I’ve used the phrase “hidden homelessness” a couple times throughout this series. It is a term that my team and I started using as we began to realise the amount of poverty and homelessness that goes unseen throughout Greater Victoria.
Last month I once more met with Andrew Wynn-Williams, the Executive Director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, to get an update on the current status of homelessness in our region. As part of the update, Andrew informed me of their recent survey looking at public attitudes towards homelessness.
The survey provided some optimistic findings with regards to public opinion on housing first strategies. For example, 70% of people agreed that providing an individual with housing is cheaper than the costs of homelessness on government services, 90% agreed affordable housing would help reduce homelessness and 85% agreed that ensuring access to affordable housing is the government’s responsibility.
However, I was shocked to read that nearly half of the residents surveyed in Sidney and the Western Communities, and a third of those in Saanich, Oak Bay, Victoria and Esquimalt, did not think that homelessness was an issue in their communities.
While this was a disheartening revelation, I remain optimistic as their seems to be clear public support for the importance of housing initiatives.
Backing public opinion, a number of studies have been released highlighting the benefits of a housing-first strategy for ending homelessness.
Both national and international research has shown the extent of the possible cost-savings associated with shifting our energy from trying to manage homelessness through the provision of emergency services, to actually trying to end homelessness through a housing-first approach. A recent national report from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness concluded that spending an extra $46 per Canadian a year on affordable housing could dramatically reduce homelessness, and in turn reduce the $7 billion per year cost of homelessness on our economy.
To find evidence to back these claims up, we need look no further than some of our southern neighbour states. In 2005, Utah launched a homelessness reduction strategy after it was estimated that by housing the chronically homeless the state could save an average of $8,000 per person on costs such as emergency room visits and jail stays. As of 2014, the program has reduced chronic homelessness in Utah by 72%.
While direct data on the overall net savings of the program is not yet available, a similar pilot project in Denver, Colorado found significant savings. For example, total emergency related costs among project participants declined by 72.95% in two years (an average savings of $31,545 per participant), incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76% and emergency shelter costs alone were reduced by an average of $13,600 per person.
Along these same lines, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) recently released the findings from their At Home/Chez Soi study. With projects established in five cities, including Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton, the study showed that not only can a Housing-First approach be effectively implemented in Canadian cities of varying size and ethno-racial and cultural composition, but it can also provide overall economic cost-savings while rapidly reducing rates of homelessness. This is especially true among the chronically homeless, where for every $10 invested in housing first services there was an average savings of $21.72.
Other studies have found similar cost savings, both direct and indirect, when examining housing versus emergency management of homelessness. A summary of some of the most significant findings can be found in the Coalition’s report on Housing and Homelessness in Greater Victoria.
All of these findings are consistent with estimated cost savings of a housing first approach here in Victoria, where the average annual cost of a shelter bed is $25,525 while the estimated annual cost of new supportive housing is only $16,748 per unit. And the annual cost of a rent supplement, including support, is even lower at $6,800 per unit.
A number of groups already provide supportive and affordable housing here in Victoria, including the Victoria Cool Aid Society, Pacifica Housing, St Vincent de Paul Society, and the M’akola Housing Society. But with more units desperately needed, housing remains a top priority throughout the region (to see a list of some of the current housing projects needing funding, visit the Coalition’s Priority Housing Project List).
Poverty is something that touches us all. Whether we have lived in poverty ourselves or have seen its impact in our communities, it has affected each and every one of us.
With this in mind, I would like to invite you to share a story about your experiences with poverty and homelessness. Share it with a friend, family member, co-worker, or even your social media following.
In sharing these stories, let it serve as a reminder that poverty and homelessness are not a choice. It’s important for us to end the stigma and stereotypes that are too often associated with these issues. Those who are homeless, just as those who are housed, should not be defined by where they live. Each of us has followed a different path from the past to the present. Yet some of our paths have been rockier than others.
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