Cities ask feds to rethink homeless strategy

OTTAWA — Cities struggling to house their homeless are asking the federal government to rethink its cornerstone homelessness program amid concerns about burdensome reporting requirements and inadequate funding.

An internal government report calls for the so-called Homelessness Partnering Strategy to provide different levels of funding to rural communities, which must house people over vast areas, and to urban centres struggling with skyrocketing real estate prices.

The issue of red tape bogging down the funding also came up repeatedly in meetings last year that were detailed in a briefing note to a senior official at Employment and Social Development Canada.

Cities asked the government to simplify reporting requirements about how money was being used, or provide extra cash to cover administrative costs, said the note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The homelessness strategy isn’t up for renewal until 2019, but Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has asked officials to begin work now in order to have it ready sooner, said spokesman Mathieu Filion.

Those in the anti-poverty sector expect funding will stay the same under the revamped strategy, which will likely emphasize prevention, something experts have promoted during the Liberals’ time in office.

A separate briefing note to Duclos suggests that officials wanted the strategy to help fund clinical supports for so-called “housing first” clients, including teams of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and substance abuse specialists.

The federal government can’t directly fund such supports because they fall under provincial jurisdiction.

The Liberal government’s first budget in 2016 set aside $111.8 million over two years for the strategy to give cities more flexibility in battling homelessness.

Those municipal strategies will be reshaped next year following the second federally organized point-in-time count of the homeless population in 59 cities, up from 32 that took part in the first count last year.

An internal government report says some cities had problems spending the 2016 money during the last fiscal period, which ended in March, because the cash wasn’t available at the start of the fiscal year.

At a mid-year meeting about the money, cities big and small told federal officials that the strategy’s focus on “housing first” — find housing and services for people right away, rather than requiring them to seek treatment first — was becoming more difficult to meet.

Larger urban centres reported that a lack of available affordable housing options, including market rental units, was a major hindrance. In rural and remote communities, the challenge was housing people over large geographic areas.

Funding was also a problem in Aboriginal communities.

Indigenous leaders said the “housing first” approach didn’t recognize the unique needs of their communities, including the need for multi-generational housing and communal homes.

Jenny Gerbasi, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the report illustrates the challenges with the federal strategy, which is also likely to play a key role in the national housing strategy the Liberals will release later this year.

Cities need to be given the maximum flexibility needed to use federal funds on local needs, including deciding the extent to which they deliver programs with a “housing first” approach, Gerbasi said.

Three decades after the approach was first introduced, an international body of research suggests it works. In 2008, the federal government funded the largest such study — a five-year examination of more than 2,200 previously homeless people across five cities.

It found those who received “housing first” help retained housing at much higher rates than those who received what investigators called “treatment as usual,” and scored higher on measures of quality of life.

As a result of the study, “housing first” became a focus of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

A follow-up study last year found a significant gap between current federal and provincial funding and what was provided in the original study period.

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