Home­less find a cham­pion in Medicine Hat

Com­mu­nity on lead­ing edge of na­tion­wide push to of­fer sta­ble hous­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - CRAIG S. SMITH

MEDICINE HAT, AL­BERTA — Kurt Rem­ple, a tooth­less, un­em­ployed, strug­gling al­co­holic in this prairie town with the cu­ri­ous name is a suc­cess story of sorts. Five years ago, he was liv­ing un­der a bridge and sur­viv­ing on free meals from char­i­ties.

To­day, he lives in a small but tidy one-bed­room apart­ment in a stucco bun­ga­low.

“It was Novem­ber and it was get­ting cold when I met this worker at the Cham­pion Cen­tre,” he said, re­fer­ring to a lo­cal es­tab­lish­ment that serves break­fast to the poor. “She said, ‘Come to my of­fice and we’ll see if you can find a place.’”

Medicine Hat is on the lead­ing edge of a coun­try­wide ef­fort to end home­less­ness through the “hous­ing first” strat­egy, de­vel­oped nearly 25 years ago by a Cana­dian in New York, that of­fers homes without pre­con­di­tions for so­bri­ety and other self-im­prove­ment that keep many peo­ple on the street else­where.

Al­co­holic? Here’s a one-bed­room apart­ment where you can live — even if you’re still drink­ing. Drug ad­dict? Here’s a stu­dio with heat and hot wa­ter — even if you’re still get­ting high. Men­tally ill? Here’s a place to feel safe and call your own — and where case­work­ers can find you.

The the­ory is that only af­ter peo­ple are in sta­ble hous­ing can they be­gin to ad­dress their other chal­lenges.

The strat­egy has been widely adopted in Europe and Aus­tralia. In the United States, it has found its most strik­ing suc­cess in re­duc­ing home­less­ness among mil­i­tary vet­er­ans in cities like New Or­leans, Salt Lake City and Phoenix. But no coun­try has em­braced the ap­proach as firmly as Canada.

And nowhere in Canada has as much progress been made as in Medicine Hat, a small en­ergy-rich city on the South Saskatchewan River. In Novem­ber 2015, the city de­clared that it had suc­ceeded in end­ing home­less­ness, bring­ing ac­co­lades and at­ten­tion from all over the world.

As else­where in the world, Canada’s home­less­ness prob­lem grew in re­cent decades as ris­ing rents pushed the coun­try’s most vul­ner­a­ble cit­i­zens into the streets. The oil boom fed the real es­tate bub­ble in Al­berta.

Cal­gary, the cen­tre of Al­berta’s en­ergy in­dus­try, had the worst home­less prob­lem in the prov­ince. In 2006, the prov­ince gave the city money to test the hous­ing first ap­proach, which had been pi­o­neered more than a decade ear­lier by a Cana­dian psy­chol­o­gist Sam Tsem­beris, while he was work­ing in New York.

With par­al­lel projects pop­ping up in Bri­tish Columbia and On­tario, the Men­tal Health Com­mis­sion of Canada got in­volved, lob­by­ing for fed­eral money to study the strat­egy. The com­mis­sion started a clin­i­cal trial in five cities across Canada — Van­cou­ver, Win­nipeg, Toronto, Mon­treal and Monc­ton — in which 2,200 home­less peo­ple with ei­ther men­tal ill­ness or an ad­dic­tion were ran­domly as­signed to ei­ther hous­ing first or treat­ment as usual.

The re­sults were star­tling, val­i­dat­ing the hous­ing first model and demon­strat­ing that the cost of hous­ing the home­less was far less than the cost of the emer­gency ser­vices needed by the home­less while they were liv­ing on the street.

“The re­duc­tion in days in jail alone pays for the pro­gram,” said Jaime Rogers, a Medicine Hat hous­ing of­fi­cial.

She cited stud­ies that said the av­er­age home­less per­son costs tax­pay­ers $120,000 (all fig­ures Cdn) a year in ser­vices, while it costs just $18,000 to house some­one and pro­vide the nec­es­sary re­ten­tion sup­port.

That kind of ev­i­dence per­suaded the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of for­mer prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper to pur­sue hous­ing first as a na­tional pol­icy.

“This is where it went to a scale that I have not seen in any other coun­try,” Tsem­beris said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

Un­der Canada’s sub­se­quent Home­less Part­ner­ing Strat­egy, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment dis­trib­utes about $176 mil­lion a year among 61 com­mu­ni­ties to fund ser­vices for the home­less.

