Ask Pat: Medicine Hat

Alice asks—

Is there any reason the Medicine Hat approach of reducing Homelessness in their city can’t be applied to New Westminster? I know it has been said senior gov’t needs to step up but the Medicine Hat strategy involved very little additional funding from senior gov’t. Their population and homeless population appear to be in line with New West.

This is one of the areas of the City’s operations where I have had to climb a pretty steep learning curve. We have Councillors and a Mayor with much more knowledge of this than I do (and some pretty stellar staff, as a bonus), but I’ll take a dive at answering this with that caveat in mind, and keep myself open to correction from those with more knowledge.

Essentially, the Medicine Hat model is based on “housing first” – the idea that if we can first get homeless people into shelter, regardless of how temporary it is, we can get them services they need and start the process of moving them to more permanent and sustainable housing options, and (this is the bigger hope) access to services to help them manage the underlying cause of most homelessness – disabilities, trauma, exploitation, and mental health concerns including addiction. This has been standard operating procedure in New Westminster for a decade or more. So why is Medicine Hat different?

Medicine Hat is a rural community, so it’s 61,000 residents are surrounded by farms and wilderness. New Westminster’s 70,000 people are in the middle of an urban population of 2,500,000 people. New Westminster needs to work along with its neighbours and operate within that reality. That is both an advantage to New Westminster, and a disadvantage.

In Medicine Hat, the most recent homeless count put their numbers at about half the average of the province of Alberta on a per-capita basis. The numbers provided in 2016 news stories estimate there were 875 people moved to supportive housing over the six years of their aggressive program – one for every 70 residents. Extrapolate that to Greater Vancouver, and we would need to facilitate 36,000 supportive housing units in the same period – 6,000 per year. To make this work, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society received $3.9 million from the province of Alberta (plus about 10% that amount from a combination of the federal and local governments). It is clear the province of Alberta, even during difficult financial times, fulfilled their constitutional responsibility to provide housing. Extrapolate that to the Lower Mainland, and this becomes another boring post about lack of Provincial resources and the terrible priorities of the BC Liberals…

However, there is a persistent problem we have in the Lower Mainland that makes us stand out, and with which “Housing First” is of limited help: the flow of people being forced into homelessness by our out-of-scale housing costs, the erosion of our housing support programs (including the Co-op Housing model), lack of resources for people at risk (aging out of care, coming out of incarceration, or leaving protracted medical care), and our ongoing lack of rental vacancy. To avail oneself of “Housing First” assistance in BC, one first has to be homeless, which is like addressing gun violence by buying bandages: it has a value and is measurably effective, but does not address the source of the problem. This is a terrible way to organize public resources, but more importantly, it completely dehumanizes of the actual problem.

Which brings me back to the Medicine Hat miracle I keep reading about in the news. Considering it is not particularly groundbreaking in approach, and aside from the resources put into it, it’s success is not outstanding compared to many municipalities (including New Westminster), I wonder about the narrative of its success. I do not want to take even the tiniest bit of credit away from the City, the not-for-profits, or programmers (paid and volunteer) who put their lives work into helping less fortunate people, but there is a part this makes me twitchy.

Google any story of the Medicine Hat Homelessness approach, and you hear some version of the same narrative: how the “fiscally conservative” Mayor was convinced to support the program, because it turns out paying to put people in housing saves the City and the Province money in the long run. Now, this is true; so well established it isn’t even a point of debate, but quotes likes this fire my cynicism gland:

“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.” – Mayor Clugston

The fact that a leader describes his decision to provide basic human dignity to marginalized residents of his community in terms of its ability to turn fiscal profit is abhorrent to the way I view governance and society. Maybe he is just saying that to keep the Randian libertarians in his town off of his ass, or perhaps it speaks deeply of the state of western Canadian politics and the erosive influence of Calgary School neo-liberal fiscal policy projected by “Think Tanks” like the Fraser Institute on governments at all levels… I’m about to go on a long rant here, so perhaps I will save that for a future blog post… but this economically-driven “come-to-Jesus moment” narrative sound more like cowardice than visionary leadership to me.

Short version is we, in New Westminster, are regional leaders in providing housing support to our homeless residents, and I will hold our success up against Medicine Hat’s any day (not that this is a contest – when it comes to supporting marginalized populations in this country, we are all losing). New West is forging partnerships with senior governments and investing in supportive housing, and we are providing City lands to develop innovative housing solutions. We have incredible staff and NWPD liaisons partnering with an amazing suite of not-for-profit agencies to address the multiple causes of (and solutions to) homelessness at a person-to-person level. We did this before it was sexy, and perhaps we don’t brag enough about it. More importantly, I would like to think we do it not becasue of some fiscal bottom line calculation, but because homeless people in New Westminster are citizens of New Westminster, who deserve representation for their elected officials, and should have the same access to support, dignity, and opportunity as everyone else.

Demoviction Conversation

Amongst the joys of my job as a City Councillor is collaboration with other elected types around the region who are trying to solve regional problems in new ways. I’m also a bit of a data geek, so I love getting new information and learning from people much smarter than me who have innovative approaches to problems.

In the interest of bringing these things together, I am working with some pretty cool colleagues to develop a “MetroConversations” series. We had a successful first event in New Westminster last November, and have plans to expand and grow the program in 2017. The second in the series is happening in Langley City next week, hosted by the brilliant and telegenic City Councillor Nathan Pachal

The topic is as relevant in New Westminster as anywhere in the region: How do we replace an aging stock of rental buildings without displacing people who rely on an affordable rental building stock?

There has been a lot of talk about this in the City of Burnaby, and although they get a (perhap unfair?) majority of the press, this is truly a regional concern. The City of New Westminster has done a lot to incentivise the building of family friendly apartment housing, secured rental housing, and other housing forms in the hopes that we can eat away at the affordability monster. We also have a huge stock of condo and rental buildings, mostly in Brow of the Hill and Sapperton, that are aging and don’t meet modern building standards. At some point, replacement of this stock is going to create a Burnaby-like situation, unless we take a proactive approach to the issue. That said, who knows what that proactive approach looks like?

This MetroConversation will feature people who have a better idea of what works and doesn’t when it comes to managing our affordable housing stock – actual subject matter experts who view the issue from diferent angles. As always, this will be an interactive conversation, not a boring set of speeches. Bring your questions, bring your ideas, and help add to the conversation in the region.

The room is relatively small (we want an intimate conversation) so please be sure to register to make sure you can get a seat, we totally expect to sell out.

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