‘Housing first’ key to helping homeless

From Dave Hutton at The Star Phoenix

There is a growing movement to house the chronically homeless in Saskatoon, but more capacity is needed, a city report says.

The report on creating a plan to end homelessness within a decade, similar to one adopted by Calgary, lays out the City of Saskatoon’s role in housing and the growing movement toward the “housing first” model.

Housing first, or “rapid rehousing,” is a relatively new approach to housing that aims to find people a permanent residence – rather than providing people a succession of shelter and tran-sitional housing – before addressing other issues such as mental health, addictions or employment. Proponents say it saves taxpayers money compared to the jumble of social services, shelter and emergency responder resources used to help the homeless.

Saskatoon has an estimated 260 homeless men and women, 290 people living in shelters and 500 in transitional housing, according to a 2011 report.

In Saskatoon, the Central Urban Metis Federation Inc., Egadz and Lighthouse Supported Living operate forms of the housing first programs, the report says.

“While these and other supportive housing programs are successful, the existence of homeless people in our community is proof enough that further capacity, and perhaps a co-ordinated response, is needed to serve the growing need,” the report says.

A housing first strategy has been identified “overwhelmingly” as a solution to Saskatoon’s homeless population, the city report says. A number of monthly meetings have been organized by a recently struck housing first task force that brings together agencies from across the city. A pilot project is under consideration, council heard.

The City of Saskatoon won’t take an active role in designing a plan to end homelessness because such a task falls outside its mandate, the report says. The city will play a leadership role through the recently struck safe streets commission and by continuing to provide incentives to increase the supply of rental housing, the report says.

Randy Grauer, community services manager, says the city’s job is in trying to create neighbourhoods with a diversity of housing, including more affordable and entry-level housing.

The city’s mandate isn’t to be a housing provider, which falls to social services, he says.

City programs are on track to spur the development of 2,800 rental housing units by 2015, Grauer told council.

“Our job is to create an environment where across the city we facilitate all variety and forms of housing and price points of housing and supportive forms of housing,” Grauer says.

“We create both a regulatory and a culture of diversity in the entire housing spectrum. That’s our role, and that’s what we’re actively pursuing. If we have an abundance of rental accommodation, that goes a long way to help a social agency that’s supporting the housing first program.”

Coun. Charlie Clark says there is momentum thanks to a November summit that brought in Tim Richter of the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

“I think we’re at a really critical time in the community,” Clark says. “The evidence is that when you do (housing first), you save society a great deal of money.”

Council has created the safe streets commission, a group that has a mandate to “ensure that people are not on the street because they have nowhere else to go.” The group will act as a “high level advocate” for more housing programs that operate on the housing first mode, the report says.

On Monday, city council appointed a number of high-profile people to the safe streets commission, including developer Ken Achs and former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon.

The commission will try to ensure people who live on the streets have alternatives available, MacKinnon says.

“I think it’s important to get at the underlying causes of the problem rather than the superficial symptoms,” MacKinnon says.

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