Homelessness initiative: glimmer of hope or "fart in the air"?

By Judith Lavoie, November 2015

“Housing First” is easier in theory than in practice, especially given multiple municipalities and lack of senior government support.

Solving chronic homelessness is pretty simple—give people homes, says Sam Tsemberis, the psychologist-turned-outreach-worker credited with eliminating persistent homelessness in cities across North America, from New York City to Phoenix, Arizona.

It seems self-evident. A nice, neat solution, requiring only large cash injections, that will allow everyone to live happily ever after, with the streets cleared of the evidence of human misery now seen every day in the parks, doorways and alcoves of Greater Victoria.

Of course, it’s not that easy. In 1992 Tsemberis pioneered the Housing First model, which is now guiding Victoria’s renewed efforts to solve the region’s problem of chronic homelessness. Over the years the model, which has been embraced by most in the field, has also generated questions about the safety and value of providing homes for people with mental illness or addictions without insisting they first enter treatment or get a grip on their problems.

The Housing First model means ensuring housing remains secure and that consistent supports remain in place, even when someone screws up, whether they’ve gone off their meds, set fire to the apartment, or sold the furniture to buy drugs.

The concept seemed radical when first introduced by Tsemberis, but he points out that it mirrors a society where it’s acceptable for people to cope with life’s knocks by rushing home from work and grabbing the wine bottle. “If you require someone to be sober or psychologically stable before having housing, a lot of people in Victoria would be out of their housing right now,” Tsemberis said in an interview. “We hold the poor to a discriminatory higher standard. You don’t need to be sober to keep housing, you have to be sober enough. You don’t have to be sane, you have to be sane enough.”

Tsemberis, who was born in Greece and raised in Montreal, came to the realization that the system had it backwards while doing outreach work in New York City.

His training as a psychologist meant that, when he saw people in trouble on the street, his instinct was to take them to hospital or refer them to detox. With persistently bad outcomes, however, he soon realized that, too often, it was not mental illness or addiction that was crippling them, it was lack of money and a home.

“I’d had too much Freud and not enough Marx. I had to stop listening to my own psychology-trained mind and I had to start listening to people,” Tsemberis said.

It’s a road map that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is following in her efforts to find the funding and political will to house 367 chronically homeless people.

“Someone is not going to kick their addictions and get treatment for their mental health issues and is not going to deal with whatever trauma it was that put them on the streets in the first place if they are still on the street,” Helps said.

The idea to build enough units to house those 367 people is based on the recent report by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness—“Creating Homes, Enhancing Communities”—which estimates that, to address chronic homelessness, 185 new supportive housing units are needed, plus rent supplements and support services for a further 182 individuals.

It is essential to provide a variety of housing options if the plan is to succeed, said Kelsi Stiles, Coalition acting executive director. She also noted that if those 367 chronically homeless people can be successfully housed, it will make room in emergency shelters for those experiencing temporary difficulties. “When you look at the people using emergency shelters, this is the small minority that use most of the services and, if they are housed, it frees up a lot of space in the shelter system,” she said.

In September Victoria city council voted eight-to-one to take a motion to the Capital Regional District board asking that directors look at options for financing the capital costs of 367 new units and asking that the region approach senior governments looking for financial help. The motion to the CRD Hospital Board was signed by Helps, Ben Isitt, and chair of the Hospital Board, Dave Howe.

Before the Hospital Board directors met, the original estimate of $50 million had already reduced the proposed capital cost borrowing to $30 million because of the partial shift to rent supplements. The hope was to create a united front in the region. But the majority of CRD directors balked. Some expressed discomfort with hearing about it first in the news. Denise Blackwell said “It makes some of us feel put on the spot.” She also noted she had never seen a tent in Langford. Others complained about the lack of a plan and too little information, though it was pointed out by Helps and others that the motion was in part directed at obtaining more details as to the feasibility, costs and options for financing. In the end it was agreed that only one section of the six-part motion would be voted on: that part asking for staff to do a feasibility study, to be completed in December, looking at either the Capital Regional Hospital Board or CRD leading the plan to see more housing units with supports created in the region.

At the October 14 CRD meeting, most expressed agreement in theory that a key to any solution to regional homelessness is getting financial help from senior levels of government, though they weren’t ready to write letters to them asking for funding yet.

If the CRD eventually approves a version of the Victoria-led motion, the new federal government will be asked for help with capital and support costs—possibly as part of a much-needed national housing strategy. That federal money, would reduce the burden on local taxpayers. 

