Budget to fund and re-orient federal homelessness strategy; new focus on housing

OTTAWA - The Canadian Press has learned that the federal budget will renew funding for homelessness, and likely set its programming in a new direction.

Current funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy is $134.8 million a year, but it is set to expire in 2014 — causing much angst to those who deliver the program since the population is so vulnerable.

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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is set to extend that funding beyond 2014, but is also likely to put the funding on a new path: an emphasis on "housing first."

It's a relatively new approach to helping homeless people that has saved governments money and had strong results for precarious populations.

Governments focus on housing the homeless first and foremost by giving, or heavily subsidizing, apartments or homes — no questions asked. Then, they bombard the residents with all the social support they need to maintain their household.

Traditionally, government funding has focused on shelters and addictions, with provision of housing often conditional on recipients dealing with their other problems first.

Over the past few years, Ottawa has funded groundbreaking research through the Mental Health Commission of Canada to figure out how much more efficient a housing-first strategy could be, especially for homeless people with mental illness.

The At Home/Chez Soi research has been delivering promising results, showing that with the proper supports, many mentally ill homeless people are able to not just stay off the streets, but also get the rest of their lives in order.

And over the long run, the cost to governments is much less than dealing with the perpetual crises that often bedevil homeless people: frequent hospital stays, moving in and out of shelters, and brushes with crime.

The At Home research is wrapping up this year, and provinces are widely expected to pick up on the findings. Several provinces and municipalities are incorporating the Housing First approach into their local programs, and it is becoming widespread in the United States.

At the same time, Ottawa is now signalling that it is convinced it is worth trying on a larger scale.

The Homelessness Partnering Strategy is a bit of an anomaly for the federal government, which under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried to move away from delivery of social programs and affordable housing initiatives.

The strategy supports local solutions to homelessness in 61 designated communities, mostly in big cities but also in rural and aboriginal communities. The program looks to co-operation with provinces, the voluntary sector and local governments so that everyone is on the same page and hashing out the most effective responses to homelessness.

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