What follows is the first of three reflections offered at the Work and Pray Gathering CRIHI held at City Hall on March 27, 2018.
It has been just over nine years since the ten year plan to end homelessness began. Are we there yet? Well, there’s still lots to do. But SO MUCH has been done! The landscape has changed tremendously. We have seen some real success, and the circle of people working together is wider than it has ever been.
Do we remember the sparks and the series of crises that got us moving? The tent city that took root in downtown Edmonton. The massive community uprising in Terwillegar. And of course, growing stress on many families, with rents rising much faster than their income. Wait lists for housing help tripled in a few short years, with thousands of people and families on wait lists at every major housing provider.
We learned the shocking numbers around the cost of managing homelessness – just keeping someone alive on the street; with emergency room visits, police encounters, ambulance rides, services, and jail time adding up to a staggering cost of over $100,000 per person per year; balanced against the cost of housing and supporting someone in their own home coming in at around $35,000!
And of course, a statistic that unfortunately has not changed much: One in four Edmontonians have a hard time affording homes, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on a pace to live, with more than 20,000 households spending over 50% on housing. And yes, some of those are paying more than 60%.
Some of these challenges are very much still here, and are a reminder to us all that our work is not done.
What has been done thus far? These events and realities have sparked a real change in the minds of our leaders, and driven a new way of thinking and practice in how we address homelessness in our city. And that is nothing short of massive!
We have seen Housing First become our leading principle as a city. No longer do we expect people with addictions or mental illnesses and trauma to get their stuff sorted out before we help them find housing. Now we say, ‘let’s get you a safe place to call home, and then surround you with the supports and care to help you heal and get back on your feet’.
We’ve made it easier for people looking for help to find it with a no wrong door approach and greater coordination between the different agencies.
As faith communities, we helped develop Welcome Home; a program to support caring volunteers in coming alongside people as they struggled to heal, to overcome challenges, and rebuild their lives.
We have also seen moments of real beauty in the context of supportive housing; with people coming back to life again after years of battling chronic addictions and mental health challenges on the street.
The number of homeless on our streets has dropped from over 3,000 to just over 1,700. Shelter space usage is also down, with numbers this winter at around 75% capacity on cold winter nights.
And of course, we as faith communities are in the thick of it:
- We are realizing more and more how important it is to participate in local conversations in our communities.
- We are hosting workshops on affordable housing and poverty.
- We are telling each other’s stories.
- We are getting involved in our community leagues and meeting our neighbours.
- We are working together with partners to meet the needs of refugees, newcomers to Canada, or families in poverty.
- We are volunteering in countless places; like Habitat for Humanity; or with Brander Gardens Rocks! Reaching out to low income families with a wide range of partners.
- We celebrate the example of Millbourne Community Life Centre – who invited a circle of partners to use their space together to provide medical care, cultural training, youth ministry, faith community gatherings, and on and on.
- We celebrate those faith communities (Beulah Alliance and West Edmonton Christian Assembly) in the West End showing love and care to women in prison, and helping them find their feet again afterward.
- Westmount Presbyterian Church got all of us thinking as they tore down their aging facility to make room for sixteen large families with a smaller church building next door. And now we see more than a few faith communities asking the question: How can we create something similar?
And we could go on and on… We haven’t even got to Catholic Social Services, Islamic Family and Social Services Association, Jewish Family Services, or Mennonite Centre for Newcomers
- Jasper Place Wellness Centre has their medical centre, and a range of different social enterprises helping people rebuild their lives with good work opportunities.
- We can celebrate the Mustard Seed and their investments in supports and services across the city so that people don’t have to come downtown for help.
We see political alignment on housing solutions at the federal, political and municipal level; with strategies, policies, land investments and dollars moving forward. Painfully slow, perhaps. But with people in all these places showing will, heart and courage to make things go. Our City of Edmonton was recently highlighted internationally as a vanguard city on the front of addressing homelessness for her efforts; an effort which formally recognizes affordable housing as a necessary ingredient for ‘inclusive, diverse and complete communities.’
After nine years, the landscape has changed, and we have plenty of reason to be thankful!