Housing First deserves a second look

Stephen Harper's federal Conservative government and the Yukon's NDP do not exactly see eye-to-eye on most issues. So it’s a strange sight to see our Official Opposition champion the same issue as Ottawa.

Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government and the Yukon’s NDP do not exactly see eye-to-eye on most issues. So it’s a strange sight to see our Official Opposition champion the same issue as Ottawa, only to see the territorial government reject the matter out of hand.

The issue is, admittedly, a little uncharacteristic for the Harper government to embrace, as the prime minister is usually wary of taking on new commitments on the social side of the ledger.

It’s an approach to helping the homeless dubbed Housing First, which posits that it’s preferable to provide shelter to the hardest to house, with few strings attached. This means, among other things, allowing homeless alcoholics to continue drinking in government-subsidized digs, without necessarily accepting programming.

This idea appalls some social conservatives, who reckon that salvation for such down-and-outs will only come from strength of character, rather than government hand-outs.

There is, however, something appealing in Housing First for fiscal conservatives: a growing body of evidence shows it saves governments money by taking repeat clients off the circuit between homeless shelter and emergency room.

What’s more, Housing First also seems to improve the odds of helping clients kick the bottle and get on with their lives. It turns out that it’s easier to dry out – and cope with serious mental illnesses that often accompany addictions – with a roof over your head. The approach’s effectiveness has helped create this unusual common cause between the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Most recently, Canada’s minister of social development, Candice Bergen, lauded the Housing First approach before a crowd at the National Conference on Homelessness in Ottawa. She estimated that homelessness had dropped in Edmonton by 20 per cent

between 2008 and 2010 and that about 4,000 people in Toronto have moved into permanent housing in the last eight years, and she credited Housing First initiatives for driving these improvements.

Bergen went on to urge jurisdictions with homelessness problems to use their federal funds to launch similar projects.

Senior Yukon government officials were in attendance, so our political leader should know of this entreaty. And it just so happens that the territory has sat on $13 million in federal housing money for years, apparently unable to find a good cause to spend it on.

That’s despite appeals by a coalition of Yukon non-profits that cater to the needy. These NGOs had assembled a proposal for a 20-unit Housing First facility. They had a proposed site, architectural designs and a building team all lined up. All that was missing was Yukon government support.

The territory stonewalled instead, and the project died in August 2011. If the Yukon Party had a good reason for snubbing the project, it never shared it.

It was hard to escape the impression that the government, then led by Dennis Fentie, opposed the project in part because both opposition parties pushed for it so hard – as if agreeing would mean losing face.

Time whirred by, the Yukon Party became re-elected, and the territory’s new health minister, Doug Graham, professed to be open-minded about Housing First, although nothing came of it.

At one point he suggested that the jury’s still out in regards to Housing First’s effectiveness. We’re not sure if he’s since read Ottawa’s 2012 budget, but it comes to a very different conclusion.

“The evidence shows that the Housing First approach can be implemented across Canada, improves the lives of those who are homeless and have a mental illness, and makes better use of public dollars, especially for those who are high service users,” the budget states. These claims are supported by a massive Housing First pilot project run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in five cities.

Yesterday in the legislature, the Yukon NDP once again asked the Yukon Party to consider adopting the Housing First approach. Brad Cathers, the housing minister, responded by reciting all the various housing projects built during the Yukon Party’s time in power. Yet none of the projects mentioned are geared towards helping the hardest to house.

As refreshing as it is to see the Yukon Party actually disagree about something with the federal Conservatives, this issue warrants more careful consideration than the government has shown. Sure, Housing First jars with this government’s minimalist approach to homelessness. But if it’s good enough for Stephen Harper, perhaps it’s also good enough for the Yukon?