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Homeless have less run-ins with the law after they are housed

Victoria police are finding the best way to handle chronically homeless, mentally ill, addicted people who are always in trouble is with housing, not jail.

Victoria police are finding the best way to handle chronically homeless, mentally ill, addicted people who are always in trouble is with housing, not jail.

A report from a task force that combines police, social workers, parole officials and mental-health professionals shows street people have up to 74 per cent fewer brushes with the law after they are housed.

“If you are a homeless person on the street, with any number of social issues, and you become a client of [the task force], then you can reduce your contact with the police by 74 per cent,” Victoria deputy police chief John Ducker told the Victoria Police Board.

The eight-member Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team was set up to deal with chronic offenders living on the street. By signing up as team members, Victoria police became the first law-enforcement agency in Canada to take such an approach, Ducker said.

The team’s strategy is “housing-first,” which means the goal is to first find people permanent housing, not just shelter spots that can prolong homelessness.

Clients — 60 so far — who are initially homeless, are heavy users of medical and emergency services and have a history of interaction with police. The team has found housing for 43. In the 12 months before they were housed, they were responsible for 1,110 police calls. In the 12 months after finding housing, those calls dropped to 284.

“All by itself, the law-enforcement solution is just not going to work with this client group,” said Ducker.

Team leader Karen Bahrey of the Vancouver Island Housing Authority said multi-pronged, intensive attention is what makes housing the clients possible. The team highlights its efforts when trying to persuade landlords to accept homeless people as tenants. Typically, the housing is a low-cost, single room in a downtown hotel.

Clients, after they are housed, get regular visits from the team — once or even twice a day.

“Our clients don’t end up homeless because they are stellar renters,” said Bahrey. “But when things happen, we are ready to go and deal with it.”

Clients, many of whom have been living on the streets for years, have serious adjustments to deal with after being housed, said Bahrey. For those dealing with mental illness, for example, inner voices can seem louder once they’re housed and have privacy. Or behaviour that might have been ignored on a busy street can be an issue in a quiet building.

Sometimes, the problem is simply loneliness — clients miss their friends, drinking buddies or routines developed over years of surviving on the streets.

The team told the police board its maximum client load is 80 people, but it has been estimated by groups such as the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness that Victoria has as many as 1,500 people living on the streets.

“There is definitely not the housing out there,” said Bahrey. As Ducker noted, “We are tackling this problem in fives and 10s, but it’s coming back at us in the 100s.”