Why a housing first model is the only way to solve the homelessness crisis – Macleans.ca

Governments try to address problems like addiction and mental illness before helping people find housing. That is the wrong approach.

“With rising inflation and a lack of affordable housing across the country, we must address homelessness as quickly and efficiently as possible” (Illustration from maclean’s)

Last year I met a 73-year-old woman who was left homeless for the first time in her life after a family breakup. She arrived at the Lighthouse, the emergency shelter in Orillia, Ontario, where she worked as executive director, with just her walker and a bag of clothes.

He lived at the Lighthouse for the next four months. Housing workers helped raise her pension, and medical staff at her place put her in touch with family doctors. She now lives in an affordable retirement home in Orillia. She no longer uses a walker and she returns to the Lighthouse to volunteer. We offer more than just emergency shelter – we are a non-profit organization that provides supportive housing and other services to the homeless.

For years, the government and homeless shelters have taken a treatment-first approach to the problem, trying to solve the problems that lead to homelessness, such as alcoholism, drug dependency, poor health mental health or family crises, before helping people find housing.

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There is a better alternative. With a place to live, eat, shower and sleep, it’s easier for people to get their lives back on track. The Lighthouse uses a housing-first approach that provides people with short-term housing and the support they need to find a permanent place to live. Some people stay for a week in our emergency shelter, while others stay up to four years in supportive housing. In that time, we can offer all kinds of support in partnership with government and non-profit organizations. We work with the Canadian Mental Health Association, for example, to help people with mental illness. We offer healthy food and cooking classes. Our team helps people apply for identification, find work, increase their social support, and ultimately find affordable permanent housing.

We know that the housing-first model works. A recent study by the Canadian Mental Health Commission looked at 2,000 homeless Canadians in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. Over a five-year period, about half received the typical treatment approach first, while the rest were housed first. At the end of five years, only 31 percent of first-time treatment participants were full-time housed, while 62 percent of first-time room participants were full-time housed. The housing-first approach was twice as effective in keeping people off the streets.

When I first joined Lighthouse in 2015, it was just a 14-bed men’s shelter with five employees and a soup kitchen operating out of a small Orillia home. We wanted to help more people, and between 2019 and 2021, we raised $14.5 million to expand our services. The Lighthouse now sits on a three-acre property in Orillia. We have a 20,000 square foot emergency shelter with 50 beds for men and women, eight beds for youth, and a cafeteria. Our annual budget is $2.2 million, up from just $140,000.

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We have been using the housing first approach for the past six years. Last year we had a 50 year old man who was struggling with addiction and was homeless for 18 months; we moved him to supportive housing. He connected with the Canadian Mental Health Association and they helped him become substance free for the first time in a long time. He did so well that we hired him as a janitor for our community services building.

In our shelter, participants can stay as long as they want. We typically have a waiting list of 10-15 people for our emergency shelter and prioritize those with the greatest need. There is a large cafeteria where everyone gets breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a couple of snacks. Last year, we served 71,000 meals. Breakfast is hot or cold: bacon and eggs, cereal and muffins. Lunch is usually a soup, sandwich, and salad, and dinner is beef stew, pork roast, or chicken breast with vegetables. We also have an atrium with a TV, sofas, chairs, and a few computers, which participants can use to find jobs or housing, and connect with family members.

Our supportive housing program has 20 singles units, where participants can stay for up to four years. To access the program, participants must call 211 and apply for housing through Simcoe County. If they have been homeless for more than six months, they receive a placement. Participants pay approximately $500 per month, depending on their income and whether they are supported by Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support program. This gives them a 400 square foot unit with a full kitchen, double bed, bathroom, tables and chairs, similar to a comfortable and clean hotel suite. In 2022, our supportive housing program conducted 148 educational sessions on life skills: budgeting, cooking, anger management classes, and more. This support is key – it gives our participants the skills to bridge the gap between homelessness and permanent housing.

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Staff are on site 24/7 and are trained in social work or have other relevant life experience. They are there to keep participants safe and can respond to overdoses or mental health crises. We do not have security guards, our staff are trained in de-escalation and crisis intervention. Not suitable for everyone: If participants enter the building and are a danger to themselves or others, they are terminated from the program.

We have been seeing more and more families experiencing homelessness, either due to unemployment or rising rent and living costs. We saw record demand for our motel voucher program last year, which is provided to homeless families. With inflation rising and a lack of affordable housing across the country, we must address homelessness as quickly and efficiently as possible. And that means exploring the housing model first as a solution.

As told to Mathew Silver


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