Think Philanthropically

I work with people who serve people experiencing homelessness. In the past couple of years, hundreds of articles and opinion pieces have been written about this issue. Many of these articles are well-intentioned, but they miss the point. Homelessness is indeed challenging, but there are solutions that can reduce the number of people who experience homelessness and limit the time a person might spend without a place to call home.

“It is far better to prevent someone from experiencing 
homelessness than it is to respond to an emergency.”

The complexities of homelessness cannot be resolved without the full commitment and coordinated effort of all levels of government, federal, provincial, and municipal. A number of housing-focused initiatives have proven successful in various Canadian communities, including Montreal. Homelessness has many dimensions and requires solutions tailored to a variety of needs.  For the sake of establishing a starting point, the three pathways below provide a framework that can guide us in the right direction.

1. For the at-risk population: Narrow the entry points to homelessness.

Those who are housed but are at risk of being unable to stay in housing stand to benefit from preventative measures. It is far better to prevent someone from experiencing homelessness than it is to respond to an emergency. When common sense practices are deployed at potential entry points to homelessness, the inflow can be greatly diminished. There is also considerable merit in providing targeted rent support or income support for those living below the threshold of poverty to promote their stability. Government policy initiatives should also include actions that promote housing alternatives and, importantly, prevent the disappearance of affordable rental housing.

2. For the non-chronic population: Improve coordination in the emergency services ecosystem.

For those who experience homelessness, improving the coordination of existing emergency resources will accelerate an exit from the homelessness cycle. This may involve prioritizing specific types of responses that have demonstrated effectiveness. For example, investing in rapid re-housing has been proven to be more effective than some forms of street outreach.  Improving case management, coordination, and information sharing between emergency service providers produces faster outcomes for people in need. Efforts that help people rapidly re-establish themselves in suitable housing save money and reduce the demand for emergency services.

3. For the chronic and complex population: Invest in harm reduction and targeted health and social services delivered in the community.

Those who have experienced longer term homelessness usually require more than emergency services. They need an infusion of medical resources because they often suffer from multiple health and wellness issues. This pressure is frequently downloaded from the overburdened healthcare system to community groups. Most health networks are ill equipped to respond to recurring emergencies that can include mental health challenges and addictions. There is an urgent need to develop a range of long-term supported housing options, integrated medical care, and harm reduction services to address the holistic needs of this population. Some might wonder, isn’t this costly? The truth is that the cost of responding with public security and emergency services costs far more than helping someone regain housing. The cost to the system typically decreases dramatically when vulnerable people are successfully integrated into a cycle of care that includes supportive housing. Furthermore, with suitable psychosocial follow up, the benefit to a person’s overall health is substantial.

“Efforts that help people rapidly re-establish themselves in suitable housing save money and reduce the demand for emergency services.”

Can homelessness be entirely eliminated? A few cities, like Helsinki, have reduced homelessness to the point where it is virtually non-existent. It may take us a bit of time to get there. In the shorter term, we can ensure that any experience of homelessness is brief and that pathways out of homelessness are available to all.  We owe that to our fellow citizens.

Sam Watts serves as the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He serves on several non-profit boards and is an appointed member of the National Housing Council of Canada.  He is the author of Good Work…Done Better

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