Earlier this year, the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association reported a 30-per-cent increase in homelessness in Metro Vancouver since 2014, with at least 3,605 homeless people counted in 2017. As the B.C. NDP review the effectiveness of affordable housing policies previously implemented by the Christy Clark government, and as we wait for the development of a national housing strategy, let’s not forget that we do have an effective solution to long-term homelessness that should have been rolled out by our municipal and provincial governments yesterday.
Now don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need to develop a national housing strategy and find ways to make housing more affordable in out-of-control housing markets like Metro Vancouver. This will help most homeless people and go a long way for homelessness prevention. However, for those who experience long-term homelessness — often 10 years or more — housing affordability is only part of the puzzle. This is because this group is disproportionately affected by negative experiences throughout their lives, such as trauma, mental health problems, addictions, difficulties with employment, and strained social bonds. These individuals require a range of appropriate supports in addition to housing to transition into recovery.
A recent five-year, multi-million-dollar study in Vancouver that I have worked on has convincingly shown that the Scattered Site Housing First model can end long-term homelessness efficiently. This experimental project provided three variations of housing and support to roughly 300 homeless people experiencing mental illness in Metro Vancouver, and compared their outcomes to those of 200 others who received usual care. Through this project, we have learned that usual care isn’t working, and that not all forms of “Housing First” are equally effective. The most effective Housing First intervention to end long-term homelessness and promote recovery involved the combination of decent, private market housing together with medical and social services. Clients were given responsibilities as well as opportunities to access services and supports that would best enable them to achieve recovery. The essential building blocks of that recovery are 1) decent, market housing, 2) health and social services, and 3) supports leading to education, volunteering, and employment. To ensure that housing was affordable, rent subsidies kicked in to prevent any more than 30 per cent of the individual’s income from going to housing.
Now, a question that often comes up regarding government spending on major social programs relates to cost. Many citizens would correctly assume that governments already spend a great deal to address homelessness. The problem is that we are spending on the wrong services. Research from the Somers Research Group has shown that, on average, approximately $55,000 in publicly funded services are allocated to each homeless person with serious mental illness and addictions per year in B.C. The main cost drivers involve hospitalization, the justice system, and operating emergency shelters. By comparison, housing and support cost roughly $35,000.
The benefits of scattered site housing (rather than placing people together in a single building) may simply reflect the reality that our neighbours, and neighbourhoods, are part of what contributes to health.
The failure to implement adequate housing and supports in B.C. for people experiencing long-term homelessness has been a province-wide human rights violation. This also includes the long history of atrocious-quality single-room occupancy hotels (e.g., units with untreated mould, insect and rodent infestations, and structural problems), creating unacceptable living conditions.
We have had too many decades of premature death, suffering, social injustice, and inaction concerning homeless people in our communities. On their own, affordable housing policies will do little to help those experiencing long-term homelessness. However, in combination with adequate support services, opportunities for recovery can be created.
I call on the newly formed NDP provincial government to take this issue seriously and scale up Housing First in B.C. to end chronic homelessness. Premier John Horgan ran on a platform arguing that “it’s time for a government that works for people again.” It’s time to walk the talk.