Hamilton shows what works in the fight against homelessness

Hamilton makes the biggest dent in the country in reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness here.

Adopting 'housing first approach,' Hamilton has seen the nation's biggest drop in homelessness

Hamilton volunteers conducted a "point-in-time count" of the region's homeless population in February. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Hamilton made the biggest dent in the country in reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness over one year, even as the housing and rental market's frenzy has some advocates fretting about the city having enough affordable places to live.

The number of so-called "chronically homeless" people who've been experiencing homelessness for six months or longer dropped 35 per cent between 2014 and 2015, according to the most recent numbers released this summer.

What Hamilton's doing is showing what works to reduce homelessness.- Tim Richter, president and CEO, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

And the number of unique individuals/families accessing an emergency shelter was down 11 per cent, to about 2,800 people last year.

These are the most dramatic drops measured since the campaign began by any of the 33 communities across Canada enrolled in the 20,000 Homes campaign launched by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, according to Tim Richter, president and CEO of the alliance.

Model for Ontario

"Achieving a 35 per cent reduction with little or no new resources tells you that they're becoming very efficient," Richter said. "What Hamilton's doing is showing what works to reduce homelessness. It can certainly be looked at as a model for the rest of Ontario."

The city's success is in implementing a new approach to tackling homelessness, driven by changes to how federal funds are allocated. Funding to cities has changed in recent years, away from supporting shelter and other emergency and temporary services. The funding now pushes cities toward a treatment-focused approach, with an  emphasis on stable housing first -- before any of the other factors in someone's homelessness can be addressed. 

Locally, four contractors receive funding from the city, passing along federal money, to find those low-cost units for vulnerable clients and deliver the supports they need. Supports are tailored to the unique needs of each individual.

The four contractors focus on single men, single women, youth and Aboriginal people. Already, a few hundred people have been housed this way since 2014. 

"Historically, we've managed homelessness," said Amanda DiFalco, the city's homelessness services coordinator.

"But homelessness is in fact a solvable problem."

'We're thinking as a community'

The city is also attracting attention for being on the cutting edge of techniques to combat homelessness. Hamilton is one of three cities in the country to adopt an approach known as a "by-name list," or a real-time, priority ranking of the people using services or experiencing homelessness who could be best served by a housing placement.

Paramedics approached a statue of "Homeless Jesus" after getting calls about a homeless person sleeping on a bench. (Twitter-Hamilton Paramedics/Canadian Press)

The by-name list is yet another step toward breaking down the barriers between non-profits and programs. In a previous era, someone who'd used a shelter run by one organization might be selected to graduate into that organization's other programs.

But the by-name list hopes to establish whether that placement is needed more by someone else, somewhere else in the city.

Historically, we've managed homelessness. But homelessness is in fact a solvable problem.- Amanda DiFalco,  homelessness services coordinator

"It's about using limited resources, prioritizing limited resources to the most vulnerable people," said DiFalco.

"We're thinking as a community not just as a service."

The city was selected to be a pilot community for the 20,000 Homes campaign in 2015. Since then, two "point-in-time" counts have served as a snapshot census, estimating how many people in Hamilton are homeless and what their needs are.

The campaign wants to find permanent homes for 20,000 of the most vulnerable Canadians by July 1, 2018. 

Why housing first?

This year, 504 people were counted and surveyed one day in February, though the number of unique individuals using shelters throughout the year is closer to 3,000.

In part, the new approaches have been motivated by a change in how homelessness programs are funded.

In 2014, Hamilton's federal funding for homelessness switched to a model that designates 65 cents out of every dollar of funding for "housing first" placements.

Volunteers interviewed people who were experiencing homelessness during the February point-in-time count in Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

As of July 31, the city and its partners had found permanent housing-first placements for 68 people, about half of a targeted 138 people prioritized based on the findings of the census in February.

In housing first, people are evaluated based on medical conditions, mental health, length of time on the street or in shelters, and then they are prioritized for a housing placement with supports tailore to their needs provided by a social worker. Once a person is housed, the thinking (and research) goes, they can more effectively manage their health and lead a stable life.

Becoming housed, and staying housed

​Homelessness co-ordinator DiFalco said traditional homelessness programs lead to people finding permanent housing at a rate of just 33 per cent.

But "housing first" programs have success rates of more like 80 per cent, she said.

Hamilton's initial housing first placements have led to 83 per cent of people remaining housed, two years later, DiFalco said earlier this year.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


  • An earlier version of this story omitted the time period, the past year, in which Hamilton has ranked at the top of communities around the country for reducing homelessness. Three communities in Alberta have shown greater percentage reductions over longer periods of time.
    Sep 14, 2016 9:31 AM ET