A novel solution to the health crisis of homelessness: get people into homes.
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Welcome to Upstream Radio, where we dive deep into all the social and economic determinants of health. I’m Jared Knoll.
Back in episode 6, economist Armine Yalnizyan looked to housing as a critical linchpin in our broader challenges to equality, health and well being – "you solve the housing problem, you solve the hunger problem". You solve the poverty problem. We’re traditionally told to spend up to 30% of our income on housing, but in many parts of Canada that’s just not possible. Canada currently has one of the least affordable housing markets in the entire world, with the most private-sector dominated, market-based housing system among Western Nations. Many are forced to spend over half their income just to keep a roof over their heads.
And many just aren’t able to. Each year in Canada more than 200,000 people access homeless emergency services, or are forced to sleep outside. We know there are likely at least another 50,0000 “hidden homeless” Canadians on any given night, including people temporarily staying with relatives, friends or others because they have no where else to live, and no prospects for housing in the near future. According to placetocallhome.ca, a government website, 1.7 million families don’t have a home that meets their basic needs. Indigenous peoples and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are overwhelmingly over-represented in all these groups. Women and children are the fastest growing group.
It should be intuitive to a lot of us that housing is a health issue. Homeless people have far poorer health status than housed Canadians, and have more limited access to healthcare. It’s a massive weight on mental health, which creates vicious cycles of trauma, addictions, homelessness, and continued lack of opportunity to escape. Yet despite all this, a shockingly low number of Canadian studies have examined housing and homelessness as a health issue.
All of this costs us, big time. Even if you’ve always had a roof over your head, even if that roof is made of solid gold, this costs you. Homelessness causes dramatically increased need for services like hospitals, law enforcement, addictions and shelters services, and other emergency health services. These costs are so high that a recent Canadian study concluded that we would save money or at the worst, break even, if we simply just paid for housing for everyone. A recent Florida study found that, in the American context, they would save 3 dollars for every 1 spent. Even Ebenezer Scrooge should be enthusiastic to meaningfully address this crisis.
Many believe the solutions lay with a "Housing First" approach — before diagnosing, before medicating, before rehabilitation, get people into stable, safe, decent housing. And the evidence is backing this up.
As of this year, Canada now has its first ever National Housing Strategy, which aims to provide decent housing for 530,000 families over the next 10 years. It includes the construction of as many as 100,000 new affordable homes, and promises to take steps toward advancing the “right to housing”.
This is a really important step. We can get excited about it. But we also have to realize that it doesn’t go far enough, and it doesn’t go nearly fast enough. We’re still leaving thousands and thousands of Canadians out in the cold, and the ones we’re helping, we’re helping too slowly. Our health and well being, and our economy too, can’t afford to wait for the change and action we need.
Jared Knoll: We're recording today at the CFCR Studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I'm your host, Jared Knoll. Today we're going to dive deep into housing as a health issue. I'm here with Sheri Benson, member of Parliament, and Shaun Dyck, Executive Director of Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership. Thank you so much for joining me, guys.
Sheri Benson: Oh, you're very welcome. Glad to be here.
Shaun Dyck: Thanks for having us.
JK: So Sheri, you've recently launched a private member bill that really, at the heart of it, and Shaun, your work, I think at the heart of it too, is that housing is a human right. Why is it a human right?
SB: Well, I think if you just think about what if someone doesn't have a safe, affordable place to live? What impact would that have on their life? And actually what impact would it have on their ability to actually exercise other human rights, the right to dignity, to safety, to those kinds of things? So when you take a human rights lens to housing, you start to empower people who otherwise might not think of themselves as having rights. And what I'm thinking about is people who rent, people who are trying to get affordable housing. So I've certainly had the odd person say, "I had to work hard for my house when I bought it. Why should someone have a right to a house?" And of course, that's not what we're talking about. That's not... Yeah.
JK: Has it historically been treated as a human right in practice in Canada, would you say?
SB: No. No, I don't think so. I think probably the impetus... Because it has been talked about as a human right certainly by tenants' rights groups and advocacy groups around poverty and whatnot. But I think it's just really getting steam now because I think people started to see the Federal government over the last 30 years pull out of funding and supporting affordable housing. And so I think it started to hit people that, "Hey, where's our government? How do we get them back to the table?" And I think that's how that conversation... It was always going on, but I think it's really... Well, obviously, we've had a conversation about housing as a human right in Parliament. It's included in the housing strategy, so it's really gained some momentum, I think, maybe for some of those reasons.
