In North American cities such as New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto and countless others, we have grown accustomed to seeing people who are homeless walk among us, often in the shadows, often with visible signs of duress from addiction, mental illness or basic hopelessness. Simply put, we’ve become desensitized to the everyday experiences of persons visibly homeless in our cities and communities.
There is also little difference in cities in Europe or Australia that share North America’s inability to address chronic homelessness through policy, programs or funding that offer long-term solutions to improve well-being and improve housing stability.
But change is possible.
The 2017 federal budget earmarked a whopping $11 billion for housing and homelessness across the country. There’s no doubt this will have a big impact. However, these funds must not only build affordable housing, they must align with poverty-reduction strategies and mental-health and recovery initiatives currently underway if we are to truly reduce long-term homelessness.
A meaningful impact requires funding a broad range of supports to ensure fewer Canadians are among the estimated 35,000 who have no place to call home on any given night. Perhaps this historic funding and the pending release of the National Housing Strategy (NHS) give reason for hope.
It’s important to consider where we have come from.
There is little doubt this federal investment will change lives simply by reinvesting in a depleted affordable housing stock that, from a national standpoint, has had little attention since the 1990s. This is the same period when Canada’s homeless population increased rapidly in cities that failed to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness.
Why did earlier programs fail?
By not considering the root causes, we too often took a narrow approach to homelessness, such as building shelters but not investing in ancillary services. The preliminary vision of the NHS is that all Canadians have access to housing that "meets their needs and they can afford," with housing described as "the cornerstone" of inclusive and economically prosperous communities. This vision is a good start but it needs to ensure that no Canadian is left behind — especially those struggling with chronic homelessness.
There is a successful model for tackling homelessness.
In the At Home/Chez Soi (AHCS) project that examined mental health and homelessness in Canada, we followed 2,150 people over a period of six years (2008 to 2014). By working to bring together a range of supports and housing, we ended homelessness for a significant number of persons previously struggling with health and shelter needs. This landmark study pioneered the AHCS Housing First model in Canada which expanded from the original five cities to more than 60.
This proven intervention has also become the global standard for supporting persons struggling with mental illness and homelessness as hundreds of cities in multiple countries have now followed the evidence.
So why are we slow to end homelessness?
We have done a good job with new policies and organizations tasked with "ending homelessness" in Canada — but strongly worded plans have often been weakly supported with money and resources.
Let’s not forget that the erosion of the welfare state, austerity measures, deinstitutionalization, increased globalization and the growing wage gap that so profoundly raised the level of income inequality in Canada have all increased homelessness and poverty in our country.
Indigenous Canadians also remain disproportionally represented among the homeless population. We know that the effects of colonization, residential schools and interactions with child and family services have greatly influenced the present circumstances of indigenous communities. These are deep wounds we bear as Canadians. Let us acknowledge that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided "the calls to action to advance reconciliation in Canada."
So where do we go from here?
Eleven billion dollars can go a long way toward healing the lives of those most in need in Canada. With these funds and a strong NHS we can make change happen.
Let’s not allow political winds shifting globally toward austerity to derail our efforts to be forward-thinking and caring. We have evidence and no lack of effort. So let’s use this investment not only for housing, but also to improve health, end poverty and put us on the path to reconciliation. Let’s end homelessness, one Canadian at a time.
Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Institute of Urban Studies.