By Joe Fiorito, Toronto STar, February 16, 2011
Calgary has a superlative housing strategy, based on a 10-year plan to end homelessness. That strategy is why Tim Richter came to town the other day.
Richter runs the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which has public and private-sector elements; it has persuaded the Alberta government that the best way to end homelessness is to build housing.
That’s point of view.
I met Richter the other day at Sagatay, a residence on Vaughan Rd. where native men can spend as long as a year pushing back their demons, taking classes, and rebuilding their lives.
I wanted him to meet some men who have first-hand knowledge of homelessness in Toronto, and I wanted to know what the men thought about the goings-on in Calgary.
We were sitting in a ceremonial room at Sagatay, with a fireplace, lots of light, and five residents. Richter said, “One of our goals is that no one should be outside or in a shelter for more than seven days. If we can move people into homes, that’s part of it; building housing, that’s also part of it.”
The men nodded.
He said Calgary has the fastest-growing homeless population in the country. He said aboriginal people were over-represented on the streets.
The men also nodded.
Richter said that in two years Calgary has managed to drop the homeless population by 22 per cent; they have moved 2,300 people out of shelters; they have built more than 2,000 units of housing.
Eight years to go.
Go, Flames.(The Calgary NHL hockey team.)
And then Richter stopped talking about Calgary and started asking questions; always a good strategy.
A man wearing a toque said, on the subject of supportive housing in Toronto, “There’s a lot of people who get turned down; it kicks you when you’re down; you start doing stupid things. If you have people working with you on a daily basis, it gives you a reason to be off the street.”
A man in a black shirt said, “We need better mental health access. Some shelters aren’t equipped to deal with issues; people go from jail to the street to the hospital to the shelters.”
And a man with a maple leaf on his T-shirt said, “I think landlords should be pressed to maintain higher standards. I’ve been in four separate rooming houses since 2006; four times I moved because of bedbugs.”
Richter said, “If you have guys who have been on the street for a while, if you are starting from square one, you can’t expect them to maintain a house or a job.
“We have housing for people who have completed treatment; we provide help. We plug in the police, child welfare, addictions and corrections. Homelessness isn’t a crime, but we keep arresting people.
Finally, a city in Canada determined to eliminate homelessness! Congratulations!
And may every city and town throughout the land learn from our Calgary colleagues in this file!
It truly is a point of view, and for decades, if not centuries, the point of view of many municipalities, provinces and the federal government is that "if we don't look that way, the problem will eventually evaporate".
Not only will it not evaporate, but it will get worse through neglect, or negligence, if you want to use a criminal word.
There is no reason, not a budgetary reason, not a "how-to" enigma that we can't solve, not a statictical reason, and not political reason NOT to resolve this problem....except that last reason, political, seems to be the one we don't want to talk about. Politics is about winning; winning is about associating with winners; it is winners who have money, status and power all three of the things politicians consider "mother's milk" to their hungry appetites and their mostly so far empty hearts and souls, needing the filling that comes from associating with successful people "on the other side of the street" from the homeless.
There has to be a political will, in Calgary, to address the problem of homelessness in a way that is not tokenism. And there will have to be a political will everywhere else to address the problem in all of its complexity.
And that does not start with a new house for each person who has not lived in a house for perhaps decades. It means support, and programs and treatment to make the necessary adjustments; to grow the trust, to grow the belief that "I" can make it with help; to grow the relationships that haven't been available, or accessible; to integrate opportunity into lives devoid of opportunity for decades; to develop the skills to care for oneself; to develop the skills and the habits that sustain both oneself and helps others; to reduce, if not eliminate, dependency on non-prescription drugs and chemicals; in short to re-build those lives that have for so long lain dormant, barely subsisting, on the streets.
And that takes public commitment, and courage and determination, the kind that confronts all the naysayers who don't want public funds spend in such a "wasteful" manner on the people who are society's forgotten.
And those naysayers prevent many good programs from sustaining themselves, because the really effective programs, like this one to eliminate homelessness in ten years, will require a sustained budget line in more than one city department, if it is to be successful.
And hundreds of cities and towns around both the country and many other countries will be watching, to see if Calgary continues for another eight years on this enlightened path.
Those of us who believe in the program know that it will more than pay for itself not only in reduced expenditures but in significantly enhanced civic self-respect and dignity and humility.
If only that lesson could be demonstrated to the naysayers in every city and town everywhere.