JK: And you take that fight to the federal level in Ottawa to try to make change. Shaun, how does housing as a human right work at the local level? Not necessarily in Saskatoon where you work, but just in general, does that resonate with you on a daily basis? And I'm just gonna make a note here. I'll cut this, but feel free to just jump in at any time.
SD: So housing as a human right on a local level is an interesting philosophy. The challenge that's really gone on over the past few decades is the fact that housing is a human right based on UN Covenants. And Canada has actually signed onto that, but we're not practicing that. And that hasn't... That leadership in practicing housing as a human right hasn't filtered down throughout the Canadian government systems, all orders of government. And when you start looking at housing as a human right, it can pervase into different levels of legislation and policy, such as taxation or land use policy or zoning, to ensure that people have access to adequate housing. The real challenge is the fact that when we don't view housing as a human right, what we get are different players in the system. We see that in Vancouver and Toronto where housing has become a commodity, where people are parking their money as an asset. And that devalues that commodity, that house, as somewhere people can live and grow and build a family. It loses its commodity as a human right and becomes a commodity as a financial asset.
SB: But I think that is the other reason that it's really come forward is that... I'm 55, so I grew up as a kid in the '60s, and I think people's relationship to housing and homes was very different. You found a place to live that you could afford. I'm not saying that we hadn't had struggles in the past. I'm not looking back at the '60s like, "Oh, that was great." But I think just our orientation to... People got a mortgage for the entire 25 years. You bought a house. I'm the product of subsidized housing. My parents were young parents. My dad was working, my mom was going to school. But as the federal government pulled out and as we started to see people speculating on housing, all of a sudden it turned into, as you've said, a commodity, and that totally removes it from a human rights lens. Now we're on the open market, and if you can't afford a house, or when you start talking about affordable housing, well, if you use the market, affordable housing in Vancouver is not affordable.
SD: No. It becomes a place where you have pockets of rich and pockets of poor, and it's ghettoizing people. And really it turns into a place where the private market will jump in wherever there's opportunity, and the government has the opportunity really to challenge this. But we've seen over the years, especially over the last decade, two decades of that not really happening, with 0% mortgages and 40-year mortgages. And trying to stimulate the economy through a housing market changes that market, and that fails the people of Canada and it fails as a human right. It turns it from a human right into a commodity to be bought and sold.
JK: And is there anyone who's not affected? Even if you're one of the people profiting from the commodification of housing and the market place, and maybe you're making big bucks on the private sector. Look at the opioid crisis. Now for people between ages of 18 and 35 in some places of Canada, fentanyl and opioid overdose has gone past automobile accidents as the leading cause of death and many, many ways that it affects people. How do we need to frame that better so that people who are... Even someone you can imagine as purely selfish still wants to address the housing crisis?
SB: Last weekend, I just walked down a street in Ottawa not too far from Parliament Hill, which is where I hang out when I'm there, and the community is called Centretown, and there is lots of folks living on the street and homelessness. And so I walked down the street and we chatted with people on the doorstep, and most people get that. You say, "Do you think it's important for people to have a safe affordable place to call home?" Well yeah, people intuitively understand what a building block that is for so much else in people's lives. If you can't live close enough to get to work in time, all these things, if you can't find a house close to a school, if you keep having to move around because you can't afford the rent. I think that's how we engage people, and I think the other thing is that, simply, it is cheaper to fix and look at it than to ignore it. And most people get that.
SB: But it is a conversation we need to have, because when we start to talk about governments investing or getting back into housing, we're talking big bucks, and in order to have citizens understand the need for that investment, we need to have those conversations, why it's important, why we need to re-invest. And I think that obviously that's a job for community folks like Shaun and groups in town, and it's important for members of Parliament to talk to.
SD: Exactly. We have to look at what the housing market does for all of Canada. And sometimes when it's framed as a national housing strategy and looked at as social housing, or housing that's affordable, it doesn't necessarily resonate as far as what a housing market can really do for all people. It creates stable communities, but it also, for the business person that's looking to hire somebody, an affordable house allows them to offer the wages that will keep them competitive and profitable and still have someone that can move here and live here, and live well and have a living wage, and actually be successful. It is so much broader than just dealing with homelessness or dealing with poverty.
SD: It really helps an entire economy thrive if we have a successful housing market. And over the last few decades, with the government pulling away from investment and social housing, we've seen that failure. That failure in the market pervases so broad. The fact that we've actually had to come out and do an national housing strategy shows that we've got so many issues within our Canadian society for housing that it's time that we stepped forward and took those steps to create the type of country that we need to be successful in the next few years.
