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An end to life on the streets

Task force to unveil landmark report -- one agency to help homeless

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A United Way task force to end homelessness in Winnipeg will unveil plans today that, if adopted, will massively overhaul system delivery and streamline agencies that deal with the homeless, the Free Press has learned.

Among other initiatives, the action plan will recommend the formation of a central resource agency that would serve as a one-stop intake service that would provide a central registry, access for outreach workers and a rent bank, the report says.

Also recommended will be the establishment of a community-based organization that would act as an umbrella for several agencies that compete for limited government and private funding.

The task force's 68-page report will be introduced at a news conference this morning, which will also be attended by representatives of social agencies and Manitoba Housing, as well as Community Development Minister Peter Bjornson and Mayor Sam Katz.

"This will be a game changer," said one source involved with the report.

But only if the recommendations are adopted by the three levels of government.

The Winnipeg plan borrows heavily from similar revolutionary changes to address homelessness that have already been adopted in other major Canadian cities, such as Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.

However, task force co-chairman Rob Johnston, regional president of the Royal Bank of Canada, told the Free Press recently, "We've got all the stakeholders who really want change. It's more than hope. I fully expect the recommendations to be implemented. This is not a report. It's a road map. It's meant to change culture."

'It really is different from the status quo'

Brian Bechtel, former executive director of the Main Street Project and one of the task force advisers, said both the plan and objectives have never before been attempted in Winnipeg.

"It really is different from the status quo," Bechtel said.

"It's about streamlining and focusing. There are a lot of pieces out there, each of which is doing a great job on their own. (A central organization) should make it good for agencies and individuals if it works out the way we envision," he added.

For example, there are three major homeless shelters -- Siloam Mission, Salvation Army and the Main Street Project -- in the city and even more Housing First projects such as the Siloam's Madison apartment complex, the Bell Hotel (operated by MSP) and At Home/Chez Soi, which operate largely independent of one another. Most shelters have their own rules and regulations, which can range from no alcohol (Siloam) to zero restrictions on personal drug and alcohol use (Bell).

One organization overseeing all government funds would help deal with overlap and agencies fighting over limited resources. Meanwhile, one umbrella agency taking in, registering and providing support to clients would help define the level of homelessness in Winnipeg -- exact numbers on homeless are approximate at best, but the number ranges between 2,000 to 3,000.

With a one-stop intake, said Bechtel, "They don't have to tell (their) story over and over again. They just have to go to one place to apply. That simplified one point-of-access will really make their lives better."

The central registry would also help deal with the underlying dynamic of homelessness: that a fraction of the homeless (two to four per cent are chronic) account for the vast majority of resources and cost.

"This creates a rational way to make sure that the top 500 people who are the most acutely and chronically homeless get into those intensive programs," Bechtel said. "It's more complicated than it sounds, but that's the principle. Let's prioritize.

"That's how we would build the knowledge going forward on an ongoing basis. There's no one place you can go right now to find any sort of a database on individuals. Some do, some don't. But it's spotty."

The report calls for the addition of 300 housing units (with support) to be established in the next two to four years. Those spaces would be made available to the most vulnerable homeless under the Housing First initiatives that involve person-centred care, such as the Bell Hotel.

Five-year targets listed by the report include:

-- Reduce the number of shelter users who are chronically homeless by 20 per cent.

-- Reduce the number of indigenous shelter users who are chronically homeless by 20 per cent.

-- Reduce the number of shelter users who are episodically homeless by 20 per cent.

-- Reduce the number of people living on the street by 20 per cent.

-- Reduce the number of people who have an average length of stay in an emergency shelter of more than seven consecutive days by 50 per cent.

-- Intervene to prevent 300 people from losing their housing.

-- Reduce the number of homeless people as a percentage of the population by 10 per cent annually.

Bechtel stressed government funding levels, if any, could not be predicted or expected.

But representatives from all three levels of government have been involved in the report from the outset.

"I've been at this for a long time," he said. "I'm very comfortable about this. One of the things the task force has said from the beginning was that if we don't have something we think can move ahead, we will not have anything to celebrate. This has been different."

The report will be available at after the news conference, which is scheduled for 11 a.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2014 A3


Updated on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 8:53 AM CDT: Corrects typo

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