Saskatoon’s United Way CEO urges the city to seek solutions that have worked elsewhere, such as Medicine Hat, to solve homelessness.
Saskatoon can end homelessness but first we — as a community — need to learn from what works and choose to do more of it.
A decade ago, United Way Saskatoon and Area’s plan to end homelessness leadership committee joined the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) and the Community Advisory Board on Saskatoon Homelessness to create a co-ordinated approach to ending homelessness in Saskatoon.
In the foreword to the final plan is a dedication to Alvin Cote, who died around the time the plan was completed. The dedication was a promise to do better.
Ten years later, Saskatoon has more people experiencing homelessness than ever before and record numbers of overdose deaths. We did not live up to our promise to Alvin.
Perhaps most frustrating is that there is ample evidence we can do better and that doing so both makes good economic sense and is fiscally responsible. This is an “everyone wins” scenario.
But first we — as a community — need to stop trying to “manage” homelessness through expensive, ineffective means, such as shelters and policing, and take strategic steps towards solving this growing problem using tactics that have proven to be effective.
Anything less is a waste of money, time and, most importantly, lives. And the task before us is not impossible. It’s been done.
Medicine Hat made headlines in 2015 for becoming the first and only Canadian city to end homelessness. While the city still has a homeless population at times, the overall impact has been impressive.
According to a 2021 Medicine Hat Community Housing Society news release, shelter use was reduced by 64 per cent and hundreds of chronically homeless people have been housed, often within 10 days.
The community uses a combination of strategies including data-driven decision making, effective and inclusive local leadership, a co-ordinated homeless system specific to the needs of the community, and a housing first approach.
Having a comprehensive strategy for quickly housing people and providing the supports to help them remain in their home improves the quality of life of everyone in a community and is far more cost effective than relying on emergency services to deal with people in distress.
A 2019 progress report on Medicine Hat suggests the cost of the program per person is up to 10 times less than providing resources to people on the street.
Our experience with Journey Home, a United Way funded housing first program, reflects a similar social and economic upside.
Emergency room visits and hospitalizations by 40 participants who agreed to share data were reduced by well over 50 per cent and the estimated total cost avoidance in a single year represents more than $800,000 in reduced costs.
The cost savings are nice, of course, but so is decreasing pressure on already stretched hospitals and emergency service personnel.
With winter around the corner, more funding from the province for shelter spaces is welcome and appreciated.
Over the longer term, those of us who live in this community need to stop the blame game and take up the challenge ourselves. And we can start by preventing future homelessness by addressing root causes and making permanent housing priorities.
Ending homelessness in our community won’t be easy. But through co-ordinated leadership, a desire to learn from what works and a plan to do better, it can be done.
Sheri Benson is chief executive officer, United Way Saskatoon and Area and the former member of parliament for Saskatoon West. About 10 years ago, she worked with community, labour and business groups to launch Saskatoon’s first Plan to End Homelessness and, in 2014, the province’s first “housing first” program, Journey Home, a United Way and Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service partnership.