Jan. 30, 2013 - Issue #902: Come cry with Daniel Romano
No vacancy for homeless
Edmonton's homeless numbers decrease but hurdles for getting off the street still exist
Edmonton is a leader among Canadian cities when it comes to tackling homelessness. The city has been conducting a homeless count since 1999—now biennially—and has a 10-year plan to wipe it out. The results from October's count were released on January 22, and the number of homeless in Edmonton is 2174, dropping from 2421 two years before and from an all-time high of 3079 in 2008. In fact, Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee (the organization that organizes the count) says homeless numbers have been decreasing all across the province.
"The city has grown substantially, and, actually, I think that's an important thing to bear in mind when we see the count numbers still going down in spite of an incredible amount of growth that we've seen in the last two years." McGee adds that supports within the community help people to get out of homelessness faster. "There will always be people with some sort of housing crisis, but they don't need to remain homeless and they don't need to remain in shelters."
Edmonton's Housing First project has been incremental in helping those living on the streets or staying in shelters find an apartment of their own. Participants are guided through the process of paying rent and bills as well as getting involved in the community. The Native Friendship Centre's executive director, Adam North Peigan, recognizes that just placing someone into their own apartment when they're not used to running a household requires continuous follow-up or they'll end up right back where they started.
"You can take someone off the street and you can provide them some shelter in a subsidized-housing outfit, but if you don't do anything to plug in resources to help with their social problems, you're setting them up for failure and eventually what's going to happen is they're going to end up back out on the street," he adds.
Part of the struggle to end homelessness is the actual availability of affordable apartments. McGee says the vacancy rate is going down and that there is almost zero housing in a reasonable price range for people getting off the street.
"We are really seeing a bottleneck in the number of units that are available for singles that are really affordable," she says. "And we do really focus on being practical and diligent with the resources that we have. We won't subsidize above market rent, so looking for units that are average or less than the market rent and then gaining access to those has always been a challenge, but we're seeing a real increase in the barriers to that."
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's fall 2012 Housing Market Outlook report states that rental vacancies are declining. It says that higher migration to Edmonton has left fewer vacant apartments. The vacancy rate was 2.5 percent in October, down from 3.3 percent the year before and it's forecasted to drop even lower to 2.1 percent by this October.
Another hurdle for tackling homelessness is the disproportionately large number of First Nations people who are on the street. Only five percent of Edmonton's population is aboriginal, but 46 percent of Edmonton's homeless are First Nations. North Peigan says Edmonton's aboriginal population is the second largest in Canada after Winnipeg.
"The way the trend is looking, probably within five years we'll have the most aboriginal people in an urban centre; we'll surpass the city of Winnipeg. Because of that, we need to really be prepared and we need to be able to know what's out there ... I think the primary reason why we have a large homeless percentage is because of addictions—addiction to alcoholism and drug abuse. And then of course lack of employment leads to homelessness."
North Peigan says he would like to see all three levels of government create resources to address what he sees as the root cause of homelessness: drug abuse, alcohol abuse and violence. He seems to have Mayor Stephen Mandel's backing. At the homeless count announcement, Mandel said the city has to put a program in place to deal with the incredible challenge First Nations people face.
"Homelessness is just a result of the inadequate and poor treatment, the historical injustices that have accrued to our First Nations people. This is not something that we've created in this environment today, but we're part of it. It's been there for the past two- or three-hundred years and so we cannot expect it to be corrected overnight, but we need to start today and move forward and to solve those problems," Mandel says.
Hope Mission is one place that has a program in place to deal with substance abuse and one of Hope's former guests knows all about addiction. Edin Viso doesn't describe himself as someone who was homeless in that he spent much time on the street, but the former Yugoslav spent 30 years of his life addicted to alcohol and drugs, lived through war in his former homeland and finally ended up at Hope Mission six years ago with only $57 left to his name and no place to call home. He went through the detox and recovery program and now shares his story with other men at Hope, where he works as an intake worker at 24/7 Intox.
"I think we try to help them not just in giving to them bed, or mat or meal. We try, especially on a day like this, to encourage them to enjoy or show interest to doing something with their life like a recovery treatment or something like this. Because I think all homelessness is actually about addiction and mental illness. We can't finish homeless problem without dealing with addiction and mental illness, but I think if we dealing with addiction and mental illness we can finish homeless problem," Viso says.
Fellow Hope Mission worker and manager of men's services, Ryan McCormick, agrees and has a further suggestion of how to help the homeless now. "There's often a lot of fear, but homeless people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. They're very vulnerable and an at-risk population. And that's something that we don't realize ... The best thing that you can do for someone in that situation is to treat them like a person with dignity and respect."
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