Cities around the world that have made bold promises to eradicate homelessness should instead be setting more realistic goals that acknowledge the problem is too complex to be solved quickly, a new report from researchers at the University of Calgary says.
The report suggests cities adopt an approach to homelessness called "functional zero" – a point where there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone in need and where they only experience homelessness briefly. This stands in contrast to "absolute zero," where the target is no homeless people at all.
"Sometimes it's hard to chew off that absolute zero of no people in shelters or on the streets," said Alina Turner, fellow with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and a co-author of the study.
"So in the meantime, we should be striving toward functional zero, with the idea of climbing the hill toward absolute zero."
The other piece of the puzzle, according to Ms. Turner, is making sure governments are specific when they talk about ending homelessness, using consistent language and defining how to measure what's happening.
"If we were to adopt common measures on ending homelessness, I think it would go a long way to ensure that our policies are tracked in term of progress and impact in a consistent way so that we can say with much more certainty what's working and what's not working," she said.
The report was done in partnership with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), and analyzed strategies and plans specific to ending the problem in 60 jurisdictions across Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe.
Some Canadian cities – most notably Medicine Hat – have claimed to have ended homelessness, but Ms. Turner says it's not a very easy claim to make.
"You might give yourself a check mark for rehousing somebody, but if that person says, 'Well, I've been housed but I can't afford it and it's infested with rodents,' is that check mark really legit or are we missing something there?" she said.
Cities that have pledged to end homelessness have struggled to meet that goal.
For example, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson came to office in 2008, on a pledge to end street homelessness by 2015. However, the city's annual homeless count last year identified nearly 2,000 people lacking permanent housing, including 539 without any shelter at all.
Last year's total was 6-per-cent higher than 2015 and almost 20-per-cent higher than when Mr. Robertson was first elected.
In 2016 alone, at least 235,000 Canadians experienced homelessness, with the average stay in shelters exceeding 20 days, according to a COH and CAEH report, which focuses on prevention and providing housing.
Kathy Stinson, CEO of the Victoria Cool Aid Society – a group whose mission is to "end homelessness" – says creating housing is certainly the most important step.
"We need more housing and a variety of supports to make sure that people can maintain housing," she said. "No individual should be in a shelter for more than 30 days and right now we have people who have been in our shelter for years."
Ms. Stinson agrees that aiming for an absolute zero when it comes to homelessness can be too overwhelming.
"People get discouraged and scoff at this idea. They're like 'what do you mean end homelessness, that's never going to happen,' " she said. "To me a great success would be having people in our shelters for no more than 30 days."