OTTAWA - Cities in Alberta that are housing their homeless populations, no questions asked, want to spread the word to the rest of the country.

Tim Richter, who leads the Calgary Homeless Foundation, is joining forces with social scientists and front-line organizations to export his city's successful approach under the banner of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

The idea is to set up a 10-year plan that focuses on finding housing for the homeless and the vulnerable -- regardless of their mental health issues --and then provide support that allows them to stay housed for the long term.

The so-called housing-first approach has been successfully adopted in many communities across the United States and Alberta has embraced it as well.

"We are challenging our fellow citizens, communities and all levels of government to take the initiative to end the unnatural disaster of homelessness in Canada, once and for all," said Richter, the foundation president.

Calgary, where homeless rates had been soaring, now has seen its homeless population drop 11.4 per cent over four years.

Edmonton has recorded a 21-per-cent decrease and Lethbridge has seen a 53-per-cent drop, the new organization says.

At the same time, communities save money. Richter's research shows that in Calgary, the average chronically homeless person can run up about $134,000 a year in shelter expenses or imprisonment costs. The housing-first approach costs between $10,000 and $25,000 per person per year.

The alliance is inspired by a U.S. initiative that has proven widely successful and cost-efficient.

Despite their success rates, 10-year plans have proven to be controversial because they require a complete change in thinking for many of the those involved in dealing with society's most vulnerable, Richter said.

"You're shifting emphasis from emergency services to permanent solutions," Richter said in an interview.

Instead of focusing on stop-gap measures such as shelters and emergency health care, the approach starts by researching the state of homelessness and near-homelessness.

Then, community teams target people in precarious situations so they have the necessary financial support and social services to stay in their homes.

The cornerstone of the program, however, is tackling the living situations of those who are already homeless or couch-surfing. They should be housed quickly, regardless of any history of addictions, substance abuse, mental illness or ability to get along with others.

The final step of the plan is to invest far more in affordable housing, so it's not so hard for organizers to find homes for their clients.

"Ten-year plans are a challenge to the status quo and will not be without controversy, detractors and difficult conversations," the group's guide for communities warns. "Don't expect a smooth ride."

Richter hopes the national campaign will dovetail with federal initiatives on the same wavelength.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada is in the midst of a massive social-science research experiment to test housing-first approaches with mentally ill homeless people in several cities across the country.

Richter said this At Home/Chez Soi project should prove to Ottawa that the approach saves money and is effective -- and is worthy of ongoing funding of some form.

Provincial government support is also important, he added, because co-operation with health, prison and police authorities is necessary. But so far, he said Alberta is the only province officially on side.