Monday, July 28, 2008

Why We Should End Homelessness

This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from the report on homelessness in BC, "Finding Our Way Home" prepared by David Chudnovsky, Opposition Critic for Homelessness in the Legislature. The complete report can be read at

It might seem unnecessary to ask why it is important to deal with the crisis of homelessness in BC. However, significant government commitment and resources are required, and governing is always about making choices. Therefore, the rationales for action are important.

The most important reason to solve the crisis is that it is the right thing to do. People in our province deserve a place to live and we have the resources to make that possible. British Columbians are caring and decent people and believe that everyone is entitled to a home.

Second, homelessness is both a disruption to the lives of those who have nowhere to live and to the stability of our communities. Most British Columbians are ashamed and embarrassed that we face such a crisis. They are rightly uncomfortable when they see people sleeping on the streets or lining up for emergency shelters.

But solutions are not without controversy. Mark Twain wrote, “Everybody is in favour of progress. It’s change they don’t like.” While public opinion increasingly demands solutions to the homelessness crisis, the shrill voices of those who want the solution anywhere but in their own backyards are heard every time a new project is announced.

The leaders of our community, and in particular governmental leaders at the federal, provincial and municipal levels must be proactive in reminding everyone that solutions involve change – and in supporting that change even if it has short-term political consequences. The alternative is the status quo – the warehousing of the poor and marginalized in out-of-the-way neighbourhoods. That strategy is not only inequitable, experience shows it is also unsuccessful.

Finally, providing homes and support for those who are homeless is significantly cheaper than continuing to do what we have been doing. We expend enormous resources on ambulance service, emergency ward treatment, acute care beds, police officers, court trials and hearings, prisons, emergency shelters and much more, when housing and supports are more appropriate and more cost effective measures.

The Vancouver Police Department report ‘Lost in Transition’, describes both the crisis in the provision of street level mental health services and treatment, and just some of the increased costs that result.

“A conservative economic analysis suggests that police time spent dealing with incidents where a person’s mental illness was a contributing factor in police attendance is equivalent to 90 full-time police officers, at an annual cost of $9 million. This would not include indirect policing costs, or the costs to other agencies such as the ambulance service, hospitals, or the court system … The key finding of this research is that there is a profound lack of capacity in mental health resources in Vancouver. The result is an alarmingly high number of calls for police service to incidents that involve mentally ill people in crisis. VPD officers, along with the citizens with whom they come in contact, are bearing the burden of a mental health system that lacks resources and efficient information sharing practices, often with tragic consequences. In an effort to address the current situation, several recommendations are made that centre on the need to better serve people who are mentally ill in Vancouver” (Vancouver Police Department, ‘Lost in Transition’)

The Simon Fraser University Report, ‘Housing and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia’, concludes that $18,000 per year can be saved per person with provi¬sion of adequate housing and supports.

“… the average street homeless adult with SAMI in BC costs the public system in excess of $55,000 per year. Provision of adequate housing and supports is estimated to reduce this cost to $37,000 per year. This results in an overall ‘cost avoidance’ of about $211 million per year. The ‘cost avoidance’ in health care and provincial corrections institution costs are more than sufficient to offset the capital costs and the costs of providing housing supports to those who are absolutely homeless.”
(Housing and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia)

Tim Richter, President & CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation makes an even more dramatic calculation. He reports that in Calgary at least $323 million was spent in 2007 which equals $134,000 per chronically homeless person per year.
Using the more conservative Simon Fraser calculation (a savings of $18,000 per year per homeless person) and their relatively conservative number of 11,500 homeless people, British Columbia could save more than $1 billion over five years by housing the homeless.


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