The results of the October 16th Homeless Count indicate a small increase in the number of homeless individuals and families in Edmonton. While we hoped for better numbers, Bissell Centre is not surprised by the results.
In the past two years we have seen a much tighter housing market and a continued increase in rents. In a tight housing marketing, landlords have more choice about who they select as a tenant, and this often means that access to rental accommodations for the chronically homeless becomes more difficult. Housing First teams across the city, of which we are one, do an excellent job of identifying, placing, and supporting the chronically homeless in appropriate, safe housing. At Bissell Centre, we house more than 300 homeless people each year, through our Housing First services as well as through other Bissell programs.
The Edmonton community is seen as a beacon of hope for many who migrate here in the hope of finding good employment, but not everyone’s hopes pan out. As Edmonton grows, we will continue to experience proportional growth in the numbers of people requiring assistance and support, including help in obtaining affordable housing.
Bissell Centre is concerned about the rising number of people staying in shelters; we are worried about the trend in the rising number of youth who have no home; and we continue to be concerned about the over representation of Aboriginal people among the homeless. While making up 5.4% of Edmonton’s population, Aboriginal people make up 48% of the homeless.
There are many organizations in town who not only provide housing placement and support services, but also operate affordable and supportive housing. The City of Edmonton provides subsidized housing as well, but the wait list is three-years long.
To fully address homelessness and also ensure that community members can access affordable, safe housing will require continued commitment to investment in programs like Housing First, but more housing and social programs will not solely solve homelessness for our community.
In order to add more affordable and supportive housing in Edmonton, we need to explore cross sector partnerships among governments, the private sector, and human service organizations in order to identify innovative solutions to homelessness and housing affordability.
We also need to explore economic solutions that include discussions about living wage, the provision of stable employment, and the inclusion of benefits. Too many workers are living hand to mouth, and too many of our younger workers are unable to afford accommodation on their own. They end up living with others, often 4 to 6 people in a house they rent. This creates tenuous housing for them, given that if one or two of the tenants lose their jobs, everyone could lose their home.
We need to increase the community’s capacity to address mental illness and addictions, both of which are major reasons why people end up without a home. We need to continue working together as agencies to deliver assertive outreach programs aimed at locating, supporting, and ultimately housing the homeless.
More attention to prevention is indicated as well. At Bissell Centre we are piloting a service aimed at preventing evictions, especially for families who are facing the loss of their home for the first time in their lives. Stopping one instance of family homelessness keeps parents and children together and avoids the high cost of child welfare apprehension, shelter costs, and the costs of other emergency services.
Issues and problems of homelessness and poverty cannot be solved by any one strategy or any one organization or sector. These are community problems and we need to continue to seek out, as a community, ways for all of us to work together to put an end to the suffering and hopelessness too many of our citizens experience each and every day.
I am encouraged that the Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Poverty sees housing as one of the major priorities in its work ahead, and I am honoured to be a part of that effort. I am encouraged to see so many excellent Housing First teams working with the chronically homeless. And I believe our community will continue to come together to remedy what troubles all of us – people sleeping in back lanes, children hungry and homeless, families living in deep poverty. Bissell Centre’s vision is of a poverty-free Edmonton. Many others share that vision. I imagine you do, too.
Mark Holmgren, CEO