Hard to house can't be ignored

By Jordan Cooper, The Star Phoenix January 7, 2013 - Recently, StarPhoenix reporter Charles Hamilton wrote a reflective piece about a story he and David Hutton penned about Alvin Cote in 2012. Their story reported that Cote had been arrested an amazing 843 times over the past couple of decades, more than anyone else in Saskatoon.

Hamilton asks about Cote: "If no one wants to take care of people like Cote, who will?"

Before I try to answer that question, you need to realize that Cote is not alone. He has the highest profile, but there are a number of other people in Saskatoon who have been struggling for years - whether their issue is mental health, addictions, or a fear of being connected to Social Services.

The estimates of the number of people who are really hard to house in Saskatoon vary from a handful to a couple of hundred. I agree with Shirley Isbister, executive director of the Central Urban Metis Federation, who stated at the National Housing Day event that the number of people who don't want to be housed is probably in the range of 30 to 40.

You can find them living in hidden clusters throughout Saskatoon, even in the winter. On the one hand, it's a big problem, as these are human lives. On the other hand, compared to the 1,000 or so persons being served daily by shelters, soup kitchens and other service agencies in the city, it's not big enough to warrant the kind of attention that is needed to solve the problem.

Hamilton and Hutton note Cote has a drinking problem that has taken its toll. Each of the hard-to-house persons I know has a unique story. One becomes an arsonist when angered. Others become physically abusive and violent toward shelter staff for no reason. Some are just incompatible with everyone else around them.

Unique problems require unique solutions.

Most other provinces recognize this and are using multi-disciplinary outreach teams to provide assistance. Depending on the case and on the city, the teams may be made up of a social worker, psychiatrist, addiction worker, psychiatric nurses, mental health worker, court worker and someone who can provide housing supports.

To bridge the gap between the homeless person and the team, there is often someone who was formerly on the street. That is an expensive roster of professionals who are working as a team, but the approach has been effective in removing homeless persons from encampments across Canada and the United States and into safe housing and then treatment.

We don't have any of this in Saskatoon, partly because no one wants to be responsible for it. The cities and provinces that have made homelessness a priority have made someone accountable for addressing it and given them the resources to solve the problem involving really hard-to-house persons.

It's not always pleasant, because agencies and government departments are often very territorial. There are growing pains. No one likes another level of accountability, but it works. Such efforts take time, but encampments in Toronto were cleared out when outreach teams found good housing for the teens who had moved in.

It worked in Times Square over a couple of years, as outreach teams met people where they were and helped them find places to live. It has worked in both smaller and larger cities as well.

But we are slow on the uptake in Saskatoon.

In the meantime, people get lost in the cracks of the system for decades because no one wants to fund a program, and no one wants to give up their funding or authority.

It isn't a coincidence that the problem doesn't end until senior political leaders get serious about fixing homelessness. In many provinces, it has been the premier. South of the border, it has been mayors and governors who've had enough of seeing people struggle on the streets and decided to act.

The solution to people such as Cote and others like him is not driven by the service agencies or even the public. Because of the complexity of many of the problems, it must be driven by those at the top. It doesn't always make economic sense, but they do it because it is the right thing to do.

The vast majority of us have never had to endure the pain of being taken from our parents and sent to residential school where we were abused. But for those who have been hurt, fallen through the cracks and are suffering on our streets, why not invest in the kind of professionals and strategies that are working elsewhere and help these hard-to-house persons experience even a bit of recovery?

It's not cost-effective and there isn't going to be much of a return on investment - but it's a lot better than leaving them outside to freeze.