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Comment: Solution to homelessness is to build homes

Hundreds of homeless people are spending the night in Victoria’s municipal parks and a city report says it costs more than $600,000 a year to deal with the problem.

Hundreds of homeless people are spending the night in Victoria’s municipal parks and a city report says it costs more than $600,000 a year to deal with the problem. City council has quadrupled its housing budget, and some councillors talk of a temporary village for homeless Victorians.

There’s no denying that homelessness is again top of mind for the region. It’s a burden that is unnecessarily high for taxpayers, given that the solutions are more cost-effective, better for suffering youth, families and adults, and improve the quality of life for all of us.

There are different strategies to help homeless people, but the best one is “housing first.” Build homes, then everything else follows that important first step: medical care, a start on finding work, counselling, friendship, social activities.

The solution to homelessness is not complicated: Provide homes and, where necessary, supports. Victoria Cool Aid Society has done a lot of this in the past, and we are focused on it now. As part of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Cool Aid plans to build or repurpose 360 additional apartments for people who have become homeless.

Cool Aid now has 374 supportive housing apartments, provides health care for more than 4,000 patients, emergency shelter for more than 1,700 people annually and diverse support services. It helps about 9,000 people each year with properties in Langford, Victoria and Saanich. In the past decade, Cool Aid has opened nine new buildings, saving taxpayers money while building community and lives.

With community support, Cool Aid will create 360 more homes for seniors and others who are homeless and vulnerable. The first building in our plan, Cottage Grove in Saanich, will provide 45 modest apartments for seniors, and we expect to start building later this year. Only 315 more to go.

What does all this cost? First, let’s examine the cost of doing nothing.

Leaving someone homeless is expensive, with the most costly services being health care (emergency room and hospital beds), justice (security, policing, courts and jails) and emergency services, such as shelters. Let me illustrate.

Imagine that you have a common cold but that you are sleeping in a park. What might be a minor ailment for someone with housing turns into a nasty pneumonia and you end up being hospitalized for a week.

Consider that a day in the hospital costs almost as much as a month in Cool Aid housing and you can see how housing is not only the best solution for the individual and community, but also the most cost-effective for all of us.

Here are the numbers, plain and simple:

• Homeless: $55,000 per person, per year in direct government costs. (Simon Fraser University study).

• Emergency shelter: $35,000 per person per year in Cool Aid shelters.

• Modest apartment with supports: $17,000 a person annually in Cool Aid housing.

The choice really is obvious: build homes.

What an opportunity this challenge of homelessness presents the community. In this case, by doing the right thing for the most vulnerable citizens in our community, we can also improve quality of life for all and collectively save taxpayer expenses.

Cool Aid’s plan to develop housing for men and women experiencing homelessness is simple:

• We are raising $5 million from individuals, foundations and businesses. So far, Cool Aid has raised $1.5 million.

• Your contributions encourage local politicians to get behind the effort, such as the City of Victoria’s recent decision to add $750,000 to its housing trust fund. Between the Capital Regional District and local municipalities, we expect to see another $5 million in contributions. Local governments have already committed $787,000 toward our Cottage Grove building for seniors.

• The lion’s share will come from the province and other project partners — $35 to $40 million — to build or repurpose 360 modest apartments. We expect about $4.8 million soon from the province for Cottage Grove.

Together, we can and must end homelessness, so that no one in our community remains homeless for more than a week or two.

Kathy Stinson is the executive director of the Victoria Cool Aid Society. To learn more, visit or call 250-414-4781.