Combatting Homeless Issue Makes Economic Sense

Homeless in Downtown Fort William
Homeless in Thunder Bay means finding space. Often Shelter House is full.
Homeless in Downtown Fort William
Homeless in Thunder Bay means finding space. Often Shelter House is full.

MONTRÉAL – LIVING – The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s landmark research project on homelessness and mental health – At Home/Chez Soi – has released the results from its Montréal project site.Tackling the issue of homelessness across Canada is one that is perplexing many cities, including Thunder Bay.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada report says “The results are clear: the Housing First model works. It gets people off the streets, there are clear economic benefits, and people who are homeless and living with mental illness can aspire to a better quality of life”.

“In Montréal, the number of homeless people continues to rise, despite various programs and investments. We wanted to know whether using a new approach could produce a different outcome. After four years, we can affirm that the Housing First model makes it possible to help people experiencing homelessness, including those who have been homeless for many years and are dealing with major mental health problems; it enables them to gain stability in their lives with housing of their choice and at minimal cost to society,” explained Eric Latimer, PhD, lead investigator for the At Home/Chez Soi Montréal research project, researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University.

“To have your own apartment not only represents a level of safety, it also promotes dignity and hope for the future,” adds Sonia Côté, former project coordinator for the At Home/Chez Soi Montréal project. “With proper housing, people are in a much better position to take care of their physical and mental health, to reconnect with their families, to contemplate entering the job market, and to fulfill projects and ambitions.”

Combating homelessness is not easy, it requires taking on stereotypes, and it means working hard to find real solutions.

Shelter House
Rotary Shelter House on George Street in Thunder Bay

In Thunder Bay, while Shelter House offers beds and meals, there is a need for better options. Tackling to root causes of homelessness means tackling the issues that make many people uncomfortable. It is easy to brush the issue aside, but the implications for communities is massive.

Key conclusions

  • Housing First is feasible in Montréal. 
    The At Home/Chez Soi team recruited 73 owners of rental properties located in several Montréal neighbourhoods and successfully housed 276 people in the space of 20 months.
  • Housing First is effective.
    • During the last six months of the study, 60 per cent of participants classified as having high needs were in stable housing, compared to the 31 per cent of high-need participants who continued to receive usual services. The differences were more pronounced among participants with moderate needs; 72 per cent were housed all the time during that period, compared to 29 per cent of participants receiving usual services.
    • Participants improved their quality of life on many levels: they claim to have better mental health, to have experienced less stress, to have restored relationships with members of their families, and also to have reduced their use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Housing First resulted in lower costs associated with other services. 
    For every $10.00 invested in the Housing First model, $8.27 was saved in money spent on other services such as hospitalization, shelters, police services, and the judicial system for high-need participants and $7.19 was saved for moderate-need participants.

“The success of the Housing First model in Montréal and in the other four cities in Canada shows that we have a winning strategy for helping people move away from homelessness,” stated Louise Bradley, President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “We are proud to have worked with a number of partners in Montréal on this innovative project.”

An overview of the At Home/Chez Soi project and Housing First model
The At Home/Chez Soi project is a randomized, experimental study funded by Health Canada and conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. In 2008, the Canadian government allocated $110 million to the project which was established in five cities: Montréal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Moncton.

The aim of the project was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the Housing First approach, as compared to the range of usual services available to people who are homeless and living with mental illness.

Housing First provided people experiencing homelessness and mental illness with immediate access to subsidized housing of their choice and clinical services adapted to meet their needs, without preconditions. This approach differs from the traditional continuum of care model that requires homeless people to demonstrate a level of behaviour deemed adequate in order to move towards housing with increased autonomy.

The Montreal At Home/Chez Soi study was conducted between 2009 and 2013 and 469 participants were recruited, 306 of whom were classified as having moderate needs and 163 as having high needs. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a Housing First intervention or usual services provided to people who are homeless in Montréal.

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