Ending homelessness in London, Ontario serves as the best example I am aware of to illustrate the difference between charity that is reactionary and charity that is thoughtful and effective over the long-term. In Part 5, I spoke to how our historical response to homelessness is reactionary and has led to a significant focus of resources on shelters and other services that manage people during their experience of homelessness rather than ending homelessness. Yet, there are many like myself who are driven to affect change on homelessness in our community, and I believe this is truly possible. In fact, I believe that we can see the end of chronic homelessness in London within a decade. This will happen when we keep the outcome focus crystal clear and organize services and resources to ensure a permanent housing outcome.
London CAReS is the local agency providing for housing-focused outcomes, and is truly changing the story on homelessness in our community. Providing housing supports to the 50 most chronically homeless people in London, as well as a group with the highest police contacts, those in a veteran’s project, and a group staying in London Housing, London CAReS in a few short years has demonstrated that safe, supported, affordable housing is possible for even those with the most complex histories of mental illness, poverty, and substance use. Residents supported by London CAReS are assisted to find housing at market rates through rent supplements paid direct to landlords, and both the resident and landlord have 24/7 access to case worker support. Many of the individuals housed through CAReS were considered un-house-able by workers within the community, but this perception is being altered, and instead it is being demonstrated that any who want to be housed (which is everyone I have met, so far) can be housed with the right supports in place.
This model of housing with supports isn’t cheap. Rent supplements cost $200 per month, which means for each resident, there is $2400 less available per year to build new affordable housing units. And operating costs are high, with support provided at one worker to ten residents. However, the financial outcomes have been phenomenal. Some residents had greater than 300 emergency room visits in a year, greater than 200 police contacts in a year, and were constantly housed in jail, hospital, or shelter. As we can see from the Canadian stats on the real cost of homelessness, moving people into the safe, affordable housing they want and deserve is actually saving us hundreds or thousands of dollars per resident. More importantly, we are seeing positive outcomes around housing stability, health improvement, and reduction of service use across the board.
What does this all mean for the charitable impulse? So someone sees a person experiencing homelessness sitting outside in the cold and feels compelled to do something about it. Yes, getting the individual off the street, fed, sheltered, and clothed is a nice first step and a nice gesture. But that makes no real impact on their housing status; it simply makes their experience of homelessness more comfortable. Instead, we need to look to the evidence-based solutions that might require policy changes, re-allocation of funds, long-term investment of action, and a reinvigorated view that these ‘wicked problems’ can actually be solved. Homelessness is just one example I provide to think about the charitable impulse, but this thoughtful outcome-focused approach can serve us for other wicked problems, such as poverty, intimate partner violence, First Nations education, climate change, etc. Sometimes our own resources are best used to support those who are already expert in the area of concern and invested in long-term solutions. Perhaps we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to solve the wicked problems of our generation.