SB: You've done a really good job of connecting the dots. And I think that's a good way to have a conversation with people as well, it just turns a light bulb on in people's head, "Yeah that's right, if you want to attract business to a community, you need to have employees, and then people need a place to live, and people wanna be able to go to a school close by."
SD: And like you said with commutes. It's huge.
SB: All that kind of stuff. And I remember during the campaign, the strike, the theme to me, the conversations on the doorstep were the lengths people were going to to keep their housing. So if I was talking with older adults or seniors, they were talking about the cost of medication and their housing. And so they were foregoing medication in order to be able to pay their rent or the mortgage. If you're talking to younger people, they were trying to pay for child care and stay in a job and keep their housing, and those two variables, like, "Well, I'm not gonna go to school, I can't afford child care, but I'm gonna... 'Cause I'm gonna... I wanna keep my house." It really linked up the community around the theme that housing was... It's such a pillar.
JK: Did that strike you, especially talking about when people forego medication or even food, did that frame housing for you, or has that framed housing for you as healthcare itself? Is housing health?
SB: Yeah. You know how you always... You kinda know the link. But when you're talking to people and they're actually making everyday decisions about their budget, about whether they're gonna take medication or not, whether they're gonna quit school because they can't afford daycare and their rent, it just puts that in the center of what are important. You know intellectually, well, especially today, it's minus 30, the importance of being able to be somewhere inside. But when you're talking to people that are making daily decisions about how to keep that, that just... It just galvanized for me. And to me it can be just an important... It's not gonna solve everything, the national housing strategy, no matter how great it is. But it's such a great way to step back into... I'm talking from the Federal Government's point of view. From a federal point of view. It's such a great way to step back into having conversations about basic income, about poverty reduction. There's a lot we can learn through addressing this issue that I think we can use when we start to... 'Cause it won't solve everything, but it is a good place to start and it's a good place for Federal Government to get back into because they were there before.
SD: There's lots of evidence about the link of health and housing, as we were just mentioning, the choosing food or medication or anything like that. But if you look at the results of the programs such as Housing First and Supported Housing, and the effect of people's health, both physical and mental, from a shift from either being absolutely homeless and living on the street, or living in a shelter long term, or having many episodes of homelessness, the dramatic shift over time as they have a stable home is huge, it really demonstrates the effectiveness of what a house does for your health, and it can't be understated. And really, when we're looking at housing as a human right, it has to be the priority. And many times we see, well, how can we have the economy work with the environment? Well, we have to think about how can we have the economy work with housing and valuing human rights in creating that safe place that promotes health and promotes prosperity in our country.
JK: Tying a bow on what you're saying now with prosperity and going back to how much we benefit as communities from people thriving, and Sheri, what you said in housing being cheaper to fix than ignore, the Mental Health Commission of Canada recently ran a five-year study with 2,000 subjects and determined that just straight up giving housing to people who are living on the streets is cost neutral, since the avoidable extra cost to law enforcement, to shelters, to addiction services, to healthcare especially, exceeds the cost of just giving people homes. A study around the same time in Florida, very similar, found three times cheaper. It was 300% more expensive to leave someone on the street than giving them housing. So my question is, is there more than just facts that we need, is there a missing piece of the puzzle to move more of your average, as Justin Trudeau says, everyday Canadians to be more engaged on this? Saving tax dollars isn't enough clearly, morality isn't enough clearly. Have you seen something that has given you optimism that we're on the right track to changing that?
SB: Yeah. There's always gonna be folks who are never gonna... I think we need to talk to the people that are in the middle, in the sense that... I think members of Parliament, members of the Legislative Assembly need to bring people together to talk as a community about the importance of housing and talking about look what we know, look what the evidence is that... And I think a lot of people certainly... That people my age grew up with a national housing strategy, but nobody had to call it that. I was born the year before we had federal universal medicare. And my parents had subsidized housing when they were younger. Those things were there and a lot of us grew up that way. And so I think if we can remind people of what it would mean to them, or what it has meant to them in their lives.
SB: We started having more conversations with adults who have grown children living with them because they can't afford to move out. There are a lot of people I think we can bring into the conversation that... But at the same time, we need to include them, because I think there's some cynicism out there about government. The farther away you go from Ottawa, the more cynical people get, 'cause it feels far away. So you do your income tax form and off it goes. And I think a lot of people and rightfully feel like they're not getting as much back anymore, and I don't think that's selfish, I think that's just trying to make a... It's trying to figure out what does the government do for me, I'm doing my part kind of thing. And I think it's important to get people back into that conversation. So being able to talk about it, being able to have a national housing strategy, being able to keep the dialogue going is really, really important.
