Medicine Hat: Working to End Chronic Homelessness

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BEACH HAVEN, New Jersey — Although Canada is a developed country where citizens are generally able to enjoy a high quality of life, the nation still struggles with homelessness, a problem that is currently receiving increased government attention. Between 13,000 to 35,000 Canadians are chronically or episodically homeless, and over 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness for some length of time in a given year.

Homelessness in Canada can typically be linked to a few factors. The government began decreasing investments in affordable housing in the 1990s, leaving many unable to secure a place to live. Furthermore, the federal minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation, the cost of living in many cities has skyrocketed, and some social assistance programs have been reduced. This has resulted in a growing homeless population in the past two decades.

In 2009, the province of Alberta put forth a comprehensive plan to end chronic homelessness. The government identified several reasons that 11,000 people in Alberta did not have permanent housing. Like in many parts of Canada, income in Alberta did not keep up with the increased cost of living, and the province also suffered from an affordable housing shortage. Alberta also attracted many immigrants and transplants from other provinces. Their homeless-serving organizations were strained and underfunded, and groups such as domestic violence victims or homeless youth, which require special attention, were not receiving the support they needed.

Six years ago, the Plan for Alberta was set in action, with the objective of ending chronic homelessness in the province by 2019. In the city of Medicine Hat, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society created a citywide plan to achieve this goal. They moved forward with a “Housing First” approach, primarily focusing on quickly re-housing anyone who found themselves homeless. This does not mean simply placing the homeless in shelters, but rather locating appropriate, permanent housing. While emergency shelters remain open, their main responsibility is to assist with the re-housing process. Once re-housed, support systems are made available to help individuals and families with their transition, especially for those struggling with challenges such as mental illness or addiction.

So far, Medicine Hat is succeeding in ending chronic homelessness: no one is left living without shelter and without permanent housing for longer than ten days after the city learns of their predicament. The city is already seeing the positive effects of the “Housing First” approach. Both emergency room visits and interactions with the police have decreased. The re-housing initiative is also saving the city money: while it costs Medicine Hat over $100,000 to leave someone on the streets, it costs only about $20,000 to place them in permanent housing.

The MHCHS states that with continued financial investment and support from the government, in combination with community efforts and cooperation, Medicine Hat will soon officially be able to declare an end to chronic homelessness, making it the first city in Canada to do so. The “Housing First” plan proves that with affordable housing and effective support systems, the chronically homeless can be re-housed, gaining not only a home but a sense of dignity and a second chance.

Jane Harkness

Sources: AHS 1, AHS 2, AHS 3, CBC, The Homeless Hub, MCHS
Photo: Washington Post

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