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Getting frank about homelessness

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The best communications is communications that leaves you feeling something. Last night's dinner at the Fredericton Convention Centre put on by the Canadian Action Group on Homelessness Fredericton (CAGH) did that in spades. And that something was hopefulness and inspiration.


Frank McKenna showed he has still got it as a gifted speaker. As Premier he wasn't particularly strong on social policy and homelessness wasn't something on his radar. And in so many words he admitted as much last night in a speech that struck me as incredibly honest and sincere.


He was the perfect speaker for this occasion for a couple of reasons. One, as a speaker he's very good and second, he has devoted a lot of time in his post-political life to humanitarian efforts such as helping in Haiti after their earthquake. Also, he's very respected in the business community.


So who better to make the case that helping eliminate homelessness isn't justified just on humanitarian grounds, but from, as he put it, in a “hard-nosed business sense” it's good economic policy.


That was the point of the evening – the positive point that homelessness can indeed be eliminated. Before McKenna's keynote, there was an on stage discussion with Tim Ross, the driving force behind CAGH in Fredericton, and Tim Richter of Housing First in Calgary. They talked about the success of the Housing First initiative there and elsewhere.


Pretty uncomplicated concept really. People need housing first or they can't make progress on dealing with the other obstacles to a fulfilling life.


And while just about all of us would agree homelessness should be tackled for humanitarian reasons, the story from Calgary is that a pretty compelling economic case can be made for eliminating it as well.


There are lots of pretty impressive figures that show it costs a whole lot less to deal with homelessness by giving people a place to live, than it does to allow homelessness to continue. This because of the considerable reductions in the costs of everything from emergency room visits to policing and the courts.


Want to see something really eye-popping on this? Read Malcolm Gladwell's essay Million Dollar Murray.


But back to last night at the Convention Centre.  Tim Richter made the point that we are already well on the road, and he referenced the way the community rallied after the Issac's Way fire left 26 low income people homeless and how, through the efforts of a good number of people all were placed in new digs.


My mind went to what has happened at the Fredericton Homeless Shelters over the past couple of years, with the success that is continuing of getting people who lived there, many for extended periods, finally into their own apartments, complete with the necessary supports to help ensure success. And it has been a great success.


Then I looked around at the sell out crowd in the Convention Centre, of people who shelled out $175 a pop for a plate of beans and wieners because they believe we really can do something about homelessness, and they wanted to be part of it.


As Frank McKenna put it “We are our brother's keepers.” And he spoke of the leadership in the room of people determined to make this happen. I did a quick inventory and could see it – Tim Ross, Mike O'Brien, Brad Woodside, Gary Stairs and others.


And then socially mixing with people afterwards as they lingered in conversation, you couldn't help but pick up on the buzz of optimism and determination.


There's work to do, and it won't happen overnight, but the evening ended with a roomful of people inspired to keep moving in that direction.


From here it's a communications challenge. To spread the word that Housing First makes sense as the way to go, both for social and economic reasons.


But it's do-able. And the main reason for this is because it looks like a tipping point has been reached where momentum is now on the side of those trying to get it done.


It's inspiring to see. 

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