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Seven Solutions to Homelessness

Each is working somewhere else, and will save money and lives here.

Monte Paulsen 8 Jan

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Boundary Road exit, Vancouver. Photo Elaine Briere.

Homelessness is not necessary. Unlike most other urban social problems, homelessness is something policymakers actually know how to address. The U.S. and Britain have slashed their rates of homelessness during the past decade. But in Canada, homelessness is on the rise; and in the Vancouver region, the official count of homeless persons almost doubled from 1,121 souls in 2002 to 2,174 in 2005.

Homelessness is not cheap. Provincial taxpayers spend up to $40,000 annually per homeless person, according a 2001 study. That money is spent on police calls, hospital visits and other emergency social services. If there are only 2,174 homeless people in the Vancouver area (an official figure everyone in the field assumes is well below the actual total) and if each person uses $40,000 in services (a figure that did not include all local services), then British Columbia taxpayers are spending $86.9 million a year just to help people living on the streets stay alive.

Housing them all would cost less than half that much money, and numerous studies show that people who live indoors go to jails and hospitals far less than people who live on the streets. The average Canadian spends only $11,200 a year on housing. Even government-run supportive housing -- where residents get social services, such as counselling -- costs only $28,000 a year.

This essay highlights seven solutions to homelessness.

Each of these ideas is working somewhere.

Each is affordable, in that they will cost taxpayers less than the $86.9 million a year now being spent just on survival rather than solutions.

And while constructing new supportive housing is one critical component of an overall solution, none of the solutions presented here involve building anything new.

Also, none of the not-so-new ideas presented here is being proposed by either the Tories in Ottawa or the Liberals in Victoria; and only one is included in Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan's sweeping Civil City Project.

Idea One: Trade Fairs for the Homeless

Ask any homeless person why they are living on the street, and one theme will inevitably emerge: they were unable to navigate the maze of programs and procedures intended to help. The same bureaucracy that frustrates all of us can utterly stymie those of us with mental handicaps or drug addled brains.

In the fall of 2004, a group of homeless advocates in San Francisco tried an experiment. They rented a local convention hall, persuaded nearly every social service provider in their city to set up a table, and opened what amounted to a trade fair for homeless people. In addition to information about every short- and long-term housing program available in the city, Project Homeless Connect provided clothing, shoes, free phone calls, counselling, medical treatment, dental care, eye exams and glasses, benefits information, government identification cards, and more. There was live music, free food, and, yes, even secure valet parking for shopping carts, so that clients could wander the aisles without fear of having their few possessions stolen.

Project Homeless Connect was so successful in enrolling new clients into existing social service programs, that San Francisco now convenes the event six times each year. Homeless participants report that they feel respected and safe at the event. (This is particularly relevant for Vancouver, where many homeless people -- especially women -- avoid visiting social service offices in the downtown eastside for fear they will be robbed.)

Homeless Connect has helped galvanize service providers as well. Social workers and activists and bureaucrats all get to know one another and build relationships that make it easier for them to help their clients navigate among providers. And volunteers clamour to participate. High schools and colleges allow students to volunteer in lieu of class work, and a few Bay Area companies have started allowing their employees to take paid days off work to help organize the event.

At least 32 U.S. cities sponsored homeless connect days in 2006, and more are planned for this year. Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster each launched pilot projects based on the Homeless Connect idea last October. New West Mayor Wayne Wright served dinner to the Queen City homeless. Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan did not attend.

Idea Two: Raise the Welfare Rates

You don't need another study to know most people become homeless when they can't pay their rent.

It's cheaper -- not to mention more humane -- to help people pay their rent rather than rescue them after they fail. The majority of Vancouver's homeless are on welfare. Taxpayers could spare themselves that $40,000-a-year in street services if the province would cough up a couple hundred dollars a month to cover the gap between what welfare pays and what it costs to rent an apartment.

