Faith leaders pledge to help house the homeless

Bob McKeon

Bob McKeon

December 1, 2014
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

After a successful five years housing the homeless, local spiritual leaders reaffirmed their commitment to participate in the second half of the City of Edmonton's 10-year-commitment to end homelessness.

Representatives of 25 faith communities, including Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, Ukrainian Catholic Eparch David Motiuk and Anglican Bishop Jane Alexander, pledged to help the city realizethe commitment.

The signing ceremony took place at City Hall Nov. 13, following speeches by several local leaders.

Edmonton's 10-Year Plan adopts a housing first approach. It provides safe, affordable housing and then addresses other issues such as addiction, mental and physical health, and employment.

At the halfway point of the 10 year plan, achievements are impressive, said Bob McKeon, the Edmonton Archdiocese's coordinator for social justice.

More than 3,200 formerly homeless individuals have been housed, he said. "Of these, 84 per cent have been successful in retaining their house."

The private sector is also involved. Seventy per cent of those housed live in private apartments with 86 per cent of those units located outside of the inner city.

However, one challenge is that not everybody who is homeless can be helped by Housing First. "Some with more intensive needs need specific housing arrangements with a higher degree of personal support," McKeon said. "Additional permanent supportive housing accommodations are urgently needed."

One goal of the 10-year plan is to reduce the number of shelter residents over time. While this goal was being achieved in the first five years, more recently shelter numbers are up due to the large in-migration of people coming to Alberta looking for work.

"Today in Alberta, vacancy rates are down and rates are rising," McKeon said. "Homelessness prevention programs are urgently needed for those at risk of losing their homes. A commitment for continued long-term funding by provincial and federal governments for Housing First and for new affordable housing units is essential."

NEIGHBOURHOOD COOPERATION

Both McKeon and Bishop Alexander addressed the refusal of some neighbourhoods to house the homeless.

Ending homelessness increasingly means that neighbourhoods all over the city will need to become welcoming communities for those transitioning from homelessness to homes, they said.

"The homeless don't choose to be homeless," Alexander said, asking faith leaders not to sign the covenant unless they believe in the plan.

Rev. Brian Kiely, leader of the Unitarian Church, said one primary need of newly-housed people is friendship. Many have lived lonely existences for years. He thanked Catholic Social Services for establishing and managing Welcome Home, a program that organizes visits to the newly-housed.

"It's clear that Housing First, directed towards the chronically homeless, is only part of a wider strategy of ending homelessness and making affordable housing available to all in need of it," said McKeon. "One specific concern is the over-representation of aboriginal peoples in Edmonton's homeless population."

McKeon hopes the recently launched Mayor's Taskforce for Ending Poverty, co-chaired by Mayor Don Iveson and Alexander, will be a strong support in addressing the root causes of homelessness.

Joe Roberts, a CEO and author who spent years as a homeless drug addict, said homeless people are plagued with loneliness and fear, not knowing where they will sleep at night or where they will find the next bowl of soup.

FULL-TIME JOB

"Being homeless is a full-time job," Roberts said, urging those present to unite to eradicate homelessness in the city. "The only way this will happen is through collaboration."

In the early 2000s, homelessness in Edmonton increased steadily by about eight per cent a year. Each year a "winter emergency" shelter was established. In 2007, the year of Tent City, a visible crisis was reached.

Former Mayor Stephen Mandel called together a leadership committee from all sectors of society and tasked them to come up with a long-term plan to end homelessness in Edmonton.

They came back with A Place to Call Home: Edmonton's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which city council then endorsed. Provincial and federal governments also provide funding.