While the feds have been missing-in-action for decades in building affordable housing, the new Liberal government provides reason for optimism. Housing and the need for a national housing strategy were featured in many of Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau’s campaign speeches. The main focus was on providing affordable housing, through tax incentives and more flexibility for new home buyers, but homelessness was also acknowledged as a problem that needed addressing. 

In a statement released shortly before the election, Trudeau said a Liberal government will help build more housing units and refurbish existing ones and will provide operational funding support for municipalities.“This includes renewing support for Housing First initiatives that help homeless Canadians find stable housing,” he said

Under the postponed motion, the Province would be asked to pay for support services and operating costs, estimated at $8.2-million annually, based on $22,219 per person per year. So far, Housing Minister Rich Coleman has shown cautious interest in looking at the plan on a project by project basis, according to Helps.

“We are not going to borrow $1 unless we have the provincial government and the federal government at the table with us,” emphasized Helps, who is hoping that a spirit of partnership at the regional level will emerge and persuade senior governments to become involved.

“I think there’s a true glimmer of hope that, with these proposals, if we can go to the province and the feds as a united voice as a region, we might actually be able to tackle this problem,” she said.

An added incentive is the well-known economic argument that the cost of treating and policing those who are chronically homeless, and the resulting paralysis of emergency departments and police services, is more expensive than providing a home and supports.

“This would be a much better use of tax dollars,” Helps said.

 

No one would be happier to see a solution than Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society, a group that helps some of Victoria’s most difficult to house.

“Anything they are building is good for me. I don’t care if it’s a garage where we can put people to keep them out of the rain. It’s better than the doorways where they are at the moment,” said Tysick, who is on the streets before dawn every day, handing out coffee, cigarettes and blankets.

A major problem will be ensuring that any new housing has sufficient support staff, Tysick said, pointing out that there are not sufficient supports for high-needs clients in Victoria’s existing projects.

“They haven’t got the money to run them now. It would take a huge injection [of money] and commitment,” Tysick said.

“When you invite the homeless into your home, you are inviting the street in. It follows them through the door—hoarders, mental illnesses and addictions,” he said.

Tysick applauds Helps’ efforts, but points to previous failures to obtain support from senior governments. He also notes that the visible street problems are only the tip of the iceberg and beneath the surface there are many more, including families and single moms, struggling to deal with poverty and insecure or inadequate housing. 

“I haven’t seen any commitment from the federal government,” said Tysick, who is discouraged that no political party has come up with a viable national policy to end poverty.

“So, until all the municipalities come together—provincially and federally—it’s just a fart in the air,” he said. “It’s a really big puzzle with many pieces, but it seems we don’t have the courage to really tackle that puzzle in a country that could afford to end poverty.”

Kathy Stinson, Victoria Cool Aid Society executive director, echoes the concern that other governments or neighbouring municipalities might not be supportive, even though it is increasingly obvious that homelessness is not just a downtown problem.

“I think, regardless, we have to keep pushing the province to bring supports to the table,” she said.

Stinson agrees that any long-term solution has to address big issues such as poverty, health care, and providing more help to families so kids don’t end up in care. “We need a system overhaul,” she said.

Another worry is that, if taxpayers are shelling out cash to address chronic homelessness, they will be shocked to see some people still on the street.

Tysick believes a low barrier shelter, that gives people a bed even if they are drunk or stoned, should be part of the solution. For example, when Victoria’s Extreme Weather Response Plan clicks into place this fall, providing an extra 80 shelter beds, some of his clients will still be on the street because they have been barred due to their behaviour.

Helps acknowledges that the plan to house 367 people will not be a magic bullet, but believes it could be the start of a change. “The thought that people will never see anyone sitting on Pandora Street or anywhere else is pie-in-the-sky,” Helps said. “There will always be people who have challenges and there will always be people who will fall through the cracks, but we are talking about setting up an ecosystem of housing so, when people do fall through the cracks, they don’t have to stay on the street for so long,” she said.

Housing First’s founder Tsemberis told me that as Helps battles to gain the support of capital region municipalities and struggles to pry cash from the federal and provincial governments, she should remember that she provides the best hope for solving the city’s problem of chronic homelessness. “The best place to start addressing the problem is at the municipal level…Only at the city level do we know who’s homeless by name,” he said. 

Financial support from senior levels of government is essential, Tsemberis added. “But someone in the mayor’s office has to guide it.”

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith