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  • Photograph by Creative Commons

Journey Home year one: ‘Housing First’ critical to ending homelessness

United Way has been an active participant in the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership over the past few years. Moving people “from poverty to possibility” is one of three main goals that United Way works towards, and housing stability — a social determinant of health — is a key factor in achieving that goal.

On June 22nd, I volunteered with Saskatoon’s latest ‘point in time’ (PIT) homeless count, which was organized by the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) and conducted by the University of Saskatchewan’s Community University Institute for Social Research (CUISR). This was my second time volunteering in a homeless count, and the experience led me to reflect on the journey that our city, and specifically our team here at United Way of Saskatoon and Area, has been on for the last four years to tackle homelessness in our city.

When homelessness was identified as a priority for the partnership, United Way offered the necessary leadership to pull together the community, and work on developing a plan to end homelessness in Saskatoon. Homelessness is complex, and the multiple factors leading individuals to experience unstable housing are varied. Having organized the 2012 PIT count, which showed an increase over the previous count in 2008 (from 228 adults and 32 children to 368 adults and 11 children), United Way and partner organizations recognized that the problem required new and innovative solutions. A task force was convened to conduct a community consultation, after which a plan was developed to end homelessness in Saskatoon.

homelessstats.jpgImage from HomelessHub.ca

Journey Home was developed in April 2014, based on the Housing First approach. While a United Way program, Journey Home is delivered by Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Services and is a key component of the effort to end homelessness in Saskatoon. The program focuses on Saskatoon’s most vulnerable citizens who’ve been chronically homeless. United Way has committed to the goal of housing 100 chronically homeless residents over 3 years through Journey Home, and has also launched a Major Gift program to raise $2.3 million to support the project

Saskatoon is moving from merely managing homelessness, to ending it altogether.

As with all projects, partnership is critical in any major change if it is to succeed in both the short and long terms. Journey Home is no different. There have been many active partners working towards ending homelessness in Saskatoon, including Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, Community Advisory Board for the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, Saskatoon Police Service, Saskatoon Health Region, and local community organizations that deliver services for individuals and families who are struggling with issues related to homelessness.

Within a single year, Journey Home has had early success. In particular:

  • A total of 24 people were successfully housed, most having been without housing for three to five years... some as long as 17.
  • There was an 82% decrease among those 24 people in the inappropriate use of public services, including visits to hospital emergency rooms, ambulance rides, medical hospitalization and contacts with police.

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Journey Home’s success is encouraging, but we know the work is far from done. Providing support and connecting the people who are housed to the services they need are the critical next steps, and critical to ensuring we’re helping improve the health of some of Saskatoon’s most vulnerable people.

Saskatoon is moving from merely managing homelessness, to ending it altogether. The results from ‘Housing First’ are evidence it can be done.

Ending homelessness requires system transformation at multiple levels. ’Housing First’ as a methodology helps us tackle chronic homelessness, and the encouraging results from the Journey Home program help sustain community attention on what needs to be done. With funding from the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, we’re beginning to see more ‘Housing First’ programs being implemented in Saskatoon.

It’s also important to continue reminding ourselves and our community that homelessness is a complex issue, and the people affected are not all the same. In the first year of Journey Home, we heard 24 individual stories of 24 individual journeys, with a wide spectrum of needs for different support services. While we wait to hear what this year’s count will find, it’s time to reflect on what services are lacking, what barriers are in the way to accessing those that exist, and how we can ensure our systems of support are effective in serving all of Saskatoon’s citizens, so everyone has access to the basic elements of a healthy life.

For me, the bottom line and fundamental principle with which we implement any ‘Housing First’ program or plan to end homelessness should never change: everyone deserves a home.

For the full year one report on United Way’s Journey Home program, click here.

For United Way's 2012 Homeless Population count, click here.

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Judy Shum is the Director of Community Impact at United Way of Saskatoon and Area, where she leads the Community Investment Strategy to guide the organization’s work. Judy obtained her BA in Sociology from York University in Toronto, Ontario and is pursuing a master's degree in Public Administration at the University of Saskatchewan. Follow her on Twitter @judy_shum.

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