Homelessness by the numbers

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Unlike the other floors of the Drop-In and Rehab Centre, which is one of the only shelters in the city which will accept people who are intoxicated, the fourth floor of the building is reserved for those who are sober. It is kept this way so individuals who are trying to escape substance abuse and homelessness can do so without being around individuals who are still using. A while back there was a man living on that floor who became one of its great success stories. During the period he spent there he was able to shake off his substance abuse problems and regain his clarity. He also became a sort of leader on the floor, encouraging others to find the strength to overcome their own problems. Eventually he felt strong enough to move out on his own and reclaim his life.

About a year later, he started returning to that part of the world. He was going to the Cecil Hotel for a few drinks before walking around the corner to the DIC to visit the friends who were still living there. But they were on the fourth floor and he had been drinking, so he wasn’t allowed in. This happened a few times and in each case he got angry that he wasn’t allowed to see the friends he had once lent his support and guidance to. On one such occasion, Louise Gallagher, the DIC’s director of public relations and volunteer services, asked him why he was returning to the habits he had so strenuously overcome.

He felt lost, he told her. While he had been at the DIC, he had a purpose. He was getting sober and helping others to do the same. But as soon as he left and re-entered the world, he lost that purpose. He was confronted with the mundane and crushing burden of day-to-day life, of living as just another member of a large society. And that was hard to bear. So he began returning to the world he had worked so hard to escape. Not all is lost for him yet, but that may not be the case for too long.

“The possibility is high that he [will] become homeless again, unless there is some sort of intervention to restore that sense of community and give him that sense of purpose, that sense of meaning,” said Gallagher.

One year ago last Thursday, the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness released their 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The plan was the product of a full year’s effort and drew heavily on similar plans that have been successful in the United States.

The idea for the project began a year and a half prior in September 2006, when Philip Mangano, the leading homelessness expert for the U.S. government, came to speak in Calgary. The approach to homelessness he presented at that talk was different from the many ways the situation had been previously addressed. Instead of asking homeless individuals, a disproportionate amount of who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse, to solve their problems before being put into a house, he proposed the radical strategy of housing first. Instead of telling people they needed to clean up before they could get housing, they were put into a place and then given the assistance they needed to tackle their problems in a comfortable environment.

“The voices you’re hearing if you’re homeless may be the least of your [concerns] if you are worried about finding a place to sleep or something to eat or worrying about the-40 degree weather,” pointed out Homeless Foundation president Tim Richter.

It wasn’t long after the speech that a group of concerned Calgarians, intrigued by Mangano’s method, decided the strategy might be worth adopting. This interest led to the formation of the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness three months later. By January 2007, the committee had promised to research, write and release their own model of the ten year plan by the same time the next year.

The plan came out as promised and its implementation began immediately. It focused on five key elements: stopping homelessness before it begins; re-housing and providing necessary support for Calgarians already homeless; ensuring affordable housing, supportive housing and treatment capacity; improving data collection methods to better enable assessment of the problem; and the reinforcement of non-profit organizations serving homeless or near-homeless Calgarians. The five article program was aided along by the fact that the business community had become heavily involved in the initiative. Steve Snyder, the president and CEO of TransAlta, chaired the committee that drafted the plan. Having the private sector so heavily involved in the project is a big boost for its viability.

At a lecture at the university one evening in the fall, Richter explained the two major benefits the 10 year plan had gained from the business community. The first was that the individuals working with them in this capacity were used to getting things done and they would relentlessly drive the project towards its goal. The second was that with big local names like Snyder involved, it was much easier to get media coverage of what was going on. This also points to one of the most interesting features of the 10 year plan– the switch to addressing homelessness as an economic concern.

The first year of the plan will officially end by March 31 of this year. So far, it seems like all of the first year’s targets will be met. Both the provincial and federal governments have become involved with the plan: the provincial government developing its own 10 year plan and the federal government continuing its Homelessness Partnership Strategy. By Dec. 31, 57 individuals were housed by the Pathways to Housing hospital discharge program, 85 families were housed by the CUPS Rapid Exit Program and five of the most vulnerable individuals were housed. In addition, programs are being implemented which aim to house more than 300 additional people within the next year.

