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Give Housing First a second chance

It must be tough being a Yukon Party cabinet minister. So much money on hand, so few ideas with what to do with it.

It must be tough being a Yukon Party cabinet minister. So much money on hand, so few ideas with what to do with it, as evidenced by the nearly $12 million in affordable housing money that remains unspent, six years after Ottawa delivered it.

The government initially planned to put this money to work to help Yukoners who aren’t eligible to stay in social housing, yet struggle to pay the rent. Then Brad Cathers announced last week he was just kidding: he actually doesn’t want to help these people, because, he has learned, this would upset landlords and realtors.

Now that we’re once again back to square one, maybe it’s a good time to reflect on another opportunity wasted by this government. It’s one that would help those in the greatest need of housing. It would make the government’s claim to treating addictions as a high priority seem far less hollow. And it may ultimately even save the government money in the long run.

A few years ago, a coalition of non-profits formed to push the idea of the government putting its affordable housing towards a supportive housing project for some the territory’s hardest-to-house residents. The facility would have been ran on a principle dubbed “Housing First,” in that clients would not need to kick addictions before getting roofs over their heads.

At the time, the Yukon government expressed skepticism, insisting that the jury was still out. So it’s timely that a massive Canadian study produced by the Mental Health Commission of Canada was released last week that validates the Housing First approach with the scientific rigour of a randomized controlled trial.

The $110-million, five-year study followed more than 2,000 participants in five cities. It concluded that Housing First clients, compared to their “treatment as usual” peers, faced substantially better odds at stabilizing their lives.

Conservative cranks will moan about how such programs are yet another ineffective hand-out. This study shows such views are flat-out wrong. Of course, whether the Yukon Party has the courage to stand up to such ignorance within its own base remains another question.

The study shows that Housing First is also a sound investment, particularly when dealing with the highest-cost clients, who are often stuck on a circuit between the homeless shelter and emergency room. The study found that for every $10 spent on high-frequency clients, the government saved $9.60. (In the top 10 per cent, meanwhile, for every $10 spent, $21.72 was saved.)

The study goes on to note that this “saved” money isn’t necessarily found in government coffers, as an empty hospital bed will usually be filled by somebody else. But a Housing First Program would have the potential of easing the mayhem at Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency room, which is frequently overwhelmed by alcoholics, allowing doctors and nurses to commit more resources to other patients.

It would also be doing RCMP officers and paramedics a favour, who spent too much time carting around hardcore alcoholics, at the expense of other duties. Business owners would similarly be pleased to have less riff-raff on the downtown streets.

And then there’s the small matter that it’s the humane, compassionate thing to do.

Cabinet members will still likely be troubled by whether this is the conservative thing to do. They should remember that Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government is on board with this approach, and is actually spending $600 million over next five years to roll out Housing First projects across Canada.

Heck, maybe we could get some of that money. But that may require coming up with a plan of how to spend it.