Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada can end chronic homelessness

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TORONTO -- We have the knowledge, the evidence and the strategies to improve the plight of those who fall between the cracks and stay there for long periods of time. But every night, the shelters continue to fill up, and every day, the many people who are homeless on our streets watch as we pass by with eyes averted.

At this moment, Canada has an opportunity to take action and reduce homelessness dramatically by expanding strategies we already know can work.

The federal government launched the National Homelessness Initiative in 1999 after a significant rise in homelessness. This initiative allocated more than $1 billion to funding solutions such as community programs and beds in shelters. Programs such as these play an important role, but have not measurably reduced the number of homeless people country-wide. For that reason, the current government has sought evidence on the cost-effectiveness of alternative options, such as Housing First.

Housing First is based on the principle of providing housing to those in need before they're deemed ready to re-enter society. To qualify for housing, individuals don't need a job or a stable lifestyle, and they don't need to enter rehab, though once they get a home, many of them will accomplish all these things and more.

Canada will soon finish the world's largest randomized trial of its kind on Housing First. Overseen by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, with funding from Health Canada, At Home/Chez Soi has housed about 1,000 people with mental illness in five cities across Canada. Each participant was given a choice of apartments to live in, a rent subsidy and an assigned caseworker for support.

The study randomly assigned 990 participants to a control group of people who only received the services already available in their cities.

About 85 per cent of participants who were housed are still in the first or second apartment they chose. Not only that, many of them are thriving. Many are volunteering and enrolling in school. Many participants have accepted professional help for their mental illnesses.

Results from this study will help governments invest cost-effectively in the reduction of chronic homelessness and in doing so will radically improve people's lives.

For every $2 spent on Housing First, the system saved $1 by reducing the costs of police detentions, hospital services and shelters. For those who used services the most, those savings were even greater -- for every $2 spent, $3 were saved.

Homelessness is more than a social issue, it's a health issue. The participants in At Home/Chez Soi all live with mental illness and they are at a much higher risk of physical illness than most Canadians. Getting appropriate health care is just one of the things community support teams help participants with.

A chronic lack of affordable housing and stable employment opportunities that pay a living wage for low-skilled workers are often the reason people end up homeless in the first place. It's a game of musical chairs, and when the music stops, often those who need support the most are left standing outside the circle. But once they have a decent place to live, they can begin to reconnect with friends and rejoin the community.

The At Home/Chez Soi model is a wise investment in addressing the inequalities faced by those with complex illness.

This is groundbreaking research with the potential to help governments drastically improve Canada's approach to homelessness, social policy and our entire health-care system. Continued support for At Home/Chez Soi and similar Housing First programs will help ensure we don't lose the crucial ground we've gained in improving the lives of Canadians.

Paula Goering wrote this with Stephen Hwang. They are researchers at the University of Toronto and expert advisers with EvidenceNetwork.ca

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 A15

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