When Medicine Hat mayor Ted Clugston was first elected to public office, he actively campaigned against the Housing First approach being touted by advocates in the southern Alberta community.
The progress that city began to make in reducing homelessness, though, quickly turned him into a supporter of the strategy, much to his own surprise.
“What happened was basically a bit of an epiphany I guess, but the realization that there really only is one taxpayer, and if you believe that, which I think most people do, it’s cheaper,” Clugston told the Straight by phone from Medicine Hat.
“A visit to the hospital is $1,000, as soon as you walk into the emergency room. And then a stay overnight, if you get hypothermia for a couple nights, costs the taxpayer another couple thousand. Interactions with our first responders—police, EMS, cost hundreds of dollars every time…So, rather than just treat it as basically an acute issue, you recognize that homelessness can be a chronic issue, and you try to solve it.”
That’s the aim of the Housing First approach, which is based on providing a home, then ensuring access to any support services needed, such as help with mental-health or addiction issues.
Medicine Hat has had considerable success with the model. In the last six years, the municipality of 61,000 has housed 875 people, and a homeless count last year found just five people sleeping on the streets.
Clugston will share his experience with the Housing First approach at three B.C. events this week, organized by the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
“I think Medicine Hat’s lesson for Vancouver is that—I know this sounds corny, but we provide hope,” he said.
“Because there’s a lot of people who believe…you can’t solve the problem—it’ll never go away. And I think maybe what we’re showing is that you can. You can do it.”
But the mayor admits that he doesn’t have a “magic bullet”.
“I don’t have all the answers, and every community’s different,” he said. “But we are lucky here in that the province of Alberta has made this a priority, and has given us money.”
He added that Medicine Hat is unique in that it has various business enterprises as sources of income, such as a gas-production company and an electric-generation company.
It’s also a small city with one mental-health provider and one food bank, making it simple to connect the homeless with supports right away.
The cost of addressing homelessness in the city is in the “tens of millions of dollars”—a price tag that Clugston acknowledges is exponentially higher for Vancouver.
At some point this year, Medicine Hat expects to announce that its homeless count is down to zero.
He noted the municipality’s definition of ending homelessness is ensuring that within 10 days of recognizing that someone doesn’t have a home, they are set up with a place to live.
“I don’t mean an emergency shelter, I mean a permanent residence, within 10 days,” he said.
Clugston acknowledges that the city’s location on the Trans-Canada Highway means the issue will never be completely addressed.
“Somebody’ll come in looking for a job and they’ll be homeless for a day or two or 10 days,” he said. “So…you don’t solve the problem—you’re actively working on the problem all the time.”
The B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition is advocating for the provincial government to incorporate the Housing First approach into a housing strategy, according to Trish Garner, an organizer with the group.
“Getting people in homes re-stabilizes their lives and actually reduces some of the issues around mental health and addiction, and can get people on the right path much faster than doing things the other way around,” she said in a phone interview. “But it has to be just part of a housing strategy.”
One aspect of Medicine Hat’s success story with the Housing First approach that Garner hopes will resonate with Vancouver audiences this week is the economic argument. She said annual poverty-related costs in B.C. are $8 to $9 billion.
“If we actually had a poverty-reduction plan in place, and now we’re the very last province without one, it would be a savings," she said. "It would be only about $3 to $4 billion per year.
“It’s a choice to make a commitment that poverty is our collective responsibility, and that we all share in that and contribute to that, and it would be a long-term savings in the end,” she continued. “Not just saving lives but saving money.”
Clugston is scheduled to speak at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford on Tuesday (April 28) from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., as part of a B.C. Poverty Reduction webinar on Wednesday morning (April 29) from 9 to 10:30 a.m., and at the Vancouver General Hospital on Wednesday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.