How can the Government help the homeless?

Noella Chye 6 March 2017

When helping the homeless, some countries seem to have it down, or at least more than others. With some of the lowest rates of homelessness in the world, Denmark, Finland, Canada can count themselves amongst the ranks. Notably, the three share one thing in common: the ‘Housing First’ policy.

The ‘Housing First’ policy is based on a simple principle: if someone is homeless, you give them a home first, before helping them in any other ways. It rests on the recognition of both the intrinsic and instrumental value of homelessness: that it is a basic human right, regardless of whether one is addicted to alcohol or drugs, and that having tangible, physical stability in the form of a place to call home is critical step to resolving other issues, respectively. Problems that are associated with homelessness are alcoholism, unemployment, addiction and severed family ties, leading to isolation. In light of this, those who qualify for the scheme are given homes regardless of the problems they are facing, and the question of whether they will be able to keep the house once government aid terminates. In a society where we are warned to be wary of helping people who need it for fear of being taken advantage of, the ‘Housing First’ policy is urgent and radical in its compassion. As reporter Craig S. Smith puts it, it essentially sends the message, “Alcoholic? Here’s a one-bedroom apartment where you can live – even if you’re still drinking. Drug addict? Here’s a studio with heat and hot water – even if you’re still getting high. Mentally ill? Here’s a place to feel safe and call your own – and where caseworkers can find you.”

The question is, does it work? In Medicine Hat in Canada, a small town in the southeast of Alberta with a population of 63,230, the scheme appears to be efficacious. Upon implementation of the policy, the number of homeless counted fell by nearly half to 33 from 61. Its success was aided by the town’s small population. “The problem is more manageable here. It is easier to deal with homelessness in a town of 63,000, where social workers know the names of almost everyone who is down and out. It is also easier when members from the agencies working on the problem are so few that they can sit down around a table”, The New York Times reports. To oversee the scheme, The Homeless and Housing Development Department of the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society acts as a centralised office to manage housing availability and further support. Ms Rogers, who heads the committee, defines homelessness within Medicine Hat as “connecting anyone identified as homeless with a caseworker and putting him or her on a waiting list for a housing programme within 10 days.” In reality, however, the process can take more than a few months, given the bureaucratic paperwork involved in receiving government aid, alongside various restraints as a consequence of inadequate government funding and housing supply. This is, perhaps, inevitable for a scheme that ambitiously aims to provide government-funded housing when it is already in need. Yet the price is ultimately worth it, if it meets its goal, to house people permanently, for at least a significant fraction of the town’s rough-sleepers. Its success pays off, as a caseworker, Allysa Larmor, says. One of her cases, Kurt Remple, has been sober since January, and is seeking addiction counselling, and the help of a  food bank. More recently, he has been shown interest in working on finding what Larmor terms ‘meaningful activities’ to do in the time he used to spend drinking. These come as natural developments of a change in mindset that comes with having the stability of a home. Jaime Rogers, a Medicine Hat housing official, also tells The New York Times, “The reduction in days in jail alone pays for the programme”, she tells the NY Times, citing studies that show each homeless person costs taxpayers an approximate £74,854 a year, while housing them and providing further support costs just £14,709 in comparison.

The ‘Housing First’ strategy was developed nearly 25 years ago by Canadian psychologist, Sam Tsemberis, when he was working in New York. Projects based on the strategy began popping in British Columbia and Ontario, sparking the interest of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which then began lobbying for federal money to start critical trials in five cities in Canada – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. A total of 2,200 homeless people were assigned housing, leading to results as successful as that in Kurt Remple’s case. This in turn prompted then Prime Minister Stephen Harper to adopt ‘Housing First’ as a national policy, distributing approximately £42,912,000 to 61 communities to fund the effort. Ever since its adoption, it has found success in Australia, the US and Europe. In 2014, Obama announced a four-year goal of housing 100,000 homeless people in permanent housing, naming the initiative the 100,000 Homes Campaign, and citing ‘Housing First’ as a key element of its strategy, alongside additional support in the form of mobilising volunteers and housing advocates to share ideas about how to dismantle various stigmas, and establishing a "vulnerability index" to prioritise those most in need, journalist David Bornstein reports.

The scheme has found similar success in Europe, with Finland standing out as the only European country where homelessness had decreased in the years leading up to 2015, The Guardian reports. Its success can be attributed to the government’s implementation of it as a national policy, urging the creation of a unity of state authorities and local agencies to tackle the problem on a larger scale. Consequently, this prompted the conversion of various shelters and hostels into supported housing with the largest hostel for homeless people, the Salvation Army, having its 250 rooms converted into 80 independent apartments. While this sounds counterintuitive in its removal of housing supply, it promotes subtler, yet arguably equally important solutions, such as the encouragement of social behaviour and aforementioned better mental health, which in turn have effects that build on one another.

In coming to understand the motivation behind these efforts, one theme reveals itself to be crucial to each of these government’s efforts: re-defining homelessness. It is difficult for governments, especially those who continue to rely solely on census data to guide their policy-making, to get an accurate picture of global and national homelessness. The studies they turn to are
often based on the number of households and people living in shelters or on government aid, all of which are figures that neglect the hidden sides of homelessness, such as people living on the streets or couch-hopping, which often make up a majority of the homeless population. When governments begin to see homelessness as a state-of-mind, they can turn their attention to more nuanced approaches, such as ‘Housing First’, that recognise the hidden realities of homelessness, such as the importance and right to having a place to call home.