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Calgary transforms ‘bum heaven’ to social success story Add to ...

For the first time in two decades, the number of people living on Calgary streets has dropped, a stunning turnaround for a city – once dubbed “bum heaven” – that has officials crediting an ambitious 10-year strategy to end homelessness.

When the 2012 homeless count was conducted on a frigid night last month, 3,190 people were either sleeping on the streets, in shelters or in short-term housing, marking an 11.4-per-cent decline since the last tally in 2008.

In 1992, when Calgary began counting the number of homeless, there were 447 people without permanent shelter. The number had been on a steady march upward, at an average rate of 20 per cent every two years, and had ballooned to 3,601 in 2008.

“We’ve stopped the growth of homelessness in Calgary dead in its tracks,” said Tim Richter, president and chief executive officer of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which is spearheading the initiative.

Calgary became the first major Canadian city to adopt the plan, and Alberta the first – and still only – province. The strategy, which has private and public-sector support, is modelled after a concept developed in the United States. It advocates creating housing first, reaching out to the homeless and then offering support to the newly housed.

But it is not a panacea. An exploding homelessness crisis in the U.S. prompted then president George W. Bush to launch the 10-year concept through the Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2002. By 2011, more than 636,000 people were still homeless, a slight decline from the previous year, but with a stalled economy and high unemployment, the homeless numbers have at times inched upward. In 2010, the Obama administration announced it would throw billions at the problem with an eye to getting military veterans and the chronic homeless into housing by 2015, and eliminating homelessness among families and youth by 2020. Over the years, budget cuts prompted concerns the poor would suffer.

In Canada, Toronto has been tackling its homeless problem as well, and since 2005 has helped 3,400 street people find permanent homes, officials say. Between 2006 and 2009, the number of outdoor homeless was cut in half. The city launched its own 10-year plan in 2009, and noted it would need $484-million a year to achieve its goals – funding that is not in place. “Housing-first certainly works, not to say there isn’t much more to be done,” said Patricia Anderson of Toronto’s housing office.

Calgary’s foundation has been blessed with government support – $24.4-million from the province and $4.7-million from Ottawa in the current fiscal year, in addition to about $1-million in donations – and has quantifiable success. Governments and agencies in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have all sought its advice.

“They come to us asking, ‘How in the world have you guys done this?’” Mr. Richter said.

Tangie Genshorek, the co-ordinator for the homelessness action plan in Kamloops, B.C., is among them. “Calgary set the bar for the rest of Canada,” she said.

Don Bixby, who spent 27 years living on Calgary’s streets protected only by cardboard and blankets and the goodwill of others, never considered getting his own place until an outreach worker approached him last March. For the last eight months, he has lived in a modest, subsidized bachelor apartment and acquired a cat, Snoops. “I can see what I’m capable of doing. I can accomplish a lot now,” said Mr. Bixby, who turns 52 this month.

Homeless numbers are also dropping in Lethbridge, Edmonton and Fort McMurray, but Calgary, where the majority of all shelter users can be found in the province, is considered the problem’s epicentre and the real litmus test. Drawn by a booming economy, people found jobs in Calgary, but they couldn’t afford sky-high housing prices or rent. So while the city’s population grew by a third between 1992 and 2008, to more than one million residents, its homeless population jumped eight-fold.

“It was very clear what we had was a system that wasn’t working; that homelessness divorced itself from the economy,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, “If the economy was doing poorly, homelessness increased. If the economy was doing well, homelessness increased.”

Officials in Calgary applaud the provincial government’s efforts to invest in housing (about $500-million in the last four years) and housing support services (around $42-million in the last budget) for stemming the tide. In Calgary alone, more than 3,300 housing units have been created. “From north to south in this province,” said Minister of Service Alberta Manmeet Bhullar, “we are seeing the sorts of results we all want to see,” said Minister of Service Alberta Manmeet Bhullar.

The overwhelming majority are still in their homes after 12 months, according to the foundation, which also noted an array of other positive spinoffs such as improvements in health and fewer visits to emergency rooms, interactions with police and days spent in jail.

Jennifer Sputek counts herself among the fortunate, recently released from prison for trafficking cocaine after enduring a hardscrabble youth. Facing the prospect of life on the street, the 34-year-old widowed mother of twin 12-year-old boys moved into subsidized housing last summer, is now a social worker and has regained custody of her children – things she said she couldn’t have accomplished without the foundation’s efforts.

“If I didn’t live in subsidized housing,” Ms. Sputek said, “I would be selling crack.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated an incorrect number for homeless persons in Toronto. This online version has been corrected.

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