First Step: Hoping The Best For Saskatoon's Latest Homelessness Strategy

By Lisa Johnson, Planet S Magazine May 30, 2013 - Thanks to the efforts of a long list of community organizations and advocates, Saskatoon’s first Plan to End Homelessness will be ready soon. The only question is: will embracing the “housing first” strategy that’s trending across North America be enough to eradicate homelessness in Saskatoon?

This month, the Saskatoon and Area United Way (UW) contracted Portland-based consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) to host a charrette. The two-day planning and consultation process involved representatives from community organizations, affordable housing developers, community shelters, government and people who have experienced homelessness in Saskatoon.

The result was a collection of draft recommendations that will be finalized and released as an action plan in June, says the UW.

Of course, those on the front lines have been working to combat homelessness in Saskatoon for decades. So why will this plan be different?

To begin with, it’s based on housing first, something that’s already been pretty successful in many cases. The idea is to provide homeless or at-risk people with safe housing — without requiring sobriety or compliance with interventions.

In Portland, for example, “we got some seed money from the government, and we were able to house 200 people off the street,” says Heather Lyons of CSH. “And we saw an immediate change. People continued to remain in their housing because they received significant support services. So we’ve seen it firsthand.” A study of those 200 people later found that the overall cost savings outweighed the cost of providing housing.

That’s because participants in housing first programs use fewer police or medical services, and generally see a better quality of life — although the cost savings aren’t always so dramatic.

“The argument that housing first saves public money doesn’t entirely stand up to scrutiny,”says Dionne Miazdyck-Shield, Homelessness Partnering Strategy Coordinator at the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP), a leading affordable housing research and development authority in Saskatoon. Obviously, homelessness is expensive. If it involves heavy users of the system, a housing first program will probably save public money, but in some cases, it can be costly. In either case, “we should do the right thing even if it costs more,” she says.

Shirley Isbister, president of Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. (CUMFI), says that “CUMFI has always worked on housing first. The reason for that is that we know if you don’t have a roof over your head and food on the table, you’re not having thoughts about education or employment. You don’t have the time or energy.”

But when you’re at the mercy of the mood swings of the local housing market (or discriminatory landlords for that matter), housing first can be extraordinarily difficult to administer.

“It’s difficult to implement when there’s a low vacancy rate. To truly do housing firstwell, you need to be at the same time ensuring that there’s available affordable housing in the city,” says Miazdyck-Shield.

While the UW will take the lead on the project for at least two years, Isbister says that no single organization can be expected to manage the plan on its own.

“This should be a partnership between a Métis organization, a First Nations organization and the UW to take the lead,” she says.

“I’ve been saying for years that we need to be involved, and we need to make change, so that our children will know that we can be leaders. My role models were always non-aboriginal people, so I want our children to know that there are strong, capable aboriginal people. For years, [a lot of] programming that has been run has not been making a difference, so I always say we need to lead our own projects,” says Isbister.

“As the details get planned, that will be really important. There are aboriginal organizations doing very important work, and they will need to take a lead role in ensuring cultural sensitivity and providing leadership in case management,” says Miazdyck-Shield.

What could go wrong with only one non-governmental organization taking the lead? We might learn from Calgary’s experience. A recent funding dispute surfaced when the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF), responsible for channeling millions of dollars of government money to approved agencies every year, denied an emergency shelter’s request for emergency funding. Inn From the Cold publicly criticized CHF for aiming to reduce shelter beds and increase affordable housing.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen here, but if it does, I’d certainly want [the lead organization] to be an organization that is flexible to emerging needs,” says Miazdyck-Shield. Her research suggests that there needs to be a range of different housing options — some supported, some options for market housing, and some low-barrier housing particularly for people with addictions.

Along the same lines, case management will need to be outreach-based — not office-based.

“Grounded advocacy and real tangible support in navigating the system — a good housing first project will do that. The At Home/Chez Soi project around Canada provided that. The original [housing first]model in New York was based on that,” she says.

Essential support services for people living in poverty are crucial. “If you move a family in, you can’t just give them an apartment and expect their whole life to change. You need support — for example for justice issues, or medical issues. For each family that comes in we offer supportive housing. To make change and remove people from homelessness I would think it’s mandatory to have those support services,” says Isbister.

There are also bigger, uglier, underlying problems working against organizations trying to tackle homelessness. “Poverty is one of the biggest reasons for homelessness,” says Isbister.

Since housing alone cannot end structural issues such as poverty, low wages, and racism, it’s safe to say that “a simple fix is not likely.Housing first alone cannot address all of these issues,” says Miazdyck-Shield. At the same time, the Plan “could bring a lot of positive things to Saskatoon,” she adds.

Here’s hoping.

©2010 Hullabaloo Publishing Ltd.