Sam WattsThink Philanthropically

I am frequently asked to explain why people who find themselves experiencing homelessness often remain homeless for extended periods of time. Why does the challenge of chronic homelessness seem to be growing in Montreal?  Why can’t this problem be fixed?

There are two underlying reasons that frame the challenge of homelessness in North American towns and cities.

1. Lack of Prevention. As a society, our efforts related to the prevention of homelessness have been less than stellar. Rather than putting “upstream” programs in place, public policy has mostly been directed “downstream” where underfunded, under-equipped community organizations have assumed responsibility for caring for people when they were already experiencing homelessness.

2. Patches versus Solutions. People in difficulty typically subsist on the margins while being offered suboptimal services. Charitable organizations, staffed by dedicated people and volunteers, operate shelters, drop-in centers and soup kitchens in a variety of urban neighbourhoods, dispensing life-saving emergency assistance. While it is noble and essential to serve the disadvantaged, free meals, showers and a cot for the night cannot resolve the complex challenge of homelessness. It is merely a patch that anticipates chronicity.

A person who is living precariously or is experiencing homelessness needs safe, affordable, permanent housing. Access to housing is recognized as a basic human right in Canada. People who are poor or vulnerable also need to be connected to our healthcare network so that they can receive basic health services. How can we make that happen? Would the solutions be very expensive?

The first thing that can be done is to collaborate on a number of obvious preventative measures. For example, young people who are in the care of youth protection can end up on the street shortly after their 18th birthday. The same is true for people who have served time in prison. In both cases the departure from institutionalized care is completely predictable. If we know when people will exit from care, why don’t we proactively plan for their housing and healthcare needs before they leave the supervision of the state? Early warning systems can also be put in place for a variety of at-risk groups, like older single people who have a low income.

The second thing that can be done is the establishment of a well-structured system that carefully coordinates the services provided to people experiencing homelessness so that they can be accompanied back into permanent housing with wrap-around services to help them maintain housing. This system identifies individual needs early in the cycle of homelessness to better serve the needs of each individual. It is a proven solution that is used in cities around the world but has not been widely adopted in Quebec.

What about the costs? The solution of rapid access to supported housing is less costly. It is less expensive to provide rent support and follow up services to someone than it is to fund a patchwork quilt of disconnected emergency services. Most of the efforts in Montreal for the past 100 years were focused on “managing homelessness” rather than implementing policy options that are designed to end it. It is very challenging to accurately add up all the money spent annually by governments, the healthcare network, the judicial system, philanthropic foundations and individual donors to provide day-to-day services for people who do not have a home. The answer is to apply funding strategically with robust efforts centered on prevention, alongside a well-coordinated system of housing-focused emergency assistance, staffed by caring professionals, who help those in need and assist them to obtain access to permanent supported housing.   

Sam Watts is the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, a member of the National Housing Council of Canada, and the author of “Good Work…Done Better”

Related Posts