Task force offers blueprint to end homelessness

Report draws on lessons learned across Canada

Cindy Coker, co-chair of the task force and Executive Director of SEED Winnipeg, surrounded by task force members at the announcement of the plan to end homelessness
Cindy Coker, co-chair of the task force and Executive Director of SEED Winnipeg, surrounded by task force members at the announcement of the plan to end homelessness.
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Task force members

Region committed to health equity, ending homelessness

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A task force that includes members of Winnipeg's business community and health and social service organizations has come up with a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The Community Task Force to End Homelessness was struck 16 months ago by the Poverty Reduction Council, under the umbrella of the United Way, to review the plight of an estimated 350 people who sleep in one of the city's homeless shelters on any given night. On that same night, up to 1,000 people sleep in single room occupancy hotels and 1,400 people stay with relatives, friends or in some form of temporary accommodation.  

The end result is a call to action that draws from the best ideas across the country while keeping in mind Winnipeg's unique population and resources.

"We looked at cities across Canada, and will build on the good work being done by applying best practices to our city's own needs," said Cindy Coker, co-chair of the task force and Executive Director of SEED Winnipeg.

The report, released last week, is based on four key elements: prevention, person-centred care, housing supply and data. The top recommendation is to create a non-profit organization to implement the report.

Once that is done, the new entity would work to implement a total of 33 strategies over the first four years of the 10-year plan. Chief among those recommendations are proposals that would:

  • Enhance and encourage co-operation between various agencies and organizations that work with or support the homeless.
  • Take an inventory of existing shelter options for homeless people and increase the supply for affordable housing.
  • Encourage and support a "housing first" approach to providing shelter for homeless people. This philosophy essentially advocates for housing as an essential first step to a person improving their health and wellness. It differs from the traditional housing readiness model, which is based on the notion that a person must address issues like addiction or criminal activity before being able to access housing.

The report says, "The housing readiness approach does work for many people, but there are others who don't make it past the treatment requirements, even after many tries. For those chronically homeless people, housing first is emerging as the only approach with a good chance of ending homelessness."

Réal Cloutier, a task force member and Vice President and COO of the Winnipeg Health Region, said the report represents a good start to tackling a difficult problem.

"Now the real work begins," Cloutier said. "We now have an opportunity to align policy and services to address this situation (homelessness). The Winnipeg Health Region is committed to working to achieve this outcome."

Cloutier said the effort to end homelessness is seamlessly intertwined with both the Region's plan to address health equity gaps, and its mission to provide health care to people living within Winnipeg and its surrounding communities. "It also helps us improve patient flow as people who are homeless can be high users of emergency services and when they are hospitalized, involve complex discharge plans that take a significant amount of time to plan and initiate." 
As he explains, ensuring people have a roof over their heads not only improves the homeless individual's health and well-being, it also helps reduce their need for emergency services.

"Care providers in the Region can tell you countless stories about the impact that homelessness has on the person and their use of the health-care system," Cloutier said.

The task force included people from the community (such as the Royal Bank of Canada, the University of Winnipeg, Birchwood Auto Group, MMP Architects) as well as representatives from key organizations working with the homeless community (SEED Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Health Region, At Home/Chez Soi, Siloam Mission, Habitat for Humanity Manitoba), who were joined by representatives from all three levels of government.

About 80 homeless people were invited to be a part of the conversation, and the task force consulted a Council of Elders.

"One thing we learned by consulting over 80 homeless people in Winnipeg over the past 16 months is that the need to feel worthwhile is more important than food," says Coker.

Despite very diverse perspectives, each person on the task force shared one goal: to explore what might be possible. The question, of whether it really is possible to end homelessness came up repeatedly. The consensus was that working together, it is. This belief was driven largely by the economic case to end homelessness, the human rights element of these challenges and the essence of a compassionate community. A co-ordinated community approach in other communities has had the desired result of reducing homelessness so there is no reason that it can't work in a community like Winnipeg.

"This plan represents a shift from managing homelessness to ending it," says Rob Johnston, co-chair of the task force and Regional President of the Royal Bank of Canada.

"Is it really possible to end homelessness? I believe it is. Let's get started today."

The task force is now awaiting a commitment from the various partners to create the new organization  that will take on the actions in the four key action areas.

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