What can Winnipeg study from how different locations are decreasing homelessness?

With thousands now estimated to be experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg, one expert says the answer could be a strategy the government has since “pumped the brakes” on.

It’s a recovery-oriented model called housing first, which gets people into a home then gets them any support they need. Tenants are also typically allowed to stay permanently.

There’s been funding for that model in Manitoba and across Canada, but University of Winnipeg urban geography professor Jino Distasio said there hasn’t been enough of an emphasis on it recently.

“The fact is that since the early ’90s, housing first has been studied to death and it really is effective if we do it right,” said Distasio, who was part of a pilot project that got people into homes using that model.

“It remains the only proven intervention to curb chronic homelessness.”

Jino Distasio, an urban geography professor at the University of Winnipeg, says there hasn’t been enough of an emphasis on using a housing first approach to homelessness in Canada. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Several Winnipeg homeless-serving organizations made similar comments this week, suggesting adding more shelter beds isn’t what will solve homelessness.

Distasio said the housing first model also saves money, as people become less likely to rely on emergency services.

The cost of leaving people to experience homelessness in Canada is about $60,000 a person, he said. To provide housing and supports, it often ends up costing around $20,000.

“If you want me to tell you that that’s cheaper, I’ll tell you that that’s cheaper. But … it’s [also] the right thing,” he told CBC’s Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

“Housing is an absolute fundamental human right and we continue to fail Canadians in providing that.”

Finland aims to end homelessness by 2027

The housing first model is also what helped the country of Finland cut down its own homelessness rate — something it hopes to get to zero across the country by 2027, and by 2025 in its capital, Helsinki.

Juha Kahila — head of international affairs at the Y-Foundation, Finland’s largest housing non-profit — said he thinks the country is on track to meet those ambitious targets.

One of the apartment complexes built as part of Finland’s national homelessness strategy. (Submitted by Y-Foundation)

“If we just keep doing the hard work that we have been doing in the past 14 years, I think it’s totally doable,” Kahila said.

The Y-Foundation’s housing first initiative sees people moved into studio apartments — between 236 and 376 sq. ft. each — then connected with supports. Each person also gets their own support worker who stays with them from Day 1, Kahila said.

People in the apartments all pay rent, which they can afford through pensions or social security system housing benefits, he said.

Finland’s first four-year housing first initiative cost the equivalent of $234 million Cdn. That cost declined after the first time, Juha said.

And each person helped in Finland ended up saving the equivalent of just over $20,000 Cdn because they weren’t using other services, he said.

Collaboration in Houston

The city of Houston in Texas has decreased overall homelessness in the region by 63 per cent since 2012 through its housing first initiative, the area’s Coalition for the Homeless says.

That shift came after the development of The Way Home, a collaborative effort between homeless service agencies and other groups, said Sara Martinez, the organization’s vice-president of communications and development.

The project saw organizations work together to identify service gaps — and one of the biggest ones was a lack of permanent housing, which led them to focus on a housing first strategy.

It’s the same plan Manitoba’s Opposition NDP said it would use to end chronic homelessness within two terms if it forms government.

The Houston-area groups also created a standard intake form that asks for the same information and gives people the same resources, no matter where they go for help, which Martinez called “a game changer.”

While they built some new homes, Martinez said the groups largely found existing apartments and single-family homes and worked to educate landlords about homelessness to convince them to rent to their clients.

Houston’s plan to address homelessness is the same one Leader Wab Kinew and Manitoba’s Opposition NDP say they would use to end chronic homelessness. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“Sometimes it’s easy to get distracted and want to implement maybe shorter-term solutions or Band-Aid solutions,” Martinez said. 

“But those are usually more expensive, and they’re short-term.”

Cabins, modular apartments in Ontario

A Better Tent City in Kitchener, Ont., is home to a community of 50 people in almost as many cabins run with a housing first strategy. Each is eight by 10 feet, or roughly the size of a garden shed, said founder Jeff Willmer. 

Keeping the shelters smaller than 10 square metres meant they didn’t need Ontario building permits, which sped up the process, he said. And the cost of building them — which came out to between $5,000 and $6,000 each — was almost entirely covered by donations.

The community now living there has access to shared amenities like washrooms, showers and laundry facilities in shipping containers. There’s also addictions management programs and health-care services that come by twice a week, Willmer said.

The tenants there also pay about $390 in rent, which is the amount they get through the Ontario Works program’s shelter allowance, he said.

A Better Tent City in Kitchener features a row of insulated cabins, each measuring eight by 10 feet. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

Kegan Harris, director of housing development at the Neighbourhood Group in Toronto, said that city has also found success in a modular housing first initiative — a similar strategy to one Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham has pledged.

Tenants in those buildings get a bachelor apartment and access to common spaces and services like employment help, education and harm reduction, Harris said. The rent they’re charged is based on whatever 30 per cent of their income is.

Harris said modular housing is a good model for other cities to look to — but the most critical aspect is the services people get once they’re housed.

“There’s this misconception that once you put people in housing, the problem is solved,” he said.

“It’s not. Housing is the first step.”

‘People die living outside’ in Winnipeg: advocate

As Winnipeg’s cold winter weather sets in, it’s critical to make sure people have somewhere to stay, said Marion Willis, founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, which helps people experiencing homelessness access social services. 

And while there can be financial benefits to taking a housing first approach to ending homelessness, for some the issue is a matter of life or death.

“There’s all kinds of people out there from all walks of life that are extremely vulnerable right now,” she said.

“People die living outside.”

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