Housing before treatment a better plan for homeless: study

Research out of McMaster University shows that putting the importance of a bed ahead of treatment for addictions or mental health issues is more effective and cheaper.
The Calgary Homeless Foundation says Calgary's efforts to combat homelessness are paying off even in the face of heavy migration and scarce affordable housing. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

A study lauding the effectiveness of the “housing first” model for addressing homelessness couldn’t have come at a better time.

Research out of McMaster University shows that by putting the importance of a bed ahead of treatment for addictions or mental health issues, it is not only more effective, but cheaper, too.

This month, federal dollars assigned to curb homelessness in Hamilton switched over to a model that allocates 65 cents of every dollar to the housing first model, which focuses on finding permanent housing rather than shelter maintenance for the street populations.

One housing first Hamilton program being used right now  goes even further, and may be the next step in evolving strategies against homelessness.

Julia Woodhall-Melnik, the author of a year-long study out of McMaster and the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said the “graduation” model offered by Wesley Urban Ministries in Hamilton is providing the last, important step to the housing model.

Once stable housing is found, participants are put into a “maintenance” mode that checks in on their graduates who have found housing, provides support in case of slip ups, and fosters a recreational network that is providing to have harm-reduction qualities.

And for participants, it’s all at their own pace.

“They’re able to dictate the level of support that they want,” said Woodhall-Melnik.

“We’re allowing for people to be housed, irregardless of the other concerns that they have going on in their lives and it’s showing they are able to fare well, they are able to be stable, and we are able to save money. So it’s kind of a win-win.”

At Wesley, the Transition to Home (T2H) program not only helps find participants a home, but also helps them apply for subsidies, 30 per cent of which is tapped for rent. Funds from the city and Wesley top up the rent.

What is different about the Hamilton program, says Woodhall-Melnik, is the extra recreational activities. The Homeless Baseball League – which was named so by the players – is one example of programming out of Wesley that is providing a much needed link for participants who have recently found housing, and are being weaned off the shelter system.

Other programs include cooking classes, movie and bowling nights, said Woodhall-Melnik.

“In our research, we found that onsite addictions supports and access to recreational therapy assisted participants in rebuilding stability in their lives,” writes the report. “For example, in offering therapeutic recreation activities, the T2H program was able to assist participants with harm reduction and forming new social connections with other program participants.”


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