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Medicine Hat’s Ted Clugston, ‘the mayor who ended homelessness’

Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston stands in front of housing units that are funded by the city and have earned him international acclaim. Mr. Clugston says city staff deserve the credit.

Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Allan Maki talks to Medicine Hat's Ted Clugston, who has been in office only 13 months, but has already cemented his legacy as "the mayor who ended homelessness." Not bad for a guy who tried to scuttle the project.

So what do people call you these days – Super Mayor? The mastermind who taught homelessness a lesson?

I'm a fraud. I'm getting all the credit for this. I didn't do anything. What happened was I was giving a state-of-the-city speech as mayor. I had 40 or 50 slides I was showing about city improvements and roadways and I had one slide that showed a house. I said, "By the way, we're going to be the first city to end homelessness." I moved on to the next slide, but all anybody wanted to talk about after that was the homeless issue. … Before I became mayor, I was on city council for seven years. I actively campaigned against [the Housing First initiative]. I was told the plan to end homelessness was going to take five years. I laughed at that. I said, "No one's ever going to end homelessness." And yet, we're going to announce that some time within a year [likely early in 2015]."

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So what changed your mind?

As mayor, I looked at the work being done by Robin Miller [Chief Administrative Officer of the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society] and Alina Turner [from Turner Research &Strategy]. They spent four years to get me on-board. If you look at the cost of [a homeless person] being picked up by an ambulance, staying in the hospital overnight, the justice system being involved, it actually makes financial sense to give them a home. That's the theory behind Housing First. The homeless go through an entrance procedure to find out what kind of support is needed. Is it a health issue? Is it an addiction issue? We get the right support people in there right away.

How big a problem was homelessness in Medicine Hat?

On a per capita basis, it was the same as any other city in the country. People think we're a small community. There are 61,000 people living here. We've had 819 people that we've housed in the past 4½ years. For rent, they pay 30 per cent of their income. We're still looking for some money from the province for support houses. After that we'll go into maintenance mode to keep the project going.

What has surprised you the most about this project?

[The media coverage] is 1,000 times bigger than I thought it would be. The CBC has done a few stories on it. The Economist magazine called. I sometimes don't even know who's calling me. Everyone asks, 'How did you do it?' They think there is a formula to follow. I think we're small enough that we can work together and large enough to make a difference.

Have you said "I'm sorry" to Ms. Miller and Ms. Turner, who pushed for Housing First until they converted you?

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Yes, I apologized to them and said they deserved the credit, but they wanted me to be the face for this issue. It's easy for me to ignore the homeless in Vancouver and Toronto. But if I have to step over a homeless person lying in the street here, that brings it home. This has been a massive issue for Medicine Hat. It has put us on the map. The rest of the country is looking at us.

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