Does a housing-first approach to homelessness work? Here are 2 views

A University of Waterloo researcher says a housing-first approach to addressing homelessness, often adopted by municipalities including the Region of Waterloo, sounds better on paper than in practice. 

Researcher says approach not always viable, but region insists it's working

An encampment in downtown Kitchener located at 100 Victoria Street North pictured on Monday, April 25. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A University of Waterloo researcher says a housing-first approach to homelessness, adopted by municipalities including the Region of Waterloo, sounds better on paper than in practice. 

"The problem with housing-first is it often doesn't come with the necessary supports. You can give people housing, but a lot of them can't keep it for a variety of reasons [such as] mental health, addictions [and] family violence," said Tracy Peressini, associate professor of sociology in Social Development Studies at Renison University College — noting money may also be an issue.

She believes there's a lack of affordable housing supply and people experiencing homelessness require more preparation to maintain housing.

"They definitely need support to bring them back in and keep them in that housing. And that's where the system is falling down in a lot of places," she added.

Permanent encampment site

Peressini is looking to research how society can repurpose public spaces to be used by vulnerable populations. She's working on a research proposal to continue that work.

Tracy Peressini, associate professor of sociology in Social Development Studies at Renison University College. (Submitted by Tracy Peressini)

She's exploring the idea of permanent encampments and if they can become a space where people can receive treatment before being housed.

"The best you can do for [people experiencing homelessness outdoors] is to provide some sort of outdoor encampment and treat it as part of that continuum of housing. So it's the precursor to housing," she told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Peressini, who has previously studied encampment communities in parts of the United States, said a permanent space, fully equipped with electricity, sanitation stations, storage space and that is winter-ready, would allow people to gather in one place. That would make it easier for outreach workers to track them down, build trusting relationships and work to support their immediate needs for a prolonged period.

"We want to work with them and stabilize them and move in toward stable housing," she said.

She said this would also empower municipalities to pick appropriate sites for encampments — while balancing the needs of the business and broader community.

Region says 'housing-first' remains top solution

The region said it remains focused on a housing-first approach that it feels has been successful, so far. 

"Rather than trying to manage a solution or manage the issue of homelessness, we're focused on solving it," said Ryan Pettipiere, the region's director of housing services. 

He said this segment of the community needs the stability that comes with being housed, which then helps them focus on a treatment plan.

"For somebody to have the space and the stability to even contemplate getting treatment or other assistance for whatever the issues are that they have, that they've struggled to maintain housing, they first need the stability of housing as a first step," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

"If you're worried about where you're going to be sleeping at night, you're not [thinking] about getting to a counselling appointment, as an example," he said.

There are under 3,000 rent-geared-to-income housing units in Waterloo region and only three have turned over in the last year, said Pettipiere.

Chris McEvoy, manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention, said his department doesn't put conditions on the people who accesses affordable housing, which helps promote recovery.

"The housing-first philosophy and it being a recovery-oriented approach, is focusing on quickly helping people shift from homelessness into housing and then providing the supports that are unique to that individual to maintain that housing stability," said McEvoy. 

The region's affordable housing plan aims to develop up to 2,500 new homes over the next five years with more than 600 currently in development.

A point-in-time-count conducted last year suggested that more than 1,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the region. There are at least 25 known encampments across Waterloo region.