Welfare pays $510 a month to single, employable adults aged 18 to 64. That's broken down into $325 a month for rent, and $185 a month -- or $6 a day -- for everything else. Those rates have not been adjusted since 1991. But the Vancouver area real estate market has changed dramatically. By 2004, according to a report by the Greater Vancouver Regional District, the average market rent for a bachelor apartment in Greater Vancouver was $678 per month.

Raise the Rates advocates raising welfare rates by 50 per cent and indexing them to inflation (the way MLA salaries are indexed). Also: ending barriers to getting on income assistance, and raising minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. Data compiled by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that raising welfare rates by 50 per cent would cost only about one-sixth of B.C.'s recent budget surplus.

Idea Three: Train Young Workers

Those with the highest risk of becoming homeless are young adults recently discharged from institutions such as jail or foster care. Lacking even basic employment skills, a terribly high percentage of them wind up on the streets.

Even day labour can be hard to get for people who lack required work clothes, such as steel-toed boots. Providing such items presents an opportunity for the private sector to become involved. "During Homelessness Awareness Week, one group put out a call for steel-toed boots," said Vancouver homeless fair co-ordinator Helesia Luke. "Within a few days after the newspaper article, Scott Paper and Lafarge Cement donated a good supply of used steel-toe boots. Of the first three individuals who received boots, all are still two of these three people are off the street."

The best practice is to expand programs such as Vancouver's innovative BladeRunners, a training program for at-risk youth that focuses on construction and related trades. BladeRunners provides construction trades training and places young people on paid internships to earn hands-on experience. Rona is reportedly exploring a similar program that would train young workers for its stores.

Idea Four: Spread the Love Around

When asked which municipality they considered their last permanent home, three out of four homeless individuals say they live in the Vancouver area. (In the most recent count, only 15 per cent reported residing outside B.C.) The best practice is to return most of these individuals to local communities similar to those they preferred before they became homeless. Years of research shows that individuals moved to so-called "scattered site" housing tend to reintegrate into mainstream society faster than those housed in large facilities in troubled neighbourhoods such as the downtown eastside.

Developers of scattered site supportive housing often face intense resistance from not-in-my-backyard style neighbourhood groups, which fear the arrival of recovering drug addicts or the mentally handicapped into their neighbourhoods. For example, resistance was fierce to a recently rumoured supportive housing project at Dunbar and 16th Avenue in Vancouver. Those fears reportedly spawned an anonymous group called NIABY: Not In Anyone's Backyard.

Helping neighbours overcome these fears presents an opportunity for faith communities to help the homeless. Many churches, synagogues, temples and other worship centres already offer a variety of support services such as soup kitchens, clothing racks and subsidized child care. These faith communities recognize that the act of helping others is one of the most rewarding experiences life offers. Leaders of such communities need to take the next step, and begin organizing forums that actively encourage the development of safe, supportive housing in their neighbourhoods. Faith communities are ideally positioned to educate about supportive housing, most of which prohibits any drug use (residents are routinely tested) and monitors all other activities.

In addition, many faith communities own land. Churches and temples can work together with non-profit developers of supportive housing to build small-scale complexes that include, for example, a few units of supportive housing alongside a new community hall.

Idea Five: Buy a Few Hotels

Even if all the marginally homeless were given enough money to pay their own way, and even if all the "healthy" homeless -- those with mild mental illnesses and addicts in recovery -- were moved to scattered-site supportive housing, there would still remain a core group of hard-core addicts and those with severe mental illnesses who need a place to live.

Since it's cheaper to house these hard cases than to continually treat them on the streets, it makes sense to create a facility for the hardest-to-house. The city's official homeless strategy figures that area governments have to build 400 social housing units a year for the next 10 years in order to house the homeless. With fewer than 500 units planned in the next three years, it's clear that not even go-go Vancouver can build its way out of the current (and growing) homeless crisis.

And since there's no way Vancouver could site and build such a politically problematic facility in time for the Olympics, the most obvious solution -- though not one that anyone in government wants to talk about -- would be to buy a few old hotels, convert the rooms to housing, and establish closely monitored facilities that tolerate discrete drinking and drug use.

