The most obvious solution to problems with homelessness and vagrancy is also the cheapest, most effective and most feel-good solution: shelter those who need it. It’s called a ‘housing first‘ strategy, and it has led to New Westminster’s striking reduction in the number of homeless people living in our city.
Between 2002 and 2008, the population of homeless people in New Westminster increased 118%. Thanks to policy changes, collaboration with community members and a partnership with BC Housing, New Westminster was able to help many of those who were unsheltered to find homes. Between 2008 and 2011, the homeless population shrank by 43% and by another 17% between 2011 and 2014. Key to this success was that BC Housing partnership, which created 84 transitional and supported housing units, as well as housing referral, outreach and advocacy programs that helped prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
However this approach is in jeopardy due to funding cutbacks. According to New West Senior Social Planner John Stark, New Westminster-based homeless outreach, referral and advocacy programs are facing $382,000 in cutbacks this year. This is in addition to significant cutbacks in 2013 and 2014 to other programs serving those who were homeless or at-risk. Furthermore, changes to program eligibility requirements are making it difficult for some in need to access services.
- The Elizabeth Fry Society‘s Maida Duncan Drop-In Centre is in jeopardy now that the coordinator position is no longer funded by the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy program. The centre provides at-risk women and children with a safe space to access a computer, laundry, dental services, peer support, meals, and community supports. While the program is still operating, the centre cannot be sustained much longer without securing a new source of funding.
- The Senior Services Society will have to reduce program support due to staffing cutbacks, which will hurt their ability to help seniors find housing assistance. At any given time, the society works with 150 seniors who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Changes in eligibility criteria mean that seniors who are homeless for the first time or “only” at risk of homelessness will no longer be able to access help from Housing First programs.
- Another program that lost funding was the Women In Need Gaining Strength housing outreach position. Since 2004, this outreach program helped 938 women and 734 children fleeing abuse at home, helping them to find new places to live and re-settle in new communities. Fundraising efforts were able to close the gap in funding for this program to maintain services, for now.
- In 2014 the Hospitality Project lost $150,000 in HPS funding for their advocacy, triage and referral programs. These programs specifically targeted people at risk of becoming homeless, helping them to retain housing and locate shelter. With the new criteria focused only on those who are chronically or episodically homeless, the programs no longer qualified for funding.
- In 2013, Lookout Emergency Aid Society lost funding from Fraser Health for a contract to provide non-clinical outreach to homeless people, resulting in over 400 people per year being unable to access services like service search and referral, case planning, and counselling.
It is penny wise and pound foolish to cut back on programs like these. When people are homeless, the public pays for it in increased policing and hospital costs.
As the New Yorker put it, homelessness is an expensive problem when you do nothing to solve it.
Homeless people are not cheap to take care of. The cost of shelters, emergency-room visits, ambulances, police, and so on quickly piles up. Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told me of one individual whose care one year cost nearly a million dollars, and said that, with the traditional approach, the average chronically homeless person used to cost Salt Lake City more than twenty thousand dollars a year. Putting someone into permanent housing costs the state just eight thousand dollars, and that’s after you include the cost of the case managers who work with the formerly homeless to help them adjust. The same is true elsewhere. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state forty-three thousand dollars a year, while housing that person would cost just seventeen thousand dollars.
It is cheaper to house the homeless than to leave them on the streets. And it is cheaper still to help prevent people at risk from losing their homes in the first place.
A January 26 report to council from the City’s Development Services Department outlined the potential impacts of these funding cuts:
This loss of funding will have a significant impact on the community, as the programs in question enable residents to maintain their existing housing, locate new housing in crisis situations and address issues which may contribute to their homelessness. They also target some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income individuals, frail seniors and women and children who are at-risk of homelessness or who are fleeing abuse … the loss of the programs in question will make it more difficult for staff to make referrals in case of eviction or homelessness, contribute to increased street and visible homelessness and place increased pressure on Bylaw Enforcement, Police and Social Planning, with its associated costs.
The report concluded with the recommendation that the City should direct staff to approach senior levels of government to explore alternative or new funding sources for housing outreach, referral and advocacy programs in New Westminster. I think that’s a great start, but I also think citizens in New Westminster who have noted and approved of the decline in visible homelessness need to remember that it was no accident.
Programs like those provided by Lookout, The Hospitality Project, Elizabeth Fry and Women In Need Gaining Strength and the Senior Services Society are our bulwarks against homelessness. Even those of us who are privileged with health, employment, and emergency funds find it a struggle at time to make ends meet in pricey Metro Vancouver. Imagine how difficult it must be for those who must also cope with addictions, chronic physical health problems, mental health issues, domestic abuse and other factors that introduce extra barriers to employment and making rent.
Note: the information on homelessness in New West and the cuts to local programs came from a report to council created by the Development Services Department. I would link to it, but I was not able to find it online. This report was shared at the February meeting of the Community and Social Issues Committee, of which I am a member. The report was presented for our review and discussion, and I thought the information was worth sharing more widely.