The ‘7 Cities on Housing and Homelessness’ are meeting in Red Deer this week to share how each is addressing the needs of their vulnerable populations.
The ‘7 Cities’ began working together in 2001 and started to implement Housing First plans in 2008, making Alberta the first province to initiate a plan to end homelessness.
Since then, homeless populations and shelter use have gone down drastically in the communities of Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Wood Buffalo, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton. In addition, Housing First clients have spent 85 per cent fewer days in jail, 64 per cent fewer days in hospital, and had 57 per cent fewer interactions with police.
Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer says this conference marks the beginning of a new ten-year commitment between the ‘7 Cities’ to continue looking at the evolving diverse and complex needs of the socially vulnerable.
“Provincial and federal funding has come our way and we’ve been able to increase our safe and affordable housing stock,” she says. “While there are always new people entering into the system, we’ve had successes at an individual level and certainly our net increase in affordable housing stock has been a successful marker.”
As the ‘7 Cities’ have worked to reduce and ultimately end homelessness, other factors have been obstacles to that goal, namely the ongoing opioid crisis.
“Addictions and mental health are certainly predominant challenges that affect the socially vulnerable who are in need of affordable housing stock,” Veer continues. “The wraparound support services that we by necessity need to provide in order to ensure people stay housed has added to the overall complexities.”
Shanda Berns, the Community Housing Coordinator with The City of Grande Prairie, says the opioid crisis is burning out frontline workers.
“You hear the term complex needs often. When opioids came to the forefront, everything was exacerbated, so mental health, evictions were through the roof, recidivism through the systems was just tenfold and that’s really hard to manage because there’s a lot of strain on the system,” she says.
“Our frontline workers on are on-call 24/7 trying to do that crisis intervention and the supports aren’t there as much as we need them in terms of manpower for The City of Grande Prairie.”
Meanwhile, Veer says the number one need now and into the future for Red Deer is shelter.
“We see the downstream consequences when people are not sufficiently housed and we see it on many fronts,” she adds. “What is really imperative for Red Deer right now is recognition of that fact that shelter historically has not been on that housing continuum. Shelter is not housing. We recognize now we need sufficient shelter space in order to enter the socially vulnerable into the system so we can move them up the continuum of housing.”
According to Point in Time homeless counts conducted in 2016, there were 5,373 individuals experiencing homelessness across the seven cities. New homeless counts were done in the seven cities last April and statistics are expected in the coming months.
The 7 Cities Conference on Housing First and Homelessness runs through Thursday at the Sheraton Red Deer.
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