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Hamilton's homeless priority list to target 109 people

The city is putting 109 people identified as the most vulnerable of Hamilton's homeless population at the top of the list for new housing and support.

454 homeless individuals surveyed in 20,000 Homes campaign this week

Volunteer Rhonda Thompson prepares to interview Bruce Paton as part of the 20,000 Homes survey effort being piloted in Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The city is putting 109 people identified as the most vulnerable of Hamilton's homeless population at the top of the list for new housing and support.

The city announced that pledge Thursday afternoon — quick work after this week's kick-off of Hamilton's "20,000 Homes" campaign, an effort aiming to paint a picture of who in Hamilton is homeless and how is best to help. Volunteers surveyed more than 450 homeless individuals and families about where they sleep, their health status and other factors in their homelessness.

'Towels hanging in the bathroom'

The 109 were identified as the most vulnerable, and they will fit into the new city plan to provide 121 housing-and-services placements in the coming year, said Amanda DiFalco, the city's homelessness services coordinator. Contributing factors to that vulnerability include mental health, medical conditions, substance abuse and how long someone has been on the street. 

"Now we have a strong sense of who we're aiming to serve why and how to best do that," DiFalco said. "Once someone's housed, they're then able to manage their health, stabilize and become securely employed. Housing people just makes sense."

"Housing first" is not new to Hamilton: The city housed 102 men and 46 women in 2014. One of them, Katrina Gervais, told part of her story navigating homelessness at the release of the campaign findings Thursday afternoon at city hall.

She invoked a poignant image to describe what it means to have a home: "Towels hanging in the bathroom where you left them." 

She also appeared in this video the city made about the campaign: 

'Tip of the iceberg' 

The argument is that such "housing first" approaches are compelling even to people who aren't swayed by social justice or emotional tugs to care about homelessness. 

Now we have a strong sense of who we're aiming to serve why and how to best do that.- Amanda DiFalco, city of Hamilton homeless services

Take, for example, someone making a high-cost visit to an emergency room instead of a doctor's office or clinic as a means of primary health care. 

In the last six months, 266 of the people surveyed visited the emergency room 994 times. One in five identified the hospital as where they go to get healthcare. 

Those emergency room visits likely cost somewhere between $186,000 and $418,000, DiFranco said. 

The campaign was not a comprehensive look at homelessness in Hamilton. The effort was the "tip of the iceberg," DiFalco said. The city will be working with other communities in Canada to coordinate a wider census across more of the city to get a more comprehensive count of how many people are homeless next winter.

More highlights from the 454 individuals surveyed: 

  • "Trimorbidity": 47.6 per cent, or 216 people, were deemed to have all three of these factors: mental health, physical or medical condition and substance abuse
  • Mental health: 84 per cent reported having a mental health condition
  • Time homeless: people surveyed had been homeless or on the streets for an average of three years
  • Foster care: 25 per cent have been in foster care
  • Age: 4 per cent were older than 65
  • Risk of violence: 40 per cent reported they have been attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless

'You won't see as many women sleeping rough'

One early-morning shift sent a team of volunteers out on the street, but the majority of surveys were done Sunday and Monday in shelters and community/drop-in centres. 

"We really concentrated in a very specific area in the downtown core," DiFalco said. "We haven't yet explored what homelessness looks like in our more rural communities, in Stoney Creek and Flamborough and Glanbrook. The numbers that we're reporting are still conservative."

Of the 454 people surveyed, 309 were men, 138 were women. Three people identified as trans and four as other.

The number of women experiencing homelessness is likely much higher in Hamilton, DiFranco said. 

Women are more likely to be "precariously housed" like sleeping on a friend's couch than what's commonly thought of as "homeless," Gervais said. 

"Everybody thinks it's going to be temporary," she said. "You won't see as many women sleeping rough."

'We have to start today before these people die'

Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, applauded the city's action to commit new housing-and-support placements this week. The national 20,000 Homes effort, launching formally in June, aims to house 20,000 homeless Canadians by July 1, 2018, and to have an impact on government policies around housing and homelessness.

He said Hamilton has proved this week it is a leader in this conversation going forward.

But Richter warned against hanging the effort on political will at the federal level.

"It's really easy for us to get caught in conversation about national housing strategies, about policies and about plans. All of those things are critically important, but we can use them as a way to say 'We'll do this... when....'" he said. 

"We will use the 20,000 Homes campaign to get at a national housing strategy," Richter said. "But we have to start today before these people die." 

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated with a revised city number on how many new placements will be offered this year.
    Apr 30, 2015 3:03 PM ET

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