There are many non-profit organizations working to end homelessness in Edmonton, so it was very encouraging to see some of that work recognized in front of an international audience this week. An article written by Mark Horvath for the Huffington Post highlighted the work done at the Jasper Place Health & Wellness Centre and their use of the housing first model. Mr. Horvath interviewed the Centre’s founder Murray Soroka, who is now the Director of the Housing First Program at Homeward Trust Edmonton.
For those that don’t know what “housing first” is, it’s a model where housing is provided first in a recovery plan. The old model is a homeless person has to get sober — or their mental illness go away — before some form of housing is provided. If you think about that for a second you will realize how unpractical the old model is. It’s nearly impossible to get sober while going to the bathroom behind a dumpster day after day. And mental illness left unattended on the streets does not heal itself. People need dignity to heal and housing must be first.
Of course, you can see why many people have trouble with this, and especially churches. Pay for an apartment and allow the person to continue to drink might seem crazy. But housing first saves lives and saves money. It has been proven time after time that once a person finds housing, they eventually want to change ON THEIR OWN. The typical church homeless solution is forced structure. A recovering homeless person does great while having structure in their life, but when they return to society, and the structure is gone, they often go back to drinking and drugs. And I should clarify some. Most, if not all, church recovery programs are very picky on who they allow in. The most drug-addicted and the most mentally ill are left to die on the street. The housing first model helps the most vulnerable who are ignored — yet need our help the most.
Let me be point-blank honest here. If we are going to really fight homelessness in our community, we must change from the old shelter system to more of the housing first model. We also need the support of the faith based communities. I still believe faith based organizations can make the biggest difference. I have traveled all over and have only seen a very few who are actually having a real impact permanently getting people off the street. You cannot imagine how excited I was when Murray told me a dozen or so churches are paying rent on 400 apartments for homeless people!