Canada needs to shift from a "crisis-based" approach to dealing with homelessness to investing in pro-active programs that offer stability and hope, the federal minister for social development says.
"We can do more – not just manage homelessness, but eliminate it altogether," Candice Bergen said on Tuesday in Ottawa.
She made the comments at an event to unveil the results of the groundbreaking At Home/Chez Soi research project.
Ms. Bergen said she knows the notion that homelessness can be eliminated might be dismissed as pie-in-the-sky, but she was heartened by the results of the study, which showed that even the most hard-core homeless people can be housed successfully and cost-effectively.
In fact, the Housing First approach – providing a permanent place to live to mentally ill, chronically homeless people – demonstrated savings of up to $2.17 for every $1 invested.
While the housing, and the support that goes along with it, is expensive, getting people off the streets reduces the time they spend in hospitals, jails and shelters, resulting in a net savings.
Ms. Bergen said the findings are so impressive that the federal government has shifted $600-million over five years in the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat to a Housing First approach.
"I'm realistic. I know there will always be people who will be homeless and who will need help," the minister said. "But most people can recover, they can get back on their feet."
Paula Goering, the lead researcher for the At Home/Chez Soi project, said the problem with many programs is that they maintain people in homelessness.
The Housing First approach holds that once people have a place to live, they have the stability to tackle other problems, such as addiction, and get an education, training and work.
Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said the ultimate goal is to help people on the margins of society have a better life and achieve their potential.
"Housing First doesn't mean housing only. This is recovery oriented," she said.
"We really think this approach is going to flourish."
The MHCC, which undertook the $110-million At Home/Chez Soi research project in 2008 in five cities, will now offer training to expand the program in 18 other cities across the country.
About 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, but the research focused on the 10 per cent who are chronically homeless, almost all of whom suffer from mental illness.