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Homing in on homelessness

City forging 10-year plan to eliminate chronic problem

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More than 300 North American cities have pledged to end homelessness in 10 years. Winnipeg will soon do the same.

The Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council is launching a high-level task force that will create the city's first 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness. That plan could include the first real count of Winnipeg's chronic couch-surfers and street-sleepers, a cap on shelter stays and a way to better co-ordinate the dozens of non-profits and government agencies who help the homeless. It will also include hard targets.

 

"It's not right that a city celebrated for its philanthropy, diversity and sense of community would accept homelessness as an inevitable outcome for some of its people," said Ian Gerbrandt, the managing director of the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council.

The idea is to shift agencies away from managing homelessness with a hodgepodge of emergency soup kitchens and shelters and toward ending homelessness through affordable housing bolstered by mental health care, job training, addictions counselling and any other services needed to keep people stable.

The committee's work is in its infancy. The poverty reduction council and the task force's co-chairs -- SEED Winnipeg's Cindy Cocker and Rob Johnston, the Royal Bank's regional president for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario -- are still recruiting the right mix of about a dozen members, though all three levels of government are committed to sending senior staff to serve on the task force. Consultations with inner-city agencies and experts will begin in earnest in the fall, and it will likely take a year to draft a plan.

Winnipeg Free Press editor Margo Goodhand served on the poverty reduction council until last week.

Roughly a dozen Canadian cities already have 10-year plans to end homelessness, and most have a good handle on how many people are living on the street or in shelters, couch-surfing or doubling up with another family to make rent. Winnipeg doesn't even have a count, though estimates say at least 2,500 people are couch-surfing, living in single-room occupancy hotels or staying at shelters such as the Siloam Mission.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is getting worse. Shelter stays increased nearly 15 per cent from 2008 to 2011, according to staff at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg who crunched the numbers.

Siloam Mission executive director Floyd Perras said he is turning away more people every night and is seeing a steady increase in the number of meals served.

It may be almost impossible to solve homelessness in a decade without tackling one of the city's other huge problems -- the complete paucity of decent affordable units, ones that someone on social assistance or disability can afford or might offer a single working mother a bedroom instead of a couch. The vacancy rate for affordable units is almost zero and has been for years. Rents have increased exponentially, while the province's welfare housing allotment has stagnated.

And, as Perras points out, there will always be homeless people as long as there is undiagnosed mental illness, addiction, family violence and personal catastrophes.

One of the ideas that may emerge in a 10-year plan is to limit the length of time someone can stay in a shelter before a network of help is mobilized to move the person into more stable and permanent housing. A 21-day cap is one idea being tossed around.

Calgary is aiming for one-week stays at shelters before homeless people get help finding something better, and Ottawa is aiming for 30 days.

Alberta cities, including Calgary, Edmonton and boomtown Fort McMurray, have had real success in reducing homelessness, in part by using the "housing first" model, where people are moved into stable homes as quickly as possible and then loaded up with support services. That's different from traditional rules that force someone to get their addictions or mental health issues under control before they qualify for social or subsidized housing.

In other cities with good plans, the focus tends to be on youth and aboriginal people as particularly vulnerable to homelessness, especially when they grow too old for foster care or are released from jail. And, many other plans include far more co-ordination between the many agencies that deal with the poor, often in isolation.

The problem is, bold plans tend to fizzle, and there's already a strategy to combat homelessness. Several, in fact.

The province is in the midst of an affordable housing plan called Homeworks and just started a four-year poverty reduction plan. Both have a series of priorities but neither have any hard targets -- something governments tend to eschew to avoid criticism when the targets aren't met.

City hall is in the midst of drafting its own housing plan. CEOs are sleeping out to raise awareness about homelessness again this fall, and Winnipeg is a key national research centre in the innovative At Home/Chez Soi project that has already found housing for roughly 200 homeless Winnipeggers.

Cash for that project, which is meant to test the long-term success of a "housing first" model, runs out in March, raising the question of long-term funding.

Organizers say two things make this plan different. First, the task force will seek buy-in from all sectors, including business leaders and homeless people themselves. Second, the plans focus on practical implementation, including public-private partnerships.

"The idea here is we're not making a new plan. What we're trying to do is get these plans co-ordinated," said Coker. "It will cost money, but it will save so much money in the long run."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

The homeless continuum

In a report released last year, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg tried to put some figures on Winnipeg's elusive and entrenched homelessness problem. No one's ever really done a solid count. The Social Planning Council gleaned figures from census data, a new shelter database and other reports, such as one on residential hotels done by the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies a few years ago.

Roofless

An unknown number of Winnipeggers sleep outdoors, in cars, squatting in abandoned buildings or sleeping in the airport or train station.

Houseless

People staying in shelters, including 350 people on any given night, and 60-plus women staying in shelters to escape domestic violence.

Insecurely housed

There are between 700 and 1,000 people living in single-room occupancy hotels such as the McLaren. Another 1,400 people are crashing with friends or family because they have no where else to go. They are also called the "hidden homeless."

Inadequately housed

There are 28,000 people living in what's called "core housing need," which means their home is either too small for their family, way beyond what they can afford or in need of major repairs.

 

-- source: A Place to Call Home: Homelessness in Winnipeg in 2011.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 A6

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