'It absolutely works': Housing First marks 1 year in Regina

The Housing First program has officially been running for one year in Regina. The statistics point to its success in its efforts to end homelessness.

Initiative to end homelessness looking for provincial, municipal funding support

Lindsey BigSky, 36, said he was a 'terrible drunk' who slept on the streets for eight years until Housing First got him into a home. Now he drinks less and hopes to spend more time with his five children, all of whom are in foster care. (CBC)

It was only a year and a half ago when Kenton Weisgerber was an addict, uncertain of where he would sleep at night.

"I was a broken shell of what you see," he said.

He took the first step towards recovery, but didn't know what would happen next. 

"I was leaving detox. I had no where to stay. I had nowhere to call a safe place."

That's when the Phoenix Residential Society contacted him about Regina's Housing First program. The initiative aims to end homelessness by moving people into independent and supportive spaces. 

Housing First helped Weisgerber build self-worth, connected him with his culture, helped him learn how to navigate social services, and stay clean.

"They walked with me. They didn't drag me," he said.

Kenton Weisgerber was frightened to leave detox, but the people with the Housing First program eased his fear. He said it could have been a nightmare without them. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

On Tuesday, he was on hand at a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the city's Housing First program. 

"It absolutely works. The cost savings are there," said Shawn Fraser, senior director of partnership initiatives for the YMCA of Regina and a former city councillor.

"On top of that, the human element: people being able to take their shoes off at night, something as simple as that. It's really compelling."

Lindsey BigSky was homeless for eight years and struggled with alcohol abuse even longer. 

Now, he sleeps in a house rather than trying to seek shelter in stairwells, abandoned garages or in the bush. 

"I feel good, like it's safer," he said.  "Now that I'm here it's like I totally changed my ways." 

The Housing First program has supported his basic human needs, but has also helped him reconnect with his Indigenous culture and his children, all five of whom are in foster care. 

"You have good people, like these people. They help me," he said.

Ending homelessness needs cash 

The program pays $18,080 annually per client and pegs the total cost savings of having 26 people housed at $1.92 million, because people aren't cycling through jail cells, detox centres or emergency rooms. 

This graphic breaks down how Housing First calculated that the 26 people it supported in 2016-17 saved $1.9 million. (Submitted)

Fraser said Housing First works because community organizations communicate as they strive towards the same goal. 

"We've had a lot of Band-Aid solutions for a long time," he said, noting this goes beyond just managing the problem. 

Fraser thinks Regina could see the end of homelessness. 

"The idea of ending homelessness in Regina used to be a pipe dream, something for way in the future," he said. "I don't think it's like that anymore."

However, he said the Regina program needs financial support from all levels of government. The province and the city do not put money towards it. That doesn't add up for Fraser, who said almost all of the money saved goes back to the province. 

The federal government has committed $700,000 to the Regina initiative for the 2017-18 fiscal year, but it's uncertain if that funding will stay the same for next year. 

Shawn Fraser said homelessness can be ended in Regina, if all levels of government contribute funding. (CBC)

Minister non-committal about funding

Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor agreed the program works.

"The numbers are obvious," she said. 

However, when asked if the province would provide direct funding to the program, Beaudry-Mellor said, "I don't know about that at this time."

She said she wants to see herself "and the ministry play a much more active role" in regards to the initiative.

"It is really important to me to be a little bit more engaged, and if at least not providing funding directly into this particular project, to at least be able to maybe fill in some of the gaps that the homelessness partnership strategy is not able to fill."

She said the provincial government has made investments to help house people, but it's been separate from Housing First.

"Are we making the right investments? Are we all working at in a way that is collaborated and co-ordinated, so we achieve a functional zero [homelessness] is a question I still have yet to answer."

with files from Bonnie Allen