Medicine Hat mayor says city has ended homelessness, for now
Emily Chan, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, May 19, 2015 9:22AM EDT
The mayor of Medicine Hat, Alta., says his city is the first in Canada to end homelessness using a "housing first" approach—but he is still waiting to see if the success will last.
Since pledging in 2009 to end homelessness in the city, Medicine Hat has housed 885 people, including 250 children.
The "housing first" approach is simple: when a homeless person is identified, the first priority is to find them housing, before addressing other needs, such as addictions or mental health problems.
"In the old days, they expected you to get off the drugs, get off the alcohol, and then maybe give you a house," Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston told CTV’s Canada AM. "But housing first basically gives you a place to live, and then wraps the support services around you."
Using provincial and federal funding, Medicine Hat tries to house people within ten days of discovering them on the streets or in a shelter. The city will cover a homeless person’s first month of rent and a security deposit, and then subsidize rent for the next 12-18 months, as a case worker helps the person find their own source of income.
Clugston says the method has had benefits beyond getting people off the streets.
"Interactions with emergency rooms go down, stays in the hospital go down, interactions with our first responders, paramedics, and police go down," he said.
The housing first approach has also been successful in other cities across North America. In 2014, the Mental Health Commission of Canada published a report with the findings of the world’s largest Housing First trial.
Called At Home/Chez Soi, the project followed 2,000 housing first participants for two years in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Moncton. The final report concluded, "There are benefits for the people who receive housing first as well as for the service system and the community."
However, those benefits are easier to access in some cities than others.
Clugston said Medicine Hat’s size made it the perfect place to use housing first to end homelessness.
"Medicine Hat was big enough that we had the resources to solve the problem, but small enough that we still knew each other," he said. In bigger cities, where services are less centralized, it is easier for people to fall through the cracks, he said.
Still, Clugston is hesitant to officially declare homelessness gone for good in Medicine Hat. While the majority of housing first participants stay off the streets after the city’s support ends, there will always be chronically homeless people, he said.
Clugston is also worried about long-term funding for the program as low oil prices consider to threaten the Alberta economy.
"I really am a little uncertain about the future because we do require operating costs to go forward," he said.