When Ted Clugston was an Alderman with the City of Medicine Hat in southern Alberta, he admits he was against the Housing First plan to end homelessness in the city.
As part of the plan, any homeless person, regardless of mental health issues, are given access to housing. No one in the city spends more than 10 days in an emergency shelter or on the streets. After people are housed, the Medicine Hat Community Homeless Society provides services and tries to find out why they became homeless.
At the time, Clugston, who has since been elected as mayor, had a very traditional view of homelessness.
“I was a firm believer that if you wanted a place to live, you should get a job,” he said. “If you want the nice things in life you go to school, you work hard, you take responsibility for your actions. If you want to fix your problem, get a job.”
Slowly but surely his views on homelessness and mental health changed as he spoke to homeless people and others in the industry, and realized the value of the plan.
“Mental health is just another disease that nobody wants but people get. When you get cancer, your family surrounds you,” Clugston said. “When you start acting goofy and you have a mental health issue, everybody turns their back on you. They don’t want that mental health issue no more than they want cancer. It’s the stigma of mental health and mental health is attached to homelessness.”
The plan made sense financially as well.
According to Clugston, it costs roughly $20,000 a year to house someone in Medicine Hat versus the roughly $80,000 to $120,000 it costs if someone stays on the streets.
Nearly six years after the Housing First plan was implemented, Medicine Hat, which has a population of roughly 63,000 people, has almost eliminated homelessness. Through the plan, 1,000 people have been housed.
Clugston said the key to the city’s success is having one organization that keeps track of all the homeless people in the city and has connections with local food banks and homeless shelters.
He said in larger cities there are often too many organizations trying to help the homeless in an unorganized fashion.
“You have churches trying to house people, you’ve got this over here and community groups working independent of each other and you’ll never get it,” Clugston said, adding there needs to be a national housing strategy as well. “You have to have one entry point and you have to keep track of these people so they don’t fall through the cracks . . . this is the model, this is how you do it.”
He added all levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal — need to be on board as well.
“Municipalities don’t have the money. The people who are blaming the mayors have to stop because mayors don’t have the money to do it,” he said, noting most of the money to build housing came from the province of Alberta.
Clugston will be speaking about the Housing First plan at the Mayor’s Summit on solutions to end homelessness on Monday, May 30 at 7 p.m. at the First Metropolitan United Church (932 Balmoral Rd). The event, hosted by Our Place, also includes speeches by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Eugene, Oregon Mayor Kitty Piercy.
Greater Victoria’s strategy to help the city’s homeless is moving closer to reality.
Last week, the B.C. government announced a new agreement with the Capital Regional District (CRD) called the Housing First Initiative to create new affordable housing projects for homeless people throughout the region. The province has committed up to $30 million in capital funding, with a matching contribution from the CRD for a total of $60 million.