All of the services involved with maintaining a homeless population are costly. Given that the latest homeless count, conducted May 14, 2008, found that there were 4,060 individuals living on the streets or in shelters, the cost of allowing people to remain homeless is substantial. The realization that homelessness costs so much was instrumental in motivating decision makers to intense interest in finding a solution.

“For a long time we have made arguments about homelessness based on faith, morality or ideology,” Richter pointed out. “Once you [come up with] an economic argument, it is impossible for policy makers to ignore.”

Thus the recognition that there were such heavy costs to homelessness was incredibly important for grabbing the attention of people in key positions, particularly government, and moving them to swift action.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a radically different approach, the “Housing First” strategy enjoys roughly an 85 per cent success ratio, as evidenced by American cities, notably Portland and New York. This is a humongous achievement and a testament to the bold plan of not simply managing homelessness, but ending it. Yet there remain two distinct challenges, the solution for which will require monstrous effort.

Anticipating that Calgary’s success rate will be similar to that experienced in other centres, 15 per cent of those who will be housed will not remain that way. When the total number of individuals currently on the streets is considered– and bearing in mind that the percentage of individuals living in shelters and on the streets has climbed continuously since the first homeless count was conducted in 1994– 15 per cent is hundreds of people. Even if the homeless population defied its ascendant trend and remained at current levels, 609 people would still be in trouble despite the best efforts of the ten year plan. Many of these individuals will be the ones experiencing the most severe problems.

“There are some people whose problems are so acute they will need almost nursing home support,” said Richter.

The first issue, then, is how to deal with this segment of the homeless population. Clearly, as it contains the most difficulty fraught individuals, it will need a lot of attention and a different and likely more intensive method of care.

The second issue follows closely on the heels of the first and exacerbates it to great degrees. It is the seeming inability of people to accept the apparently-indigent into their communities. Richter mentioned that a large affordable housing complex is being built in Inglewood. This is the same community that recently decided to close a bottle depot and convert it into an art studio because they didn’t like the type of people hanging around. This tendency of communities not to want to have the intransigent living in their midst must be overcome if the ten year plan is to suceed, noted Richter.

“The main difference between homeless people and people in Mount Royal or other communities is a home,” he said. “It’s important to remember that mental illness exists all over the city. The fact that somebody is homeless and mentally ill doesn’t mean that they are a bad neighbour. They are sick and getting better in a house.”

Both of these problems must be addressed in order to truly end homelessness in this city. Doing so will require a collective effort from Calgarians to ensure the intensive programs needed to aid those remaining on the street are developed and implemented and communities are willing to set aside their prejudices and welcome affordable and assisted housing. Yet the ten year plan’s success itself indicates just how big these obstacles are.

One of the keys to the great success of the ten year plan is that it has finally found an economic argument for the importance of ending homelessness. But this is a sad realization at the same time. It means that our city, particularly individuals in key government positions, could not be motivated to vigorously approach homelessness until it was shown that in so doing we would save money. That is an appalling condemnation of this city and surely of many others. It leads one to believe that solving either of the two main challenges confronting the ultimate success of the ten year plan will require a total re-evaluation of the way we interact with one another. Like the man at the DIC who fell back into the darker traits of his character, it is hard to imagine that there will not need to be a conscious, sustained effort at community building in order to solve a problem that deeply affects some and casts a dark shadow over this city. This has not escaped the attention of either Gallagher or Richter.

“It is such a societal problem,” said Gallagher. “I mean things like family violence, abuse, divorce, these are all things that contribute to homelessness and addictions. To end homelessness we have to end the contributing factors.”

For Richter and the ten year plan, the goal is to ensure that by 2018 no one spends more than seven days in a shelter or on the streets. So far their progress has been astounding and the success of similar plans in other cities should give this city great hope. But that does not mean that it is time to sit back and assume that the solution has been found and the hard work is done.

For all the great possibilities it entails and the noble acts it engenders, the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness brings us face to face with the darker side of our collective nature. Until this is carefully scrutinized and faced up to, homelessness can not be truly eliminated.

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