No simple solution to homelessness

Are people facing homelessness in Red Deer because there aren’t enough roofs and beds, or because other factors have placed those units out of reach?

Are people facing homelessness in Red Deer because there aren’t enough roofs and beds, or because other factors have placed those units out of reach?

That’s a question city manager Craig Curtis would like us to consider. His recent address to the Red Deer Rotary Club opens a good opportunity to assess if our game plan on homelessness needs a new focus.

Fair enough, but maintaining an adequate supply of safe housing at a low cost will always need to be part of the program, if the province’s 10-year goal of ending homelessness is to be achieved.

Red Deer was a couple years ahead of the province in deciding to tackle the problem of too many people living on the streets, and too many more having to choose between housing and food. Since housing for all became a priority for the city, some big strides have been taken — some of which have been adapted in other cities.

Since Red Deer is indeed a front-runner in creating partnerships that work to get low-income people into safe housing on a long-term basis, Curtis is correct to suggest we should examine what our next steps should be.

Obviously we just can’t keep filling out provincial and federal housing grant applications, to build subsidized housing units forever. These programs always run dry and Red Deer will continue to have a growing population with a significant low-income population who can’t find adequate housing at market rates.

The market says having a great many people unable to pay rent should eventually drive rents down, but we’ve already seen how that doesn’t work. People camp in the parks, women exchange sex for a place to sleep — for themselves or maybe their children, too. People die.

Curtis asked if what we really need might be income supports, so people can afford the rents.

That might be one alternative, but taxpayers might not support a muiltmillion-dollar subsidy for the owners of rundown apartments or basement suites.

How’s this for an idea: raise the minimum wage so that someone working full-time can afford to live, and maybe even afford choices of where to live — so that the market can actually work.

Here’s another: mandate that all new residential developments must include a portion of units that the working poor can afford. If developers want to build an exclusive, upscale project, the municipal development fee could include a charge allowing the city to build low-cost units elsewhere, using partnerships that already exist to do so.

Curtis suggested low-cost housing should be spread throughout the city; that “poor areas” not be allowed to develop. That’s a good suggestion — which works a lot better when transit reaches all neighbourhoods and operates on human-scale intervals. And when cycling and pedestrian routes allow people to get to work and run their errands without having to choose between rent and food and keeping a car on the road.

Through all of this, the social safety net needs to be kept strong. It’s bloody hard work being homeless, but for some people it’s easier than overcoming the problems that put them on the street.

Physical disability, mental illness, addiction and family breakdown are the four horsemen of poverty that drive homelessness. Building more walls and roofs won’t solve those problems, but you can’t begin tackling them until a person has four walls and roof.

Red Deer has built a few roofs and a whole lot of people have been put back on the road to independence since we decided to make homelessness a priority here.

The next step? That will probably require a provincial decision, but Curtis made a good step in helping make sure the alternative choices come from us.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.