Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada needs a housing strategy for mentally ill

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Ask any doctor or nurse who has spent time in an emergency department and they'll tell you a thing or two about the mentally ill and the homeless.

One of the first things they'll tell you about is the inordinate amount of time spent with people who opt to live on the outer margins of society. And they'll tell you many of them are the equivalent of emergency room frequent fliers, people who come back time and again due to real or imagined ailments that are somehow connected to their lives on the street.

They won't pass judgment, however.

Most are resigned to the fact they've pretty much become ground zero in responding to the needs of the homeless, when much of society appears to have thrown in the towel.

But they may provide an opinion or two on the subject of cost and whether taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck treating a problem as opposed to preventing one.

A study released by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network points out it's much less expensive to provide a place to live than it is to tend to the aftermath of homelessness.

According to the study's author, Stephen Gaetz, governments spend more than $4 billion a year dealing with homeless people -- money that could be better spent if there was a more unified approach to the problem.

He cites research by the Mental Health Commission of Canada that shows by providing support and housing to the homeless, taxpayers can save up to 54 cents on the dollar as opposed to the current patchwork approach that involves various levels of government, social agencies, the private sector and church groups.

What's needed, Gaetz argues, is a national strategy that would require federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as grassroots aid organizations to work together to address the issue, providing a solution and saving money at the same time.

A number of people will always be homeless, preferring to look out for themselves on the street no matter what aid is available. But there are those who would benefit from a national program that provides adequate housing.

The Harper government should take a lead role in establishing and implementing a nationwide strategy to take people off the streets and keep them out of Canada's prisons.

For a government bent on trimming costs and ferreting out efficiencies, getting a handle on homelessness seems like a no-brainer. It has the potential to save taxpayer dollars and makes long-term financial sense.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2012 A8

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