Canada spends billions on homelessness, but without better coordination many can't find help: study

Canada spends more than $30 billion every year to fund social services aimed at helping the country's homeless population, and a new study from the University of Calgary School of Public Policy says the cost could be far less and far more effective with some simple coordination.

167,00 services provided, but no official list categorizes what communities they serve

According to a new study from the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, more than $30 billion dollars is spent every year on a fragmented collection of 167,000 service provided both government and non-profit organizations. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Canada spends more than $30 billion every year to fund social services aimed at helping the country's homeless population, and a new study from the University of Calgary School of Public Policy says the cost could be far less and far more effective with some simple coordination.

According to Alina Turner, a fellow with the School of Public Policy who co-authored the study, titled Bringing it all Together: Integrating Services to Address Homelessness, there are around 170,000 services offered by both the government and the non-profit community to deal with the complex issues related to homelessness across the country.

Alberta alone has around 20,000.

Despite the wealth of services offered, there is no official list to categorize and catalogue where they all are, how they function and what communities they serve. 

Turner said despite having a PhD in this area of research, she had trouble understanding how all the services function, so she's concerned how people who need to access services can actually find the assistance they need.

"It's a call for us to get a little bit more transparent as a service sector, as a social safety net, so people can navigate it better," said Alina Turner.

"We need to clean our own house before we say, let's add more to it, because we don't even have a solid sense of who all of these services are, this is just a very rough initial estimate of the breadth and diversity of this third sector."

Homelessness is a complex issue involving problems ranging from poverty, to mental illness and addiction, to domestic violence, health and childhood trauma. Funding for the thousands of social service agencies come from a variety of places — from federal and provincial governments to private donations. 

The study, Bringing it all Together: Integrating Services to Address Homelessness, was co-authored by Calgary Homelessness Foundation CEO Diana Krecsy, left, and School of Public Policy fellow Alina Turner, right. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Turner said a good first step she would like to see as a researcher would be more open and transparent data.

"It's been so difficult to get access to information to actually study this issue to begin with," she said. "There has been tons of movement that is put into force by government to show the public exactly where the money is going and where the impacts are."

The study says integrating services can lead to more cost-effective approaches, but it must be done properly or it risks adding more layers of bureaucracy.

"When considering how best to integrate and consolidate services, the focus must remain on the clients and not on the systems involved," the study said.

The study was co-authored by Diana Krecsy, the president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, who said in integrating the system, she would start at the board and CEO level of every not-for-profit organization.

"[I would say] before you look down in your organization, say, 'what is your mandate? What is your social agenda? And who else is doing this work?' Then start designing your programs and structures in partnership with other organizations," she said.

The full report can be found on the School of Public Policy website.

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