Buying hotels is not a permanent solution. It's more of a band-aid that will take pressure off emergency services for a few years while more appropriate facilities are being built. But most of the older motels and hotels in the city are not permanent structures anyway. They are getting torn down rapidly because their lots are worth more to developers than what the older hotels could generate. Conveniently, many of the region's older hotels and motels are already located in high-traffic neighbourhoods, such as Kingsway in Vancouver or King George Highway in Surrey.

The idea of housing people no matter what their problems may be is a hallmark of recent U.S. efforts to end homeless. Seattle's "Housing First Initiative," for example, combined housing with in-house medical and mental health services. In its first six months, the pilot program it has already been successful at moving roughly two dozen chronic homeless -- many of whom have long-term addictions -- off the streets.

Idea Six: Give Addicts Time to Heal

More than half of the individuals contacted during the 2005 homeless census reported they were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Those who work with the homeless figure that nearly all of the hardest-to-house individuals are long-term drug users.

Most of these addicts have tried to clean up numerous times. They check into detoxification clinics for a week or so, then transfer to one of a number of 28-day treatment programs scattered throughout the Lower Mainland. But the majority of homeless addicts have used drugs on a daily basis for more than a decade. Most find that four to six weeks of forced abstinence is not sufficient to overcome decades-long habits. As a sad consequence, the vast majority of formerly homeless individuals return to using within a year of completing a 28-day treatment. Some estimates calculate the relapse rate as higher than 90 per cent.

Thus many of the hardest-to-house individuals live lives like revolving doors: detox, treatment, a short stint in welfare housing, a longer stint on the street, then back to detox. It's not uncommon to find addicts who have repeated this cycle more than a dozen times.

What these addicts need is time to recover, and a supportive environment in which to rebuild their lives. So-called "recovery houses" differ from treatment centres in that in lieu of medical staff and treatment, they offer simple group counselling and regular participation in 12-step programs. Because recovery houses are much less expensive to operate than treatment centres, addicts can stay for a year or more while slowly rebuilding their lives. The best-run recovery centres, such as Impact House in California or The Last Door in New Westminster, report that up to 90 per cent of the clients who complete their programs are still clean a year later.

A small raise in the welfare rates, coupled with small grants that reward long-term addicts who remain in recovery and continue to test clean, would enable hundreds of homeless addicts to rebuild their lives from within the safe confines of recovery houses -- rather than tossing them back out to fend for themselves after a few weeks of treatment.

Idea Seven: Bring Governments Together

Like one of those cliché cop movies in which local and federal cops scuffle over turf, governments squabble endlessly over which agency is responsible for what. And policies enacted by one government often wind up costing another. (Mayor Sullivan's plan to ticket homeless offenders, for example, is virtually assured to cost the province more money in overnight jail stays.)

In Britain, the Rough Sleepers' Unit was created back in 1998. Rough sleeping in England has fallen from around 1,850 measured cases a night in 1998 to around 500 now, and cases of new homelessness are at a 23-year low. The unit serves many functions, but a primary one is co-ordinating response among the myriad agencies.

Likewise, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has educated lawmakers and co-ordinates among local, state and federal agencies. The council develops and encourages best practices, such as homeless connect days and housing first polities.

What's needed is something that will bring to homelessness the sort of focus that the Vancouver Agreement brought to drug policy. Homelessness will end only after bringing an individual off the streets becomes more important than whether or not that person is using drugs or receiving assistance or any other concerns.

This idea of bringing governments together is one of the cornerstones of Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan's Civil City Project. But realpolitik is such that there's only so much any mayor can accomplish. Lasting detente will require leadership from premiers and the prime minister.

At some point, political leaders will recognize that it's far cheaper to prevent homelessness than to fund the ongoing treatment of homeless individuals. When they do, there will be no shortage of policy suggestions awaiting their attention.

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