One by one, the politicians and administrators got up to talk about homelessness.
They talked about numbers and policies and studies.
The fellow sitting in the third row at the Circle of Life Thunderbird House on Friday could have told them all about being homeless; sleeping in a vehicle in a used-car parking lot for six months, grubbing for loose change at fast-food drive-thru windows, cleaning himself in public washrooms. But Alden Wiebe was just listening. And smiling.
After all, Wiebe was homeless just three years ago. On Friday, he was decked out in a suit jacket while federal Minister of State and Social Development Candice Bergen delivered a $28- million cheque -- over five years -- for local projects addressing the city's 2,000-3,000 homeless.
'I can't tell you how rewarding it is. To actually make a difference in several people's lives'
Manitoba Housing and Community Development Minister Peter Bjornson also announced a $2-million pledge to the province's At Home/Chez Soi project, a Housing First initiative that currently serves more than 300 clients placed in community-based housing. Another 200 spent the last five years in a control group in the At Home program.
Wiebe, whose story of homelessness was profiled in the Free Press in March, was part of the At Home control group. He was accepted not long after jumping off a bridge into the Assiniboine River, before finally being checked into a psychiatric facility for treatment of depression.
Three years later, there was Wiebe -- who now works as a counsellor for the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg -- attending a press conference announcing major future funding for Housing First, based largely on a Mental Health Commission of Canada study conducted by his current employer: lead researcher Dr. Jino Distasio of the U of W.
"Big-time," Wiebe said, when asked if the federal and provincial funding would impact reducing homelessness rates in Winnipeg. "It will give us an opportunity to take even more people off the street."
The MHCC study of At Home/Chez Soi participants, as reported in Friday's Free Press concluded, among other findings, that:
-- Forty-five per cent of Housing First participants remained housed all of the time, 28 per cent some of the time and 27 per cent none of the time. By contrast, 29 per cent of treatment-as-usual (TAU) patients remain housed all of the time, 18 per cent some of the time and 52 per cent none of the time.
-- Every $10 invested in Housing First services resulted in an average saving of $9.30 for high-need (mental health/addiction issues) and $3.85 for moderate-need participants.
Bergen said documented proof the program a) produced results and b) provided an overall long-term cost saving to taxpayers, paved the way for further investment.
"It's an evidence-based policy. It's a good use of taxpayers' dollars," the minister said. "It makes good logical sense, but it's great to have this study back it up."
The federal cash will be advanced to the city, which will disperse the funding to homelessness initiatives of all stripes, but with an emphasis on Housing First.
"So it's not the federal government coming in and saying this program will get the funding or that organization," Bergen noted. "The local communities will make those important decisions."
Louise Bradley, present and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, called the announcement "extremely rewarding."
"Unfortunately, it doesn't happen very often, but it did happen in this case," Bradley said. "I can't tell you how rewarding it is. To actually make a difference in several people's lives."
Bergen noted government will continue to gauge results of the programs, such as At Home/Chez Soi, moving forward.
"We definitely will be measuring it," she said. "It's not a 100 per cent success story, but we're very proud at the high success that we've seen across the country."
For Wiebe, however, the verdict was in a while ago.
"It's very rewarding," he said. "I was one of them (the homeless). Now I've come full circle. I'm looking for me."