What if the solution to homelessness is really as simple as offering everyone a place to live?
Housing First initiative aims to eliminate chronic homelessness in Edmonton by 2022
Ezra holds his little dog Muppet to his chest against the blowing cold.
It's -20 C in Edmonton on the day he's decided to visit the abandoned shack where he spent last winter huddled against the elements. Ezra, 42, had been homeless off and on since the late '90s and struggling with addiction when he stumbled on the tiny building and found it unlocked.
"This was top of the top for a homeless person to have this," he says. "I had everything. I was out of the elements. I had a thermostat, a plug, some cardboard."
Ezra was careful to hide his footprints in the snow so no one would see them. He bought a lock and attached it to the door so he could keep his things inside during the day.
"It was a godsend, but security went by at least 30 times a day," he says, "so I always had to hide down under the desk."
Even though Ezra and Muppet don't live in the shack anymore, some of their old things are still inside — a jacket, a few cushions and Muppet's bowl.
A little over a year ago Ezra was able to secure an apartment through Edmonton's Housing First program — originally an experimental initiative that has now become a regular part of the city's social services system — moving from the shack to a permanent home.
He wonders what would have happened to him if he hadn't.
"I could very well be dead," he says. "On the street, anything is possible at any time.
"But I don't have to come here anymore. I have a home now," he says to his dog as they huddle beside the shack. "We have a home."
Trent Agecoutay, 44, is an outreach worker with Homeward Trust in Edmonton, the organization behind the city's Housing First homelessness strategy.
"Housing First is exactly what it says — it puts housing first. It's not putting any stipulations on housing," says Agecoutay.
"We don't require that people get sober to get housing. We just want people to get off the street and get into safe places."
The approach was developed at a community agency in New York City in the 1990s by a Canadian psychologist named Sam J. Tsemberis. Since Edmonton started using housing-first in 2009, the city has housed 10,000 homeless people through the program.
Agecoutay says the idea is to view housing as a form of harm reduction. He says once a person is away from the violence and stress of street life, they usually want to fix other parts of their lives.
"There are people who want to find employment," Agecoutay says. "Others want trauma support, or schooling. If they want help with addiction, we will help them with that too."
The Housing First initiative aims to eliminate chronic homelessness in Edmonton by 2022.
Housing First doesn't require applicants with addictions to undergo treatment.
That can sometimes be a hard-sell in the wider community, admits Agecoutay, but he says that's because people can be hypocrites.
"Not everyone that lives in a house doesn't drink every day," he says. "Just because they have never experienced homelessness, that doesn't mean they don't drink every day and have a drinking problem, but they are able to maintain their housing.
"We are worried about helping people maintain housing — that's it."
How it works
There is only one demand the Housing First program makes of its clients. A homeless person must take the first step and visit the downtown offices of Homeward Trust, where the housing program is run.
On this day a man in his 50s named William Miller arrives at the office.
"I am deteriorating so fast it's unbelievable," Miller says.
"There is a lot of violence on the street, and I am too old for it. I am not even the same human being as I was."
Agecoutay chats with Miller and shows him a list of vacancies in downtown Edmonton, going over how much the rent is for each apartment.
Almost 80 per cent of the clients housed through Edmonton's Housing First program pick their neighbourhood and apartment from rentals on the open market.
"We're not taking people and saying you are going to live here — they choose where they live," Agecoutay says.
There's no waiting list in the conventional sense for Edmonton's Housing First program. Instead the city has built a thorough list of all 1,700 local people who, like Miller, are chronically homeless — including names and basic details about their lives. This allows Homeward Trust quickly prioritize who needs help the most.
Agecoutay says it typically takes an average of 45 days for a person to be housed. During that time a housing outreach worker accompanies each homeless client to meet potential landlords.
Once a lease has been signed the homeless client's rent is subsidized for a year, and during that time a case worker helps them with the transition from the streets.
The program has an 85 per cent retention rate through the first year.
Agecoutay says he's seen how having a place to live helps a person in all aspects of their lives.
"That's why it drives me — because it works," he says. "I saw the results as a housing outreach worker. I saw people change their lives."
Edmonton's Housing First program is funded by all three levels of government. The city says it has helped to reduce overall homelessness in the city by 43 per cent in the past decade.
Its proponents also point out that every dollar spent to fund a housing-first model saves society an estimated $4 in shelter, medical, law enforcement and health costs.
"We are saving lives and we are saving the government money by doing this programming," says Agecoutay. "They are not spending money on hospitals for people who end up there who experience homelessness, or the justice system where people sometimes get incarcerated on purpose because they don't want to face -30 C in the winter."
Standing on his back stoop, Ezra sweeps the snow off his stairs and lets Muppet out to run around.
Ezra says his dog kept him going through the tough times when he was homeless.
"On the street, different people have different things. You carry what you have, and I had Muppet," he says.
"Without her I probably would have fell deeper into addiction. But she kept me going," he adds with tears in his eyes.
Today Ezra says he appreciates the simple pleasures of having an apartment — that he can lock his door and cook when he wants.
"When you are homeless you dream about being warm, you dream about eating," he says, adding that that for the first time in years he's now started to think about his future.
"Having an apartment has given me the means to have [bigger] dreams."
WATCH | From The National, How Edmonton got 10,000 people off the streets and into housing: