst approach.

How was it accomplished? By spending less than before.

Toronto’s research shows that it’s less expensive to put someone in an affordable apartment (at $22 to $32 a night) than it is to house that person in a shelter ($54), motel ($80), jail cell ($143), emergency room ($212), or to treat the client as a psychiatric in-patient ($615 a night). What it also found was that providing housing and followup supports (regular, in-apartment visits) cost $10 a day more during that first year, which is still cheaper than the other shelter options.

You have much lower housing costs, a decrease in self-destructive activities, and an increase of quality of life – all for less money than what existing programs and systems would cost.

As for capital costs, most of the infrastructure already is in place. Public housing plays a role and the bulk of non-supported apartments came from the private sector. In Toronto, 68 per cent of clients choose private sector landlords, who have found them to be profitable tenants.

Iain de Jong, the former manager of the Streets to Home program, explained during a 2008 presentation in Saskatoon that clients tended to stay in one apartment for an extended period, the rent was paid by the government, the tenants weren’t very demanding and there was outside supports if there was a problem. Once that became known, the market provided the required increased number of rental units.

So why isn’t Saskatchewan on board? The problem tends to be hidden in this province. The encampments of homeless are small and out of the way: Families in campgrounds are out of sight and out of mind; guys sleeping in condemned buildings come and go undiscovered, and fall between the cracks in the system.

While there is money to be saved, these savings are across departments. That means you need to get a buy-in from Health, Justice, and Social Services officials. It’s as if we have spread out the problem across too many departments that no one notices when you are trapped in the problem. It’s overwhelming.

Progress in Calgary and Edmonton was driven in a large part by the private sector, but also in a big way by the Alberta government pulling people together and having the will and the courage to believe it could end homelessness in a decade.

If Saskatchewan can find the same political will, it could happen here even sooner.

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