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Homelessness Task Force for Fredericton a refreshing announcement

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b2ap3_thumbnail_sotc2016mayormike.jpgThere’s an old adage that goes something like this: “don’t tell me why we can’t do something; show me how we can.”

That sentiment struck me this week as I was reading the Daily Gleaner account of Mayor Mike O’Brien’s State of the City address and particularly his announcement of forming a Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness to see what the city can do to help alleviate the problem.

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How refreshing that sounded and what a departure from the past. I remember approaching the city for help as part of the Homeless Shelter’s Board back in 2011. Their response at that time was a bureaucratic one; that homelessness is a housing issue and housing is a provincial responsibility. In other words, “It’s not our problem”. Our counterpoint was that the shelters were also very much a public safety issue and therefore the city does have a responsibility to help. That didn’t fly either. There simply wasn’t a willingness to figure out a way.

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Fast forward a few years and it is so sweet to hear Mayor O’Brien vow to work with his fellow councilors to see how the city can overcome the “self-imposed shackles” as he called them, that kept the city from contributing money or land to end chronic homelessness.

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A difference between then and now is that back then our focus was the homeless shelters, but now, through the Community Action Group on Homelessness, we know that the homelessness goes beyond the shelters to people who are more under the radar, including people coach surfing, living in places that aren’t safe, or just scraping by on the verge of becoming homeless.

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We also know now that while it is a considerable problem, it isn’t an insurmountable one.  Through the Housing First approach, we know homelessness can be eliminated. We know this because other communities have done it.

The philosophy is simple. That people are best able to move ahead with their lives if they are in safe, affordable housing, with supports in place to help move them forward. The examples are piling up from cities that show not only that it is the most humane way to help homeless people; it is also the most economical.

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If you are a fan of Malcolm Gladwell check out an essay he wrote called Million Dollar Murray.  His point in telling Murray’s story is that it costs more to allow homelessness to go on than to do something about it, because of the related costs in areas such as medical interventions, police, courts etc. Gladwell’s essay was written a decade ago. A more current illustration of the money than can be saved is right here in Fredericton.

The John Howard Society’s apartment building on Main Street became home to a dozen people who were previously on the streets or living at the homeless shelter. After moving into their own place, their interactions with police and the hospital’s emergency room and courts and the like fell from more than 700 a year to about 100. That’s a lot of money saved.

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The point is that Housing First works, it’s proven, and it is the policy the city’s Community Action Group on Homelessness (CAGH) has embraced as the main pillar of its strategy to eradicate homeless over the next few years, as laid out in its report The Road Home.

But it will take the cooperation of all corners to pull it off. The Mayor’s Task Force is a giant step in that direction. So good to see.

Back to 2011. At that time when we went to the city for help and were turned down, we also did some focus groups. What that research revealed were two things – first, that the participants were surprised to hear that the city wasn’t helping with homelessness, and second, that it damn well should. So maybe what we have here is the city council finally catching up to the people it represents. 

If you want to know more about homelessness and what we are doing about it including some options fo rgetting involved, check out the CAGH website.

Disclaimer: In the interests of transparency I do volunteer work with CAGH. 

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