Medicine Hat will end chronic homelessness this year, officials predict

The City of Medicine Hat says it will soon reach its goal to end homelessness. The municipality set March 2015 as its deadline five years ago. Since then, it's housed 848 people, including 275 children.

Housing strategy has placed 848 people in homes in last 5 years

People from Medicine Hat's homeless shelter can go to Champion's Centre for a hot breakfast. (CBC)

The City of Medicine Hat says it will soon reach its goal to end chronic homelessness.

The city's program does not aim to empty the emergency shelters permanently, but rather to have fewer people staying in them for long periods of time.

The municipality set March 2015 as its deadline five years ago.

Since then, it's housed 848 people, including 275 children.

"We have a definition here in Medicine Hat. And our definition is that within 10 days of us recognizing that you don't have a home, be it you're sleeping outside, or you're couch-surfing, or you come to us for help, within 10 days we'll find you a place," said Mayor Ted Clugston.

Through the voluntary program, people are placed in affordable housing and connected to other services, including employment counselling, addictions support, and mental health programs.

The 10-day target is still not being met, said Jaime Rogers, who manages the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society.

"We can hit it for a few days, but we're not there yet," she said.

Still, there are other signs of success.

The Salvation Army's 30-bed facility, which used to be packed regularly, now serves half the number of people it did five years ago, said Maj. Murray Jaster.

'I didn't have to sleep outside any more.'

One man who got help through the housing program says he's now able to rebuild his life. CBC News agreed not to reveal his name.

He lived in an A-frame he built with fallen branches and a shower curtain for five months last year, until someone at a shelter told him about the housing program.

"I really can't express into words what it felt like to know that I had found a home and that I didn't have to sleep outside anymore. In Medicine Hat, we should be proud," the man said.

The hardest part to fix

Medicine Hat's housing program has a 72 per cent success rate.

Not everyone is able to stick with it.

Chris Husler enrolled with the housing program five years ago when it began, and has been in and out of it ever since.

The former pipefitter was evicted from his last place at Christmas.

"I hit drugs and I kinda put a few holes in the wall. It was a drug that I've never, ever taken before and I kind of had a bit of a reaction to that," Husler said. "Scared the heck out of me."

Husler says now he's working on staying sober and repairing the damage.

"When it comes to addiction, I would say that's probably the hardest part to fix. It's really hard to hold the reins on that," he said.

Husler is staying at the Medicine Hat shelter, but he plans to try again with the housing program.

"Most definitely it is the best program out there right now. Who knows? I could be dead, right," he said.

Clugston says he understands why people might question his city's approach to homelessness.

When he was a city councillor, he was a vocal critic of the housing program.

"I was one of those people that would have said, you know, why would we reward someone like this, who's been given something for free and they've destroyed it," he said.

Clugston is now a self-described convert. "The thing is it's still cheaper to give them a home and then deal with their problems afterwards, be it mental health, addictions … both, rather than just try to put a Band-Aid on it," he said.

"This person is going to end up in our emergency room, is going to end up in our hospitals, is going to end up in our judicial system, is going to end up in our police station, and it costs the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Six other cities in Alberta, including Calgary, are trying to tackle homelessness using a similar approach.

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and former head of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, says Medicine Hat is a success story other communities can learn from.

"They have focused on ending homelessness, as opposed to managing it and just sort of accepting that it's there," he said.

"They set clear priorities. They set themselves a deadline. They're building a system of care where all of the agencies in that system, all the key players in that system are coordinated on the objective of ending homelessness, which is very smart."

The city is confident it will hit its target this year, if not in March, then sometime in 2015.


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