Nfld. & Labrador

'Turn the tap off': Stop homelessness before it starts, advocate says

With a new 10-year, $40 billion national housing strategy from Ottawa announced this week, End Homelessness St. John's is optimistic as it makes progress with its own work to get more people off the streets.

New national housing strategy 'encouraging,' according to End Homelessness St. John's

A new federal housing strategy is welcome news to one St. John's advocate working towards ending homelessness by 2019. (CBC)

At this very moment, hundreds of people in the province are living without a stable roof over their heads or living in fear of losing that roof any day. 

The federal government has announced a new 10-year, $40 billion housing strategy to help Canadians find — and keep — suitable homes. 

"It's very encouraging," says Bruce Pearce.

He is with End Homelessness St. John's, an organization more than halfway through its plan to eliminate chronic homelessness in the province's capital by 2019.  

"We haven't seen this type of robust investment – held together as a strategy – in Canada since the Second World War," Pearce said.

"That, in part, is the reason why we've seen the rise of homelessness and housing pressures across the country."

Bruce Pearce, of End Homelessness St. John's, was in Ottawa this week speaking to a housing forum. (CBC/Mike Suzuki)

Some of the highlights of the strategy, for Pearce, include the commitment to make housing a right, like health care; to cut chronic homelessness in half; to build more affordable housing units and repair and upgrade existing ones. 

"They're the kind of tools we're going to need," Pearce said from Ottawa, where he addressed a forum on housing. 

'We need to prevent homelessness'

More than three years into the coordinated efforts of End Homelessness St. John's, Pearce said they're seeing progress.

Shelter use is down from almost 800 people in 2012 to just over 600 in 2016. 

Chronic and episodic homelessness, "folks who've had the longest and most recurring experiences of homelessness," is down 30 per cent, Pearce added. 

We need to turn the tap off and stop people from exiting systems like child welfare, or health care, hospitals, prisons, into homelessness.- Bruce Pearce

His organization is working on the bigger picture. 

"We need to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place," he said. 

"We're seeing, with an aging population, increasing potential for older adults to be in housing instability, and that's a real concern."

Pearce said young people are a concern as well with more than 30 per cent of shelter users in St. John's age 16 to 24.

A corrections officer locks a cell inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. (CBC)

"We need to turn the tap off and stop people from exiting systems like child welfare, or health care, hospitals, prisons, into homelessness and then we're working with them to get them back into housing," said Pearce.

"That's not helpful."

One of the things they're doing, with staff from Stella's Circle and Choices for Youth, is working "very intensively" with vulnerable people – many of whom Pearce said live with mental health and addictions issues.

"To help stabilize their situation. We didn't have that to the extent that we do now, under this [Front Step] program, in our community."

"That's why people were falling to the wayside into desperate situations," Pearce said. 

When it started in January 2016, Pearce said they figured people would be in the program for 12 to 18 months.

Now, over a dozen people are ready to graduate (live on their own with less intensive support), and more are about to begin. 

End Homelessness St. John's also has a coordinated access system, "kind of an air traffic control system to coordinate efforts" among everyone working with homeless people," Pearce said.

And the organization is helping to re-connect people with their families, if it's safe to do so. 

"So they can attach to their natural supports."