A report to be released in Ottawa today concludes a $110-million project to address homelessness has been a success. It's now up to the Manitoba government to build on that success.
The five-year effort in five Canadian cities to end homelessness for hundreds of people was launched to demonstrate the effectiveness of "housing first," a complex intervention aimed at ending homelessness for people who were on the streets or precariously housed while having the presence of mental illness.
Did the At Home project in Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver achieve its goal of ending homelessness for those in need? The answer is simply, yes.
Housing first was clearly proven to be highly effective in not only moving people from the streets and into independent housing. More importantly, it kept them from returning as was common in the past.
It was the revolving door of homelessness that housing first helped close by providing the supports necessary to stably house people with complex needs over the long term. Much more work is needed, however, to help the estimated 30,000 Canadians who find themselves homeless on any given day.
What the At Home project showed was when compared with the current approaches to ending homelessness, housing first remains the most effective intervention for people with mental-health issues.
Our data show that among the five cities, those who received housing first were more likely to remain housed than those who accessed the current services available or found housing on their own.
Cost is always singled out as being the proverbial kicker. To be clear, homelessness is already expensive, costing Canadians an estimated $7 billion annually. These costs relate to living unstably in shelters, needlessly visiting hospitals and interacting with police, emergency workers and others.
Cost estimates vary from city to city but high system users can consume tens of thousands of dollars interacting with systems. Housing first helps alleviate this with stable housing and the right mix of supports.
Housing first ranges in cost based on the level of need of the individual. In Winnipeg, people with moderate needs cost about $34 per day, with the cost for those with more acute needs being $51. Much of these costs were offset by savings achieved in other areas such as reduced visits to the hospital.
Providing rapid housing is perhaps the most fundamental element of the project. At Home housed more than 1,000 persons in the five cities. This was accomplished not by building housing but by partnering with both public and private housing agencies and groups. People were allowed to choose where they wanted to live and work. While this was hard work, it was rewarding to provide someone the keys to an apartment, knowing behind that door they were living in a safer environment while having the supports of dedicated teams just a phone call away.
If housing first is so successful and cost-effective, why is it not being more widely implemented? Funding new initiatives is tough. Governments are overwhelmed by demands for such things as new roads, providing the best health-care system and reducing taxes. While housing first costs money, it also saves money by better allocating existing services. The federal government has gotten the ball rolling with the At Home project. This has been followed by making housing first a clear policy direction. We now need the Province of Manitoba to endorse this and find the funding to continue on the right path of ending homelessness.
Jino Distasio, is the co-principal investigator for the Winnipeg At Home project and director of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies.