Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/10/2010 (3328 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is my second civic election in Winnipeg, but I'm still struck by the absence of social issues, particularly street homelessness. I suspect it's off the radar mostly because it's technically not a municipal responsibility, but I'm going to make a case for street homelessness as a legitimate local political issue.
I'll start with what other cities are doing.
I will not spend much time telling you much about the 234 American cities that have "Ten-Year Plans" to end street homelessness. Instead, I'll tell you that Vancouver city council adopted a homeless action plan in 2005 and that the City of Toronto has a Streets to Homes program which is actually a department of the City of Toronto.
You might say that's not a fair comparison because those big cities have bigger problems. OK, then let's compare apples to apples and look at Edmonton and Calgary.
If you call up the City of Edmonton website you will see a message from Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel selling you on his goals in the following order: fast-tracking light rail expansions, ending homelessness in 10 years, exploring another route across the river, etc. Two of those will sound pretty familiar to Winnipeggers I'm sure, but the mayor also lists his Edmonton Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness as the second in his list of accomplishments and ambitions for the future. In fact, under Mandel, Edmonton even has a homelessness bylaw and a homelessness commission.
Maybe you're still not convinced because you don't like bureaucracy. Well, if there's more than one way for a city to do something, you can bet Edmonton and Calgary will do it just about as differently from each other as possible.
In the 1990s, the Alberta government of then-premier Ralph Klein was slashing social spending and cutting taxes. By cutting taxes, he argued, business would prosper and then wealthy corporate Alberta would spend more on philanthropy and replace unwieldy public services. To demonstrate what the private sector could do, he called together his most powerful friends and they formed the Calgary Homeless Foundation. They ponied up pots of dough and built a beautiful five-storey homeless shelter, but soon realized the revolving-door futility of shelters and drunk tanks and turned their attention away from emergency responses to long-term solutions with a 10-year plan to end street homelessness. Calgary Mayor Dave Branconnier sits on the Homeless Foundation leadership committee and the city leads the implementation of the plan and administers the funding agreement with the governments of Alberta and Canada with a 10-year projected operating budget of over $1.2 billion.
So in Alberta, you have two cities taking very different approaches. Edmonton uses a public service model and Calgary privatizes. The similarity is that both have the enthusiastic and active support of their mayors and city administrators, they both use a housing first approach like we do now at Main Street Project, and they both believe street homelessness is a blight that has to be resolved.
Here in Winnipeg, by comparison, there is the intergovernmental Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative which provides grants to agencies that help homeless people, but is mostly about housing stock and there is nothing even remotely like a plan to end street homelessness.
To be fair, Winnipeg is a "partner" in the Main Street Project Housing First program called Project Breakaway with the province and the WRHA, but there's no money from the city and I understand that attempts by Manitoba to engage in a more formal agreement with Winnipeg were declined and Manitoba proceeded more-or-less alone.
Smart cities recognize that if you want to put more ambulances and police where they're needed most, the best thing to do would be to find ways to reduce the amount of time they spend hauling homeless people from the streets to the drunk tank or the hospital.
In Project Breakaway, we are seeing dramatic reductions in emergency services usage already. With one man, we saw the number of monthly emergency room visits fall from over 13 to less than six, ambulance calls went from about 14 to six every month, and police calls went from two per month to only one every two months.
The savings are big: the Calgary Homeless Foundation estimates the cost of homelessness for one person at $134,000 per year and anticipates a "full payout" on investment by 2016 with a cumulative direct and indirect cost savings of over $3.6 billion.
Edmonton and Calgary mayors Mandel and Branconnier are not do-gooders or dreamy idealists. They're pragmatic leaders who know that regardless of legislation, communities need leaders who recognize problems and then bring others to help. I suspect they also recognize that business and capital is more mobile than ever and people now often choose to work and start businesses where they want to live and people don't want to live in cities with visible large, unsettled, unhappy, chronically homeless people in a state of constant crisis any more than those people want to be homeless.
Instead, Winnipeg is pouring more dollars into police, ambulances, special constables, panhandling bylaws, and street security cameras then ever before.
That's just good money after bad and it's too bad there's nothing in this election so far to suggest that's going to change anytime soon.
Brian Bechtel is the executive director of the Main Street Project.