A change of heart about homeless

Medicine Hat mayor speaks in support of housing-first approach

Ted Clugston spoke at an event at UFV on Tuesday.

Ted Clugston spoke at an event at UFV on Tuesday.

The “mayor who ended homelessness” stopped in Abbotsford on Tuesday, telling a crowded theatre that while provincial and federal governments must provide support, he believes cities will solve the issue of homelessness.

Ted Clugston, mayor of Medicine Hat, Alta., spoke at the University of the Fraser Valley as part of an event by Poverty Free BC.

Clugston told the story of how he was once a vocal opponent of the “housing-first” concept, but has since become a major supporter.

Housing first is a concept that focuses on getting homeless people under a roof as soon as possible, providing stability before addressing other potential issues such as mental health or drug use.

Clugston, who was elected as mayor in October 2013 after two terms as an alderman of the city of 60,000 residents, said he used to campaign against housing first and actively attempted to block such projects.

“I used to say things like, ‘why should they have granite countertops when I don’t?’,” he said.

“This as I’ve come to know, was a narrow view – and really not very helpful.”

In the last five years, there have been 875 people housed in Medicine Hat since it adopted a housing- first strategy, providing access to apartments and rental supplements. Clugston said while he receives much of the attention for Medicine Hat’s successes, there are many on-the-ground workers who deserve the credit.

Clugston was quick to note the many advantages enjoyed by his city, explaining that Medicine Hat has no debt and the lowest property taxes in Canada – combined with extra oil and gas revenue. The city has its own electric utility power plant, gas utility, land development company and more.

The province also put in two-thirds of the funding into housing first projects, with one-third municipal, said Clugston. While not all Albertan cities had the funds, Medicine Hat had both the money and the land to build up a housing stock and were basically given “free rein” to do what they needed.

But, he noted with the current issues in the Albertan economy, there could be an impact for operating funds for housing-first projects in the future.

Clugston said one of the reasons he embraced housing-first was the cost savings, saying it was cheaper to find someone a place to live. He said overall it costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year to house someone, due to low taxes and utilities in Medicine Hat. To have someone on the streets, with visits to shelters, hospitals, and more, it costs between $60,000 and $100,000.

The city uses one centralized intake centre and a “no questions asked, no-barrier” system. Anyone without a place to live can come in, where workers will find out why they are homeless and connect them with housing and services.

People will be housed within 10 days in a spectrum of permanent housing instead of temporary measures.

“A symptom of lung cancer is a persistent cough. A symptom of mental illness is homelessness. You don’t treat lung cancer with cough syrup and you don’t treat homelessness with emergency shelters and hope to cure it.”