What happened in the Hat

No short solution to ending perplexing problem of homelessness

Dr. Biju Mathew drove to Medicine Hat to see how the city there was handling its homelessness problem.

Dr. Biju Mathew drove to Medicine Hat to see how the city there was handling its homelessness problem.

At first, the idea of a few tents pitched on the pavement of Cliff Avenue was nothing new.

The camp was never meant to be permanent.

For Dr. Biju Mathew, the head of clinical psychologist at Ridge Meadows Hospital, the key is housing, as is co-operation.

Over the past decade, those living on the streets and accessing services at the nearby Salvation Army used Cliff Avenue and the surrounding area to set up shop for the night, and it didn’t take long for residents to complain.

Subsequently, bylaws and the RCMP would come and move them along. But they would return. And this happened over and over again.

Then a fence went up around the treed area off the Haney Bypass by Cliff Avenue.

A few tents on the street quickly grew to a few dozen by mid-April. By early May, the city had relaxed its move-along approach to get a better handle on the extent of the problem.

Mayor Nicole Read posted to Facebook that “the enforcement presence is masking the depth of the problem, which we can now all see very clearly. Bylaw resources moving people around is not a solution.”

The city had launched it homelessness task force near the end of January in hopes of addressing the issue. Eventually dubbed the Maple Ridge Resilience Initiative, the plan aims to help the estimated 80 to 100 homeless people living in the community find a way off the street.

But the camp at Cliff Avenue has grown to an estimated 55 to 65 residents, according to the city. Those numbers swell during the day. They have been drug overdoses there, and violence has cast a dark shadow over the camp. A woman recently had part of her finger bit off in a mid-morning dispute.

Then a fight inside a tent spilled onto the street. A baseball bat rested in the middle of the road while a homeless man lay stretched out on a homeowner’s lawn. He was bleeding from the face.

Residents are frustrated, letters to the editor and Facebook posts are filled with bitterness at the situation.

The provincial government has promised to fund a temporary shelter once the city secures a suitable location.

In the early going of the city’s homelessness task force, Mathew was approached to offer any insight into the homelessness debate.

Mathew was intrigued by the offer. He has been following the issue, but admitted to city officials he really had no idea what is the best approach.

The clinical psychologist was determined not to be a bystander. He set out to do his homework.

Mathew’s initial research led him to the work of Sam Tsemberis, the American PhD whose book Housing First resulted in the formation of Pathways to Housing National in 1992. The idea behind the American doctor’s approach is based on the belief that housing was a basic human right and the most cost effective way to approach the problem.

Since its inception, the Housing First initiative has been widely accepted as a common practice across the U.S. and Canada.

The Canadian model of the Housing First approach is consumer-driven, offering immediate access to permanent housing for anyone who is homeless. Admission to the program does not require an individual to access psychiatric treatment or drug and alcohol treatment before accessing housing.

If you’re looking for federal and provincial grants in Canada, the Housing First model is the starting point.

Mathew then set his sights on the city of Medicine Hat. He had heard whispers of its success.

But hearing was one thing. Seeing is another. So in the third week of July, he jumped in his car and drove the 1,200-plus kilometres to see for himself.

“I did it because I care very deeply for my community,” said Mathew. “I wanted to get a first-hand look at what they were doing. I wanted to talk to people there and understand what they were doing different.”

What he saw, and he said what he hopes to happen in Maple Ridge, is for more cooperation from every level of government and the people of the community who have a stake in ending homelessness.

In 2009, the Albertan city of about 60,000 launched the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society in hope of ending homelessness.

Approaching six years into the initiative, the small Albertan community appears to be on to something.

Since it started in April of 2009, 885 homeless citizens have been housed and gained access to support systems. Of those housed, 283 were children.

One of the key selling points for Mathew was the cost to the approach. In Medicine Hat, the average cost of homelessness on the public system was pegged between $66,000 to $120,000 per person annually.  However, under the MHCHS model, offering housing with supports ranged between $13,000 and $34,000 per person annually.

Hospital visits plummeted by 53 per cent. Emergency medical services costs fell 12 per cent. The cost to emergency rooms dropped 32 per cent and the days the homeless spent in jail had declined by 58 per cent. The program is diligent in collecting data once someone enters the system and even more so about sharing it with its partners.

So while the City of Maple Ridge continues to look for a temporary shelter to help alleviate the camp of 60 homeless people who have overrun Cliff Avenue, Mathew said he believes the answers lies in the model from Medicine Hat.

But he cautions that while people want solutions today, answers take years.

“It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but we can achieve something like they have in Medicine Hate in the next four or five years,” he said.

To work here, there needs to be a buy-in from more than just the city of Maple Ridge, he said. To truly address the problem, the federal and provincial government must get more involved, as well the surrounding communities and agencies that deal with the homeless.

In Medicine Hat, the list of partners is 20-plus deep, including the provincial ministries for seniors, municipal affairs, and human services. In addition the local landlord management companies, the chamber of commerce and the outlying communities of Calgary, Grand Prairie, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Red Deer, and Wood Buffalo have all gotten involved.

Mathew said if people hope to actually solve the issue of homelessness, they have no choice but to buy-in.

He said setting up temporary shelters is a Band-Aid solution that don’t address the problem. He said shelters typically cost twice as much as providing a Housing First option. Policing costs average about four times as much and provincial hospitalization and psychiatric facilities cost about 12 times as much.

While saying you’re going to provide housing for the homeless is one thing, convincing the local taxpayer is another. He said even Medicine Hat council had initial reserves about providing “free housing.” He said the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society approached the issue from a rational economical standpoint. It sold the issue as a business proposal.

The Housing First model reduces the burden on the taxpayer, said Mathew.

“Why wouldn’t you fund it? It’s been proven to be effective. As a taxpayer, your money is already being spent on the problem.”

But he stresses there needs to be more help  from the provincial and federal governments, as well as surrounding municipalities. Like Medicine Hat’s model, the society would need to be run by a professional body, a non-profit society, have a board of directors, and a mission statement.

He said for it to work, the onus has to be taken off the city. Mathew said every community has a homeless population, but if there was independent oversight properly funded without political interference, it could work.

“They are not in the business of providing housing. Let’s face it, they are politicians. They are here to run the city, not housing.”

The doctor is hoping everyone involved can tone down the rhetoric and join hands to find a solution.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheels here, he said.  “We have a successful model in Medicine Hat. The program was approved by one of the country’s most right-wing politically aligned governments in Canada. So if that can be done there, why can’t we do it here.”