News / Vancouver

B.C. could learn from Alberta how to save on costs of homelessness: expert

The author of a new study on the public costs of homelessness says B.C. could learn a thing or two from Alberta when it comes to keeping people off the streets for good.

The study was published Monday by Stephen Gaetz, director of York University's Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the online Homeless Hub. The paper says providing chronically homeless people with supports and housing can save Canadian taxpayers 54 cents on the dollar over leaving them homeless.

Gaetz praised the B.C. government for investing $130 million in protecting and upgrading 2,000 units of affordable housing, but said Alberta is leading the country on the issue by working on a plan to prohibit hospitals from discharging mentally ill people into homelessness.

"If you discharge people into homelessness we know that their mental health will worsen," he told Metro, arguing the same protocols should be put in place for people exiting the prison system.

"The research shows that if you discharge someone from prison into homelessness their chance of reoffending goes up, so not only does it make more sense to re-house people and make sure they leave prison with housing just from an ethical perspective, it also makes communities safer."

In 2008, SFU professor Michelle Patterson published a study cited in Gaetz's paper arguing one homeless person with substance abuse and mental health issues in B.C. costs the public system more than $55,000 per year. She found if the same people were provided with adequate housing and supports, the cost per person would drop to an estimated $37,000, saving the province about $211 million each year.

Patterson said the federal government downloaded the costs of social housing onto provincial and municipal governments in the early '90s, to disastrous effect.

"There is always a struggle to really meet the acute demands of rising homeless populations," she said.

"I wouldn't say the federal government has really taken up the gauntlet. I think the province of B.C. has definitely shown some interest in Housing First [strategies], and in providing more outreach support services, particularly for homeless people with mental illness."

The last homeless count for Metro Vancouver found the total number of homeless people was virtually unchanged from 2008, at 2,650, but there was a 74 per cent increase in the number of people in emergency shelters and similar facilities.

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