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Carey Doberstein is an assistant professor of political science at UBC—Okanagan, beginning July 2014. @CareyDoberstein

Preliminary data from the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count was released recently, showing the highest number of homeless people in the region since it started counting in 2002. The count found 2,770 individuals staying in shelters or sleeping on the street, a 5 per cent increase since the last count in 2011. You might be shocked, then, to learn that Metro Vancouver is among the leaders across in Canada in terms of mobilizing an innovative regional response to homelessness.

Yet these achievements are undermined by a federal government unwilling to recognize its role in the creation of (and solution to) homelessness in Canada to the staggering degree we now know it.

Toronto and Calgary – like Vancouver – are also innovators in addressing homelessness, with Toronto lauded for its Streets To Home program (an approach to rapidly house the chronically homeless with corresponding services) and Calgary for its 'system of care' approach and use of sophisticated real-time data on service users. And what are the homelessness outcome trends in Toronto and Calgary? Despite thousands being successfully re-housed and connected to services, both showed increases in total homelessness numbers in their most recent homeless counts, up to 5,253 in Toronto and 3,533 in Calgary, just as we see with Metro Vancouver.

These numbers are no doubt demoralizing for the local governments and non-profit housing and service agencies that have engaged with sophisticated collaborative planning, data gathering and innovative service models, yet confront a narrowing federal government presence. Some will no doubt claim that homelessness and affordable housing is not within the mandate of the federal government, but historical investment patterns tell a different story.

In the postwar period, the Government of Canada provided the resources to build tens of thousands of units of affordable housing annually across the country. The near complete withdrawal from affordable housing provision by the federal government in the 1990s was part of the Jean Chrétien government's effort to balance the books. But what was cleared from the government of Canada's balance sheet soon appeared on provincial and local government balance sheets indirectly in the form of exploding health and social services costs when the homelessness crisis appeared in the late 1990s.

In response, the Chrétien government tiptoed back into homelessness policy issues in 2000 with the National Homelessness Initiative, though at a fraction of the amount that was historically invested. The Harper government's version, called the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), reduced the federal government contribution even further to $119-million annually.

A positive development from the Harper government is the policy turn towards the "Housing First" approach after the Mental Health Commission of Canada's Chez Soi study in five cities clearly demonstrated that placing individuals in housing 'first' – rather than after they have demonstrated their addiction or mental illness has been stabilized in order to 'be ready' for housing, which was the prevailing model – not only results in better outcomes, but also saves considerable public money over the long-run.

So, now the federal government is decidedly pro 'Housing-First' as a policy response to homelessness. Yet this is little more than a monstrous unfunded mandate: the federal government demands that cities that receiving its funds must prioritize 'Housing First' programs, which of course hinges on truly affordable housing units being available in our cities. The annual federal government HPS funds allocated to Metro Vancouver, one of the largest city-regions in the country, to implement 'Housing First'?: $8.2-million. To put this in context, just one of the affordable housing projects currently being constructed in Vancouver with 147 units required $45-million in capital expenditures, and will cost nearly $1-million annually to operate, largely funded by the province, city and Streetohome Foundation.

From a local governance perspective Metro Vancouver is doing everything right: it is a personal priority for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who has successfully lined up new investments in affordable housing with support from the provincial government; and the adjacent suburban municipalities in the region are active policy players in the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness, a collaborative effort not common across the country. Locally, the pieces are in place for success in many of our cities, yet the forces that drive homelessness extend far beyond the local context, thus requiring a federal government commitment to end homelessness.

The federal government has the policy right – that we should prioritize securing appropriate and stable housing for our most vulnerable citizens – yet contributes precious few resources towards that end. A common maxim in public administration is that "great policy plans without resources are fantasies". Indeed, it is a fantasy to believe that we can get a handle on homelessness in Canada without a real commitment from the federal government.

Carey Doberstein is an assistant professor of political science at UBC—Okanagan, beginning July 2014. @CareyDoberstein