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Tim Richter is the president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Homelessness is without question a disaster. It’s a disaster on the same scale – or bigger – than most of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history. So, what would happen if we treated it as such?

For decades, homelessness in our country has followed a relentless and lethal trajectory, increasing steadily year after year. Today, we estimate homelessness afflicts more than 235,000 Canadians a year, 35,000 every night, and costs more than $7-billion a year, killing hundreds and reducing life expectancy for thousands more – easily as bad or worse, than the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.

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A small but growing number of communities, led by the city of Edmonton, are treating homelessness like the disaster it is and are showing that with a sense of urgency and a focused effort, homelessness can be reduced.

In less than nine years, Edmonton has reduced overall homelessness by 43 per cent and is projecting that it will eliminate chronic homelessness by 2022. It’s done so after an approach that mirrors local disaster response plans.

A key feature in every successful local disaster response is strong leadership. In Edmonton, Homeward Trust leads Edmonton’s efforts with a unique collaborative leadership style that rallies the community, works with them to shape the direction of Edmonton’s efforts and co-ordinates the response.

The first priority in every disaster is to make people safe – deal with the immediate crisis and provide shelter and support. In most cities, the response to homelessness starts and stops there. A critical feature of Edmonton’s response to homelessness (like every municipal disaster response) is that it ensures safety through outreach and emergency shelter, but it concurrently and urgently focuses on housing people as fast as it can. Since 2009, Edmonton has housed more than 9,560 people using the housing first approach.

The key to ending homelessness is to shift from managing the crisis to solving it.

In every disaster response there is a command centre that unites all the critical players and uses real-time data to problem-solve and co-ordinate the response. All disasters are highly dynamic and rapidly changing. Homelessness is no different. Homeward Trust partners with nearly a dozen housing first teams and 61 agencies to form a homelessness command centre. They use real-time data on a “by name list” of all homeless people to target resources more efficiently and continuously improve, adapt and refocus their response – in real time.

For example, when they saw more homeless encampments this summer, they were able to respond quickly with a housing focused, co-ordinated response. Importantly, because Edmonton has real-time data, they can see the flow of people into homelessness and target prevention efforts.

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All municipal disaster responses feature detailed plans based on proven approaches. These plans provide the basic structure, focus and priorities of the response, integrate the key elements of the response systems, outline roles and responsibilities and provide a basis for co-ordination. These plans are constantly evolving and improving with learning and best practices. Similarly, Edmonton’s efforts are guided by the city’s plan to end homelessness.

Finally, in successful disaster responses all levels of government work together. Homelessness is often like the political equivalent of a high-school dance with each government standing along the wall looking at their feet, waiting for someone else to make the first move. This is where local leadership can be critical.

Homeward Trust was a leader among communities that rallied the Alberta government under premier Ed Stelmach in 2009 to create a provincial plan to end homelessness and provide cities with the housing and support resources they need. As a result, Alberta remains the only province in Canada to have provincewide reductions in homelessness.

Unlike most disasters, mass homelessness in Canada today was created by federal policy decisions in the 1980s and 90s. Today, the federal government has returned to housing leadership with the National Housing Strategy. That strategy’s new homelessness plan, Reaching Home, mirrors Edmonton’s approach and will give communities across Canada the tools and strategies to tackle the crisis. Importantly, the National Housing Strategy begins to reinvest in housing – but more is needed, and much more urgently, than is currently planned.

Edmonton is showing that if we treat homelessness like the disaster it is, success is possible. Other communities are starting to follow the city’s lead and they’re getting rapid results. Chatham-Kent, in Ontario, has reduced chronic homelessness by 37 per cent in six months and Guelph-Wellington has reduced it by 24 per cent in six months, to name just two.

Homelessness is a disaster. If we respond accordingly, we can solve it. Edmonton is showing us the way.

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