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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyHelping the homeless 

Social safety nets have become an accepted, and necessary, part of today’s society. Some people focus on how these systems can be abused; others focus on how we can improve and strengthen them to help people in need.

A recent study about homelessness for low-income people in the United States has similar findings and recommendations to our situation in Canada.

A University of Notre Dame study published in the August issue of Science magazine says that small sums of financial assistance can help stabilize housing for low-income people and stave off homelessness and its slew of related social problems.

Targeted emergency financial assistance of a few hundred dollars for rent, security deposits, utility payments or another cash emergency can save taxpayers $20,000 or more each time homelessness is prevented, according to the study.

Cash assistance can keep people off the street for two years or more, said James Sullivan, co-director of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities and one of the study’s authors, during a Capitol Hill briefing Sept. 15.

“The key takeaway is that . . . we want to address this one-time emergency so that they stay on their feet, don’t fall under this downward spiral and then they don’t fall into homelessness again in the future,” he said. “This evidence suggests that that’s in fact what is happening.”

Researchers in the study found it costs about $10,300 overall per person to prevent a period of homelessness. For very low-income families, the cost drops to about $6,800. Both are far below the estimated $20,000 it costs to meet the needs of someone who becomes homeless.

In Canada, similar programs have also proved cost effective in helping people down on their luck.

According to Raising the Roof website, 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year. And one in five of all rental households in Canada spend 50 per cent of their income on rent. In 2014, 841,191 Canadians visited food banks in March.

Housing First is an effective and successful safety net program of early intervention for families experiencing chronic homelessness. It has shifted the homelessness sector toward a more humane, rights-based approach where housing is not contingent on whether an individual agrees to receive services or treatment. 

Housing First stands in direct contrast to “treatment-first” models. It does not require participants to receive treatment or services before they receive housing or take steps to become “housing ready.” In the Housing First model, clients can receive rent supplements, support obtaining an income, basic life skills, and community integration.

Thousands of individuals and families have been housed under Housing First programs in Canada. Housing retention rates are consistently more than 75 per cent. A fundamental principle of Housing First is that people are more successful in moving forward in their lives if they are first housed. 

One support worker explains how the Housing First program is beneficial: “I have a participant that went to jail, went to court, fought to get her daughter back out of care and won . . . . She got her daughter back and started school and is on her way to becoming an electrician within like six months. Seeing those success stories is what makes the job worth it.”

Taxpayers who object to spending their hard-earned money on the homeless will be glad to learn that these homeless are being helped to become taxpayers themselves.