The Calgary Homeless Foundation set a goal in 2008 to end chronic homelessness in the city in a decade through a philosophy known as Housing First, which emphasizes getting vulnerable people off the street and into stable living arrangements as an initial step, then providing the other support they need.
It was an ambitious target to begin with, and now energy-industry job losses and company cutbacks due to the oil-price collapse threaten to push it back as people fall on hard times and the corporate sector re-evaluates its capacity to donate.
Diana Krecsy, the foundation's president and chief executive officer, spoke with Jeffrey Jones about the strategy in place to house more than 3,500 people who at last count were without places to live, and how a tough economy is making it harder.
What is the state of homelessness in Calgary?
We've made tremendous progress since 2008. We've housed over 6,000 people, but we still have people who are homeless, so we can do better. Economic downturns and upturns are always impactful to the vulnerable population. People at all levels – government, private sector, neighbourhoods – need to be focused on ending homelessness, not just managing it.
It is about dealing with the root causes of the problems and being immediate – getting people into housing immediately or as soon as we can, then putting the supports in place that allow them to be independent and working in communities. If they need rental support for the short term, let's do that. If they need ongoing permanent support of housing because of mental-health issues or other issues, let's do that.
It's focused on getting them out of the shelter system … [and] into a permanent place. It's actually more economical to house someone in rental housing with supports than to leave them in shelters and using the hospitals and emergency responses to supplement their homelessness.
How has the economic downturn worsened the situation?
Vulnerable Calgarians – whether they're living in poverty, with mental-health issues, addictions, domestic violence, or are seniors without supports – they're vulnerable whether we're in a boom or bust economy.
But right now, because of the bust, the housing spectrum is getting tighter and tighter. … The economy is making it even harder to get vulnerable people into the housing they can afford. That's because people who were once employed and are not any more are spending a longer time in rental housing and not moving into homeownership. Some who have lost employment will now need subsidized housing, and those who are in subsidized housing can't move forward. Some fall into homelessness. It's a domino effect.
Right now, just looking at the trends of the last few months, we're not seeing an increase in shelter stays. But we need to recognize that the emergency shelters in this city have been running at capacity for quite some time. They're backlogged because there's no affordable housing to move their people through to.
Are you concerned about the availability of funding for your efforts?
It is a concern. Certainly, we are seeing in the corporate sector more caution in continuing to invest in ending homelessness. I believe that the corporate sector will continue to step up and give, because if they don't, we run the risk of going backward. Right now, we're holding status quo and we need to go forward. So we're nervous. We're certainly seeing corporate and not-for-profits stop fundraising events they normally would have held, or putting them on hold. But I do believe that we have generous Calgarians and a corporate sector that understand that when you're ending homelessness, this is when we need them most.
Could the 2018 target to end chronic homelessness in Calgary could get pushed back due to the downturn?
Absolutely. It's threatening our success. If we don't have people investing in affordable housing, building houses and the infrastructure to support it, as well as putting money into the supports needed to keep clients housed, we're running a risk. We need businesses to be successful, to be investing and supporting that. This is the time we have to keep building and actually increase the rate of building.
How are the foundation and its private-sector and government partners investing in housing?
We're a part of the RESOLVE campaign, which is nine not-for-profits, innovative in Canada, working together to end homelessness. We're building affordable housing and at the end of this we will raise $120-million and we will have housed 3,000 of Calgary's most vulnerable people. It's affordable housing as well as accessible housing. We're not doing this by ourselves. We have some amazing community leaders, including 10 home builders who are investing financially, personally, with their staff time to build housing for us and we couldn't be doing this without them. We're not waiting for somebody else to solve the problem. We're on it. We're in action mode here in Calgary, and we're in action mode across the province with the seven cities, which also include Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie.
This interview has been edited and condensed.