About 40 per cent of those dol­lars must be spent on hous­ing first in­ter­ven­tions.

Seven Al­berta cities — Cal­gary, Ed­mon­ton, Leth­bridge, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Wood Buf­falo and Medicine Hat — formed a loose coali­tion and in 2007 each wrote their own 10-year plan to end home­less­ness. The prov­ince now spends more than $83 mil­lion a year to carry out the plans, and came up with a 10-year plan of its own. Progress has been promis­ing. In 2014, when Al­berta per­formed the coun­try’s first “point in time” count — giv­ing a snap­shot of peo­ple who are home­less on a par­tic­u­lar night — the to­tal in the seven cities stud­ied was 6,663.

In 2016, the num­ber had fallen nearly 20 per cent, to 5,378.

Re­sults in Medicine Hat were even more strik­ing: the num­ber of home­less counted fell by nearly half to 33 from 61. The num­ber of par­tic­i­pants in the hous­ing first pro­gram, mean­while, dou­bled to 120.

Medicine Hat leapt ahead, in part, be­cause the prob­lem is more man­age­able there. It is eas­ier to deal with home­less­ness in a town of 63,000, where so­cial work­ers know the names of al­most ev­ery­one who is down and out. It is also eas­ier when mem­bers from the agen­cies work­ing on the prob­lem are so few that they can sit down around a ta­ble.

But Medicine Hat has an­other ad­van­tage that could point the way for other cities: a cen­tral­ized of­fice that man­ages both hous­ing stock and sup­port pro­grams.

The Home­less and Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment of the Medicine Hat Com­mu­nity Hous­ing So­ci­ety is led by Rogers.

Rec­og­niz­ing that some peo­ple will al­ways lose their homes, and with no na­tional con­sen­sus of what “end­ing home­less­ness” means, Rogers and her team came up with their own def­i­ni­tion: in Medicine Hat, it means con­nect­ing any­one iden­ti­fied as home­less with a case­worker and putting him or her on a wait­ing list for a hous­ing pro­gram within 10 days.

In Canada, there is a move to de­fine on a na­tional scale what it means to end home­less­ness, pro­vid­ing a bench­mark for suc­cess.

Alina Turner, a fel­low at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary’s School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and one of the lead re­searchers push­ing for a def­i­ni­tion, said cur­rent pro­grams should aim for “func­tional zero,” which rec­og­nizes that there will al­ways be some peo­ple without homes.

Un­der the pro­posed def­i­ni­tion, func­tional zero would mean a 90 per cent de­crease in peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness in a com­mu­nity.

“Hous­ing is the easy part,” said Rogers, who ac­knowl­edged that by Turner’s def­i­ni­tion, Medicine Hat still had a way to go.

“Keep­ing them housed will al­ways be the dif­fi­cult part.”

In­deed, Rem­ple, sit­ting in his sparsely furnished apart­ment, said this was the fifth place he had lived dur­ing the five years since he con­nected with the hous­ing first pro­gram.

“I kept tak­ing in home­less friends,” he said blankly. “I’d have two or four peo­ple liv­ing and drink­ing and par­ty­ing with me un­til I’d get evicted.”

Frus­trat­ing as such peo­ple might be, most even­tu­ally man­age to set­tle down, so­cial work­ers say. The sta­bil­ity of a home al­lows peo­ple to grad­u­ally ad­dress their prob­lems.

Rem­ple’s case­worker, Allysa Lar­mor, said he had been sober since Jan­uary and seems de­ter­mined to change his ways.

She has helped me­di­ate with his land­lord and con­nect him with ser­vices like ad­dic­tion coun­selling and a food bank, and she will soon start work­ing with him on de­vel­op­ing “mean­ing­ful daily ac­tiv­i­ties” to fill the time that was once taken up drink­ing.


Hamid Ve­j­vani, who has been home­less since 2009, gets a meal at a Sal­va­tion Army soup kitchen in Medicine Hat.

Gor­don Thomp­son, who has de­clined of­fers for an apart­ment and in­stead stays in shel­ters or on the street, walks to the home­less shel­ter in Medicine Hat.

Ger­ald Ny­gaard at his new apart­ment in Medicine Hat.

Jaime Rogers leads the Home­less and Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment depart­ment of the Medicine Hat Com­mu­nity Hous­ing So­ci­ety.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.