Chronic homelessness in Abbotsford could end in two years, says delegate

Representatives from Alberta encourage shift from managing homelessness to ending it

Diane Randall

Diane Randall

A shift must be made from managing homelessness to ending it – and Abbotsford could end chronic homelessness in less than two years if the city implements such a plan.

That’s the advice to this city from Tim Richter and Diane Randall, delegates from Calgary and Lethbridge, Alta., who have created local strategies to dramatically reduce homelessness.

Richter and Randall met with Abbotsford’s task force on homelessness last Thursday, painting a picture of a problem that can be solved with a focused plan and connecting available services.

“Homelessness itself is not complex – the system we create around it is,” said Richter.

Now president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, he was formerly the president of the Calgary Homeless Foundation where he led a 10-year plan to end homelessness – the first of its kind in Canada.

Many other cities have followed and created similar plans to end chronic homelessness.

Richter emphasized the need to connect services, and focus them on the outcome of ending homelessness.

He said a housing-first approach is necessary, but it doesn’t mean housing only – there must be added support.

Richter said while Abbotsford may need 15 to 30 units of permanent supportive housing, cities should avoid shelters and transitional housing and instead look for permanent solutions. He said cities should focus on the most chronically homeless and those with the most complex needs.

Richter said they did a rough estimate in Calgary for the cost of a chronically homeless individual, which is about $130,000 per year based on their draw on services, such as health care, police, courts, etc.

He said that to house and support Abbotsford’s hardest-to-house, with some exceptions, it could cost around $15,000 per person. He added that it would also reduce drug addiction, while improving mental and physical health, explaining that their housing first efforts led to fewer emergency room visits, fewer days in jail and court, and interactions with police.

“I think you could probably end chronic homelessness in Abbotsford in less than two years.”

Diane Randall, a city of Lethbridge employee, oversees social policy including the city’s five-year plan to end homelessness, which is in its fifth year.

Randall oversees two city staff members involved with the plan – a housing-first expert and a contract administrator who leads the plan’s implementation by connecting existing services.

She agreed that chronic and complex cases must be addressed first since the longer someone is on the streets the greater impact on health and mortality rate.

Randall said Lethbridge has seen a more than 90 per cent reduction in street homelessness. She added that the rate of recidivism (returning to homelessness) is less than seven per cent. The national average is 80 per cent.

Randall told The News that the implementation of the plan costs about $3 million annually. The city pays about $252,000 in rent subsidies and receives $2.392 million in provincial funding and $392,000 from the federal government.

Richter told The News the cost of a plan depends on the size and complexity of the city’s homeless population (this year’s homeless count found 151 people in Abbotsford), and he estimates annual costs would be about $2 to $3 million here.

Boyd Thomas, general manager of the Aboriginal Housing Society in Lethbridge, an independent agency, was consulted on the social housing aspect of the plan.

He said it has led to a “tremendous improvement” and many people have found housing, but added that some people still choose to remain outside. He said the society also oversees a shelter and he doesn’t agree that shelter use has been dramatically reduced – suggesting that people may move to communities offering good services.

He said people on the streets know what they need, and consultation with the homeless is important to make a plan that suits the needs of the Abbotsford community.

“The principles are there, but every community… (is) going to have to adapt it and adjust it for itself.”

In Alberta, communities went to the province with plans to end homelessness – showing they would use a model that has worked in other North American cities and would save the province money.

Richter said now there is an opportunity for Abbotsford to work with other B.C. communities to get provincial assistance. He also said this city could apply for funding under the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, which announced about $600 million over five years to fund housing-first projects Canada-wide, through the rural and remote homelessness funding stream.

Randall’s advice to Abbotsford was to focus on targets and get to work, adding this city could launch a housing-first team tomorrow if it wished.

“That’s how we got started. We just started – and it just worked.”