Campaign aims to house 20,000 homeless Canadians by 2018

Calgary Herald,  June 16, 2015 - The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) announced Tuesday that it has partnered with 21 communities across Canada to house 20,000 of the most vulnerable homeless Canadians by July 1, 2018.

The 20,000 Homes Campaign will send volunteers to survey the homeless population in the participating municipalities and those most at risk, including those who are chronically homeless, will be housed and provided with support. Housing the homeless population directly from the streets, called housing first, is an increasingly popular strategy to tackle homelessness. The 20,000 Homes Campaign aims to house people in existing rental housing, supporting them with subsidies.

Tim Richter is president and CEO of CAEH, and former president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, where he helped implement Calgary’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. He spoke with the Herald’s Erin Sylvester about what Calgary is doing right and whether Canada can end homelessness.

Q: How widespread is the movement to end homelessness in Canada?

A: What we’re seeing with the 20,000 Homes Campaign is a real explosion of interest. We’ve got 21 communities signed up to the campaign, and there’s a lot more interested in the wings.

So, there’s just this palpable sense in communities across Canada that it’s time to do something different, that Alberta, Medicine Hat, Calgary are showing that homelessness is a solvable problem and people are pretty keen to act.

Q: How was Calgary involved in the creation of this?

A: At the heart of the 20,000 Homes Campaign are a lot of the lessons that we learned through the experience in Alberta. Getting to know people by name, targeting them specifically, prioritizing them based on their risk of homelessness, prioritizing people who are chronically and episodically homeless, using housing first as a means to house and support people, setting targets, creating a sense of urgency, all kinds of things that we learned in Alberta … The survey we’re using now, we tested the early version of it in the East Village in 2008 in Calgary.

Q: Why the housing first strategy?

A: Because it’s the most effective response we’ve got.

You can’t build housing in three years, really finance and build housing, so we’re going to use what we have. Housing first is a very effective response to move people directly from the streets… It also doesn’t hurt that the federal government has shifted its focus to housing first, which means there’s some money available in communities, certainly not enough to house 20,000 people, but certainly enough to get started.

Q: What does a housing first strategy look like?

A: Calgary’s the example, you know. With the campaign, we’re going to survey people, we’re going to identify those at greatest risk, we’ll prioritize them. … So we take them directly from the street into housing, we provide them the supports they need to stay there and deal with some of things that led them to homelessness in the first place. If they need medical help, psychiatric help, dealing with addiction, all of that stuff, those supports happen in the context of housing.

Q: How does this campaign fit in to the larger picture of the movement to end homelessness?

A: Well, for most communities this gets the process started, creates a sense of urgency, breaks the inertia that’s kind of part of a system. When you’ve got a problem this big, it’s pretty easy to see how you might get frozen in action just by the scope of it and we’re breaking down the problem into a manageable bit and attacking it that way.

In Calgary, I think we can help in the sprint to the finish line. I firmly believe that Calgary can achieve its target of ending homelessness by 2018 and I’m hoping that the campaign will be able to help them do that.

Q: In the past people thought of ending homelessness as a dream that would never happen. Do you think that’s changed?

A: I think it’s changing. I think in Alberta, especially in Medicine Hat, it’s proving the concept. We’re just going to have to do it, and prove it, and get the results and eventually show that it’s possible, but we know homelessness is a solvable problem and so the key is to get on with it.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I think this is an opportunity for Calgary to really shine, to show some national leadership … I think Calgary has an important leadership role as modelling the behaviour, modelling the skills and strategies that made them successful so far, but also make sure that we don’t lose steam so close to the finish line in Calgary’s plan to end homelessness.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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