Medicine Hat on brink of ending homelessness, mayor says

Medicine Hat is on the cusp of making history in the battle against homelessness, says the city’s mayor.

Focusing on getting people into homes instead of shelters touted as key to success

Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston admits he did not initially support the city's housing society's strategy for tackling homelessness, but has since changed his opinion. (CBC)

Medicine Hat is on the cusp of making history in the battle against homelessness, says the city’s mayor. 

The southern Alberta city is one of seven communities in Alberta that adopted a Housing First approach to fighting homelessness several years ago.

The Medicine Hat Community Housing Society released a progress report Thursday on its five-year plan to end homelessness.

According to Mayor Ted Clugston, the strategy is proving so successful that the city is on target to effectively win the battle by next year.

Candace Koch, who used to be homeless in Medicine Hat, now has a place of her own thanks the city's Housing First program. (CBC)

"Our goal is to be the first municipality in Canada to end homelessness,” he said.

The idea behind Housing First is to stop focusing on temporary shelters and instead make it a priority to get homeless people into places of their own — without imposing rules such as staying sober. The policy was first tried in the United States and Great Britain.

The report says 1,147 people used emergency shelters in Medicine Hat in 2008-2009. That’s a big problem for a city of 61,000 people, said Clugston.  

But 672 people have been brought out of homelessness since the city adopted the Housing First strategy five years ago — including 220 children — according to the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society, which is overseeing the program.

About 72 per cent of the participants have succeeded in the program and maintained their housing.

The shelter use had fallen to 849 by 2012-2013, says the report. 

Until a few years ago, the city was trying to tackle the problem in a misguided way, said the society's homeless and housing department manager Jaime Rogers.

"What we did really, well many years ago, is actually prolong people's experience being homeless. We provided sandwiches, tents, boots and allow them to live in their existing circumstance,” she said.

Mayor took convincing 

Until recently, Clugston was on the other side of the debate about how to end homelessness. He spent six years on council before becoming mayor late last year.

“When I first got elected on council I was a bit of a cowboy, and I was actually speaking against a lot of these projects. I was one of their biggest detractors,” he said.

But Clugston said the members of the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society spent six years making a convert out of him.

“And now I’ve become their advocate and have to admit it’s the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do. And it makes sense financially,” he said.

“If you can get somebody off the street, it saves the emergency room visits, it saves the police, it saves the justice system — and so when you add up all those extra costs … you can buy a lot of housing for that amount of money.”

And once people are housed, it’s easier for support workers to help them with a co-ordinated delivery of social services to address issues such as substance abuse and mental health problems, Clugston said.  

A home of her own

Candace Koch, who was homeless until this spring, now has a subsidized apartment of her own thanks to the program.

“I went from friend’s couches to floors to couches,” she said.

"Emotionally I could just break down talking about it. It's been rough.

“It means everything. I don't have to worry about where I'm going to sleep next … yeah, it's a place called home,” she added.