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Potential lessons for Edmonton in Houston’s success in reducing homeless population by 61%

Nearly 15 years since the city announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Homeward Trust recorded nearly 3,000 homeless people in Edmonton earlier this month.

The point-in-time count of 2,987 people nears the agency’s all-time high of 3,097 recorded in 2008.

In 2009, both the city and the province said they would aggressively tackle homelessness focused on a strategy known as Housing First.

The philosophy is to quickly get people into permanent housing so issues such as substance use can be tackled in a stable environment.

A comprehensive Canadian study found 80 per cent of people who received this support remained housed after the first year. (link: )

A housing success story

The Houston region has had immense success with Housing First, bringing its homeless population down 61 per cent in 12 years.

“It’s really about coordinating the access to housing. That’s really the key,” said Kelly Young, president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless.

In January of last year, the agency recorded 3,270 homeless people in Houston and area.

Census data from 2020 shows the area — made of Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties — has a population of about 6.2 million.

“I think it’s the commitment to Housing First,” said Young. “Everybody came together and basically made up how many beds do we really have available for housing?”

Edmonton homelessness chart (Source: Homeward Trust)

Edmonton’s history with Housing First

Using the Housing First approach, Edmonton over a decade cut its homeless population in half.

Homeward Trust recorded 1,504 people experiencing homelessness in 2019.

But the downward trajectory changed with the onset of the pandemic.

“A lot of resources have gone into managing the crisis that houselessness is for individuals and to keep people safe,” said Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee.

“During that time as well, more people became homeless, and we saw some of that infrastructure that we had previously supporting people become eroded.”

The mayor recently addressed the gap in supports while justifying his motion to declare homelessness in Edmonton an emergency.

“Since 2019, we have seen a 68-per-cent increase among people seeking housing support. Only a seven-per-cent increase has happened in housing those people,” Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said at a Jan. 12 news conference.

“Investments have not kept pace with increased pressure.”

Looking ahead

The city says it has invested a total of $165 million since 219 to help create 3,116 affordable housing units.

Next year, a four-storey apartment with built-in support is set to open in the Holyrood neighbourhood.

There are also plans in the northwest community of Athlone to build affordable apartments for veterans experiencing homelessness.

The city is offering millions in grants and tax breaks for developers to build these kinds of homes.

“It’s going to take a lot of effort, different effort,” McGee said about getting back on track.

“Not that we don’t know how to do it because we did it very well. In the Housing First program, we’ve housed over 17,000 people and it’s a matter of what now do we need to do and adjust around the engagement of folks.”

McGee calls the current situation “a real crisis.”

“We are a country, a city, where we should not have people on the streets.” 

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