Who are Calgary's homeless? New study compiles years of data

Calgary Herald, March 17, 2015 - Years of data contained in a University of Calgary study released Tuesday confirmed what agencies helping the homeless have long suspected: a small percentage of chronically homeless people are taking up a significant portion of emergency shelter beds.

The study, which examined nearly 33,000 people who stayed in Calgary homeless shelters over a five-year period, found the overwhelming majority of them stayed there infrequently and for a short period of time. The data found only 1.6 per cent were considered “chronic” users who stay frequently and for long periods, but their impact on the system was significant — they typically occupy one-third of beds at any given time.

Part of the answer lies in building permanent supportive housing that will allow chronically homeless people to successfully live outside of shelters, said Ron Kneebone, a professor in the U of C’s school of public policy and one of the study’s authors.

“Permanent supportive housing is expensive, but so is the cost of keeping people in shelters,” Kneebone said.

To the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the study validates the approach being taken in the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which recently underwent an update.

“These individuals who are chronically homeless have been trapped in homelessness and we need to find avenues to get them out,” CHF spokeswoman Louise Gallagher said.

The city’s 10-year plan operates under the “housing first” principle, which focuses on finding permanent housing for people. Under the revised plan, the foundation estimates the total cost to implement all its recommendations will total $406 million — including an additional $290 million in funding to fully implement the plan by the time it reaches the end of its 10-year window in 2018.

Despite the progress moving more than 6,000 people off the streets since 2008, the one-night count of the city’s homeless last October tallied 3,531 people spending the night at the city’s shelters, short-term housing facilities or on the streets — virtually unchanged since January 2014, when a count found 3,533.

To house people considered chronically homeless, the foundation is calling for the construction of 563 new supportive housing units and the creation of more than 1,000 new supportive housing spaces in existing sites. Supportive housing provides people transitioning out of homelessness with a place to live and programs like addictions treatment and mental health counseling aimed at keeping them in a stable environment.

Although many of the 10-year plan’s recommendations come with a significant price tag, it also calls for several policy changes that would provide incentives for developers to build more affordable housing and spur increases to the existing stock of market-priced rental units.

While it wouldn’t be a panacea, the much-debated legalization of secondary suites would have a positive impact, Kneebone said.

“The idea of secondary suites is to increase the supply of relatively inexpensive housing, and anything that we can do in that regard will help — it won’t solve, but it will certainly help with the homeless problem,” he said.

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