Medicine Hat poverty-elimination plan draws local skepticism

Medicine Hat made the bold claim it had ended homelessness in May 2015, and now it's laid out a plan to end poverty by 2030.

Southern Alberta city that 'ended homelessness' 2 years ago now upping its game

Norman Whitford, a food bank volunteer and client, says eliminating poverty is an ambitious goal but it likely won't work. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The southern Alberta city that ended homelessness two years ago is now upping its game with a plan to eliminate poverty in 13 years.

Medicine Hat made the bold claim it had ended homelessness in May 2015. It got a lot of attention as cities and communities across the country struggle with the same issues and look for answers.

A city councillor and food bank co-executive director says the city hopes to apply its learnings on homelessness to poverty as a whole.

"Lots of people would say that's a utopian belief, that we would ever have a community without poverty, but I think it comes back to inclusion," Celina Symmonds told CBC News Wednesday at the program launch.

"Instead of having a segmented society, that we have an inclusive society where everyone belongs, everyone feels like they are part of something bigger," she said.

Symmonds says it's a matter of taking a big picture approach.

"We have come to a functional zero on homelessness here in Medicine Hat, and I see no reason we can't do the same thing with poverty. We had our naysayers then too, [but] we always have early adopters who believe that we can do it."

"We can push this forward like we did with the ending homelessness plan."

The Thrive program aims to eliminate poverty 'in all of its forms' in Medicine Hat by 2030. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

A volunteer and client of the food bank says that's a tall order, and he struggles to see it working.

"They have been trying to take care of poverty since the beginning of time," Norman Whitford said.

"A thousand years from now, you will still have poverty. I don't think for one moment you will ever solve poverty. Not even in Medicine Hat."

He says the issue is complex and textured.

"Medicine Hat is well known for the street people's programs. Nobody lives on the street, but they are still hungry," he said.

"To say that it is not going to continue, I don't believe that for one minute. Some other reasons will come up and next thing you know you are going to have needy people. We are a wealthy country. There shouldn't be as much poverty."

Alina Turner was a consultant on the project. She says, if it's successful, it could easily be introduced to larger cities in Canada. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Alina Turner, a consultant who has worked on both the homelessness and poverty initiatives, agrees on that last point. She said Medicine Hat is in a good position to come at the problem.

"You have leaders that are really good at executing," Turner explained.

"It is not just setting ambitious plans — we have tons of examples of ambitious plans that don't have the same level of impact that we see here. There is this perfect marriage of visioning, a sense of urgency and this ability to execute and practice that is often harder to find."

Turner says poverty is about a lot more than just money in the bank.

"If you ask people with lived experience ... they will tell you it is mental health, recreation for their children, food security, access to good jobs," she said.

The Medicine Hat approach, if successful, could be applied to larger centres quite easily, Turner said.

"You can apply it anywhere," she said.

"In bigger cities, you're not talking about 200 programs; you're talking about thousands of programs, so in that case, maybe it is a matter of dividing it up in bite-size pieces, or maybe it is a phased approach where we focus on one part of the system and then expand to include to all the other pieces."

Medicine Hat's goal of getting rid of poverty by 2030 is in line with a global World Bank initiative to do the same thing.

With files from Sarah Lawrynuik