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How a small city in Alberta eliminated homelessness

Author: Maythe Han
Published Date: 13 July 2016

Medicine Hat, a small city in southeastern Alberta recently became the first city to eliminate homelessness – simply by giving every homeless person a home with no strings (or prerequisites) attached. 

Many housing policies and programmes that attempt to tackle the issue of homelessness came attached with difficult preconditions that the candidates needed to meet, such as participating in psychiatric treatment or being clean and sober. Given the challenges that surround addressing mental illnesses and addictions, especially for candidates that often lack the resources and support to seek help, asking the homeless to meet these demands only led to the neglect of those who were the most vulnerable: the chronically homeless and homeless people with disabilities. 

This is why the city of Medicine Hat restructured its entire system to tackle homelessness instead of simply adopting a structured programme. And instead of building more housing, it built relationships with existing landlords. 

At first, landlords were hesitant, to say the least: prejudice and misconceptions against homeless people abound initially, making landlords less willing to rent out their properties to homeless people. However, presented with proven facts about homelessness and those who suffer from it (such as that housing the homeless does not lead to increased violence and drug dealings), they came around to the idea of providing them with a home they direly need. 

Moreover, housing homeless people turned out to make more financial sense — it costs about $20,000 annually to house someone, whereas it can cost up to five times that to support someone on the street. In short, it’s good for the homeless and good for the taxpayers.

Today, five years after Housing First set out the plan to end homelessness, no one in Medicine Hat spends more than ten days without a shelter. If someone has nowhere to go from the temporary shelter, the city will provide more permanent housing for whoever needs it. Since April 2009, the city has collectively housed 1013 people: 705 adults and 308 children.

Not only is Medicine Hat solving a perpetual problem that affects every city, it is changing the way we approach the issue of homelessness. Complicated policies with numerous preconditions proved to be ineffective in addressing the needs of the homeless, so now we’re turning to possibly the simplest solution there may be: giving homeless people homes. Innovation doesn’t necessarily involve complicated methods — sometimes, simplest solution is the best solution.

Read more about Housing First in Medicine Hat, AB:

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