Tristan Cleveland: Let's build a better ladder out of homelessness in Halifax
More funding for the Housing First model would go a long way, but increased income assistance is also needed or people will continue to struggle.
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Sometimes people fall off the boardwalk in Halifax, but that’s OK, because there are ladders to climb out again.
Sometimes people also fall into homelessness, and that’s not OK, because too often, our government simply hasn’t built a ladder.
For lack of a few necessary supports, we let what should be a short-term problem become a long-term tragedy, allowing people to struggle scratching at slippery boards, needlessly multiplying costs and human suffering.
It is a message I heard Monday at the Housing and Homelessness Symposium, which brought together over a dozengroups tackling the problem. We need to properly invest in getting people into good homes to minimize the damage when someone loses everything and ends up on the street.
“Shelters were never designed, expected to be a long-term solution,” Kevin Hooper tells me, United Way’s Homelessness and Housing Facilitator. “In terms of health, in terms of long-term stability in life, living in shelters for any period of time worsens your outcomes. But from the outside, people assume it’s an acceptable solution to the problem.”
While Nova Scotia’s investment in housing has fallen by more than half since 1993 ($37 million, adjusted for inflation, versus $16 million today), rumour has it the federal government will announce major new funding for housing on Wednesday. It’s good news, because when we fail to invest in housing, it perversely costs us more.
To understand why, consider the monthly costs, according to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, of different places where homeless people might spend a month: $10,900 for a hospital bed, $4,333 for a jail cell, $1,932 for a shelter, or $701 for an apartment with a rent subsidy. According to Dalhousie University’s Cities and Environment Unit, government could save about 40 per cent by offering people secure housing.
So what should the new investment focus on? There are many, many priorities, but I will highlight two.
An exciting new strategy is called Housing First, and it is being tested in Halifax right now. The program is best understood in contrast to the old approach, in which homeless people would have to move, step-by-step, from the street, to shelters, to transitional housing, to social housing. The assumption was that people shouldn’t have their own place until they can show they are ready.
Housing First flips that approach. People are better able to manage any challenge—such as getting off drugs, or applying for jobs—when they have a safe, clean, dry place, to store clean clothes, keep possessions, think, and sleep. The goal, therefore, is to get people into housing as quickly as possible.
The model has been adopted across North America with huge success. Since 2011, Seattle has used it to cut homelessness by 75 per cent.
Even if Housing First were fully funded in Halifax, however, a major barrier remains to its success. Income assistance only grants people $535 per month for rent, an amount totally out of sync with the cost of a single-bedroom in Halifax.
Even when caseworkers do find units for their clients, they remain needlessly vulnerable to falling back into homelessness, because with that budget, there are scarce few backup options. Substantially increasing income assistance for housing would save us all money, by helping people get off the street quicker, and by preventing the problem in the first place.
The right tragedy could render just about anyone temporarily homeless. With new federal funding, we may finally be able to implement a basic structural need, a ladder to get people back into a home as quickly as possible. It’s time we stop wasting money by letting people suffer.