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Housing lessons from down south

Most people have a skewed perspective on homelessness, says Allyn Lyon, director of community and industry partnerships for the Yukon Housing Corporation. "We think of the homeless as a down-and-outer, someone who drinks out of a brown paper bag."

Most people have a skewed perspective on homelessness, says Allyn Lyon, director of community and industry partnerships for the Yukon Housing Corporation.

“We think of the homeless as a down-and-outer, someone who drinks out of a brown paper bag,” he said. “It includes those people, but it also includes many other kinds, like families.”

Homelessness is a complex problem, but fortunately for Whitehorse, it is one that many other cities have also faced.

Ten years ago Denver, Colorado was facing a homeless crisis that makes the problems in Whitehorse pale in comparison.

The city decided to take action after a municipal election that saw a new mayor take office and 10 of the 13 city councillors replaced.

Denver’s Road Home program was launched in 2005, providing a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“It was a very audacious statement to say that, one, we were going to end homelessness, and two, that we’re going to reduce the chronic homeless rate by 75 per cent in the first years, and then to actually do it generated a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of excitement,” said Benny Milliner the executive director of Denver’s Road Home.

Milliner was in Whitehorse last week as part of the 2013 Northern Housing Conference.

The conference kicked off with an announcement by Scott Kent, minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corporation, that the government was going to create a housing action plan for Yukon.

The move was applauded by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, which, along with the NDP Opposition, had long been calling for a territorial housing strategy.

Details are still scant about what the plan will include or how long it will take to develop.

It took Denver a year and a half to develop its plan.

But that process was vital to its success, said Milliner.

“This is not a quick-fast approach to getting things done,” he said. “You want to have as many people at the table as possible. You want as much input as possible, because it has to be an organic movement, it has to be something that grows out of the community, not a top-down approach.’

“You really have to have the input of the people that are going to be impacted by what you do.”

Denver’s Road Home is a housing-first strategy.

The idea is that by getting people into housing from the start it will be easier to address other deep-rooted problems, like substance abuse.

In the eight years since the program started, 956 units of housing have been created for the chronically homeless and almost 6,000 families and individuals have been prevented from becoming homeless through eviction assistance.

That’s all within the backdrop of an unanticipated and prolonged recession that has put tremendous pressure on the safety net.

But while Milliner credits the “crusading mentality” of Mayor John Hickenlooper - who has since gone on to become governor of Colorado - and the charisma of the staff for the success of the initiative, it wasn’t something that they did on their own.

“This is nothing that any one entity or government is going to be able to solve,” he said. “It has to be something where we all have some skin in the game.”

A big part of Denver’s Road Home is the mentoring program that has seen local religious congregations sponsor families and seniors in need.

Almost 1,200 individuals and families have taken part in that mentorship program, said Brad Hopkins, the executive director at Central Wyoming Rescue Mission.

Hopkins used to run the mentorship program in Denver, and was in Whitehorse last week to talk about it.

“The main issue leading to homelessness is really not a lack of resources, it’s a lack of relationships,” he said.

While there is a common perception that those in poverty compensate for their lack of resources by forming unusually rich social and emotional ties, the reality is actually the opposite, said Hopkins.

“Many mothers tell us that they could not name one person that they would consider a friend,” said Hopkins. “Poverty, it’s a horrible pun, but it is a full-time job.

“You think about many of those healthy, supportive relationships that you and I form over a nice dinner that we can afford, or a cup of coffee, but for a single mom living hand-to-mouth, trying to pull resources together for their children, not only do you not have the funds to do that, but you don’t have the time.”

Fostering a positive, supportive relationship is just one of the tools that Denver’s Road Home uses to get people on the right track.

Although the program has exceeded its own lofty goals, Milliner admits there is still a lot of work to do.

“People ask me, ‘Can we really eliminate homelessness?’ I don’t know if we can eliminate homelessness. My job should be to create a seamless homeless-care system, so that if people find themselves in a situation, there’s resources available to help them to move through that system and back to some level of self sufficiency.”

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