What? Yes it’s true; you want Housing First programs in your neighbourhood. Not because you’re a bleeding heart leftist socialist (which you might be) and not because you’re a school of hard knocks righty (which you could be) but because no matter what side of politics you’re on, Housing First programs make sound economic and humanitarian sense.
We’re all sick of paying taxes for social programs that don’t seem to be making much of a difference; we’re all tired of waiting in the emergency room too long because the docs are tied up (again!) with a chronic alcoholic in critical distress – his 25th visit to the emergency that year; we’re all scratching our heads in dismay at the size of the health budget for Yukon and yet we still have homeless, hungry, addicted people in our community who aren’t able to get it together. And even the most hardcore on the right are aligned with the left on being sickened about another homeless person freezing to death in the dead of winter in Whitehorse.
Just what on earth would Housing First do? Housing First is a program that puts vulnerable homeless people into appropriate supported housing. The provision of said housing does not rest on the person’s ability to meet a specific standard of behaviours such as being drug- and alcohol-free or of sound mental health. The idea with Housing First includes the recognition that some people have such complex life issues and challenges that finding housing is beyond their ability, and maintaining a home would be near impossible if they did not have a support worker to help them.
It also recognizes that the community must make provisions for affordable housing that can be used for Housing First programs. Another tenet of Housing First is that a community has a responsibility to support and help its members, especially the most vulnerable; this includes providing safe housing and improving their overall health and well-being.
So at this juncture my lefty friends usually respond with: “Go on… I’m listening…” and my righty friends typically respond with: “Wait a sec… I had to work hard for my housing… why should someone else get it for free?”
Fair enough, but the question is a false lead. Housing First isn’t free, but neither is the status quo. Both Housing First and doing nothing (the status quo) cost our community money. However, the question we should ask is: “Is Housing First cheaper than the status quo (doing nothing)?” Answer: Yes.
You and I are all paying a huge cost for not putting a vulnerable person into supported housing. Chronically homeless people are significantly more likely to: visit the emergency room several times in a year; use ambulance services several times per year; be involved in the justice system, the courts, the jail and with police as either victims of violence or offenders or both; have chronic health conditions; and have addictions. Their risk of contracting HIV is nine times greater than that of the average person. And they will be the greatest users of charity programs like emergency shelters, food banks, free lunch programs, etc.
Who pays for all this? We do, through our tax dollars, mostly.
Does putting a person into housing magically solve all of his or her problems? No. But Housing First is cheaper than the status quo, much cheaper. When we put a person into a supported housing program their use of all of the services listed above will decrease significantly.
Housing First has also been shown to do other good things, including reducing problematic and chaotic drug and alcohol use such as binging and overdosing, and increasing life expectancy. With the same amount of money or less we can put a person into housing and reduce the burden on the homeless shelter, the emergency room, the police and justice system, and other social services programs like the detox centre and ambulance services. Imagine, your tax dollars being used to invest in one social program with massive community impact.
We’ve reached that part of the conversation where many ask: “This seems too good to be true; why isn’t it happening?” Housing First is happening in many parts of Canada, and it is happening a little bit in Whitehorse, but not nearly enough.
Why? Because too many people balk at the idea of just giving someone a home. That’s a problem, and we need to spend more time educating the left and the right about Housing First and why it can be downright magical (yes I said that!). Remember, we’re all paying anyway, so let’s invest smartly.
Why else doesn’t more Housing First happen? Because it requires politicians making decisions that are in the best interest of healthy communities in the long run and where gains may not be immediately realized before the next election cycle.
Housing First programs require a big upfront capital investment and operating investment. Policy makers are reluctant to make those new investments because they already have a lot of money tied up in the budgets of the emergency room, police, ambulance, etc. Those services have massive budgets because they are spending huge portions of their resources on dealing with street-involved chronic addicted homeless persons. Those programs and budgets can’t be cut overnight, so they need to coexist while we invest new money at the front end in Housing First programs.
It’s the long-term pay-off that makes it worth the investment: for my friends on the right – the year-after-year budget increases to police, ambulance, emergency will become a thing of the past as we move people from the streets into supported housing and the demands on those services levels off and then decreases; for my friends on the left – a healthier, vibrant community where all people are able to live with dignity. Now that’s magical.
Patricia Bacon is the executive
director of Blood Ties Four Directions.