Eliminating Homelessness in Northern Ontario: Northern Ontario as the next Medicine Hat?

Medicine Hat and Housing First

July 15, 2015 - Medicine Hat recently made headlines for being the first city in Canada poised to eliminate homelessness by the end of 2015. Mayor Ted Clugston credited this remarkable achievement to the city’s Housing First (HF) strategy. Housing First is a homelessness approach targeted at addressing the chronically and episodically homeless populations[1]. The founding philosophy behind HF is that an individual’s housing needs must be met before their other problems can be addressed. HF is guided by six principles: housing is to be provided as soon as possible, individuals must have choice in their housing arrangements and services, housing is not conditionally tied to anything other than accepting regular visits[2], individuals must contribute some of their income towards rent, housing should be integrated into the community to reduce stigma, and individuals are to be provided with the necessary supports to increase their self-sufficiency and help them graduate the HF program[3].

Although credit should be given to Medicine Hat, its approach in tackling homelessness is not unique. The Federal Government’s adoption of the HF approach in 2014, under the Homelessness Partnership Strategy, has led to its widespread adoption across Canada. Here in Northern Ontario, Sudbury and Thunder Bay both receive funding to deliver the HF program; and a number of other communities are in the process of adopting the HF model. However, for the implementation of the HF strategy to be successful in Northern Ontario more money needs to be invested in affordable housing and support services.

Challenges of Housing First and Homelessness in Northern Ontario

The main challenge identified by Northern Ontario District Social Service Administration Boards in delivering HF effectively, is the lack of affordable housing and support services in Northern communities[4]. More money needs to be invested in those two areas for the effective delivery of HF strategies. This increased investment would likely require increased government funding. Although increasing funding is costly, so too is leaving the problem untreated.

Northern Ontario pays a steep price for its homelessness problem. In Kenora, homelessness is blamed for hurting the economy by negatively impacting the downtown core and increasing the costs associated with EMS and policing services[5]. In Thunder Bay, the number one reason for arrests is publicly intoxicated homeless people. Thunder Bay jails are thought to house many homeless people[6]. Similarly in Red Lake, the report states, “homeless residents are using crime to get a place to stay and food”[7]. In Cochrane, the cost of managing homelessness was found to be greater than the cost of housing them[8]. This is where the benefits of HF come into play.

Housing First as a Smart Investment

Housing First has been proven to decrease the health and justice system costs associated with homelessness[9]. The cost savings are estimated to be $9.60 per every $10 spent on HF for a high needs individual and $3.42 for every $10 spent on HF for a medium needs individual[10]. Although HF does not completely offset the costs of investment, it still provides respectable returns. Furthermore, the Housing First approach outperforms other conventional social housing approaches. For instance HF delivers higher cost savings, higher rates of long-term housing stability and participants report a higher quality of life and state of recovery and wellness[11].

The bottom line is that in order for HF approach to work in Northern Ontario more money needs to be invested in affordable housing and support services. Medicine Hat and many other pilot projects have demonstrated the effectiveness of HF[12], now it’s up to us to make the investment.

[1] According to Employment and Social Development Canada chronically homeless people are defined as those who have been homeless for more than six months in a year; and episodically homeless people are defined as those who have been homeless three or more times in the same year.

[2] For example: conditions of sobriety or treatment are not included.

[3] http://www.esdc.gc.ca/eng/communities/homelessness/housing_first/approach/index.shtml

[4] (23) Chez Soi Final Report

[5] (64) NOSDA report

[6] (70) NOSDA report

[7] (97) NOSDA report

[8] (73) NOSDA report

[9] For example: emergency room visits and prison stays.

[10] (23) Chez Soi Final Report

[11] http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/system/files/private/Housing_Housing_First_Summary_0.pdf

[12] Pathways to Housing, Utah, At Home etc.


Authored by Lauren Rainsford, summer policy intern at Northern Policy Institute

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