JK: Are there any particular flash points for you growing up that propelled you into doing this kind of work in politics that stand out for you, that fuel you now to do this kind of work?
SB: I'm a social worker, that's what I went to university, I didn't go to university to be a member of Parliament. And I worked in mental health and housing, using a stable affordable place as a way to help people come back to their community. And I remember thinking... And it was transitional housing, so people get a lot of support, get a bus pass, help with medication, some sort of help and social isolation, and all that kind of thing. And then when you were doing really well, you had to leave. And I remember thinking, "this doesn't make any sense. This is this person's home now." I've never forgotten that, it stuck with me. So I think that just kept coming back into my head... I'm always someone that sort of says, "that doesn't make any sense." "Why doesn't that make sense?" But yeah, those sort of early days trying to figure out, I think it made sense. But it didn't make sense to say, "now you have a great place to live. You're doing great. See you later, and good luck out there."
JK: What about you, Shawn, are there any flash points that stand out for you? Maybe people's stories, stories of your own?
SD: It's interesting. I actually was talking about this the other day with our former Chief of Police here, and he asked, "What did you do before this?" And I said, "I was in economic development," and he sort of looked at me kind of strange.
SD: 'Cause that's not usually the path that someone takes, but I got into... I went through university learning about economic development, worked in nonprofits in Saskatoon, and we really started promoting Saskatoon around the world. It was working very well, and the economy started taking off, and it was... I don't know that it was what we were doing, but it was sort of a perfect storm. And I was very happy with what was going on, but at the same time, I was seeing the disparity. I was seeing the shift and the growing gap, and people not understanding that we can all win, we can all benefit together, there doesn't have to be winners and losers. We have to look at this in a different way. It's not all about business and profits, it's about making a better place for everyone, and that's what shifted my thinking to start working in affordable housing and homelessness and insuring that there is this prosperous society, it is possible.
SD: We have to think about it differently, we have to understand that there might be some challenges in how we do things and challenge conventional thinking, but there... When some people I've talked to about affordable housing as an economic development tool, they look at me thinking, "Well, how can that be?" Well, you're creating jobs, you're creating places for people to live, people can afford to live. People with shorter commutes, or larger places for families that don't have access or people with disabilities that can't find housing that's accessible. There is so much to create a better place for people to live, and it's through housing. And that propels everyone else in your community. So that's what sort of drew me to this place. It's not just about business and growing the GDP, and everything else will just work out fine. No, there's gotta be a concerted effort to making a community that thrives for everyone.
JK: Is housing affordability, do you see that as a linchpin for greater economic well-being for... If people have a little bit more affordability in housing, will that alleviate things like hunger? Will that alleviate things like the greater problem of working poverty?
SD: I believe so. I really think that having access to affordable housing can really change a lot of outcomes in society, looking at some of the programs that we've funded over the last few years such as Housing First for Families. Getting families off the street, or from living in a crowded home with another family, or living in a hotel into a secure home changes outcomes in the long term. You have children that are not living in poverty, that are going to school and getting better education. So you've got better literacy outcomes in the long term. If kids don't experience homelessness as a child, they won't experience it as an adult. There is a link there. So when you start talking about the benefits of affordable housing on an entire society, and you look inter-generationally, that's where we start really creating a better place. But we have to look long-term, and it's really tough for people to look long-term, and it's really tough for government to look long-term too.
SB: It's tough for... This isn't a program on the whole electoral system, but that is one of the reasons why legislation, as opposed to just strategies, is a way to keep some social policy beyond a government's mandate. And that is part of the impetus of the federal government to bring in human rights type of legislation when it comes to housing. Now, a government can come along and change the law, and if they have a majority, they can do that. But it is a lot harder than just government regulation or programs if there's a law there. And when I've been talking to other members of parliament about housing and Housing First, and ending homelessness and starting to prevent homelessness, 'cause that's when we're really gonna see savings and communities thrive more and our healthcare system starting to be able to be affordable, or reach out, or do more home care, or allow doctors to visit people at home, really allow people to be healthy in place, they get it. I say, "We can't keep standing up in the House of Commons saying, "It's a crisis. I can't afford to live in Vancouver, nobody can afford to live in Toronto." I'm being funny here 'cause it's Friday afternoon, but I probably shouldn't have said that...
SB: But we need to have a more substantive conversation. And we need to know where to start, 'cause when you start talking about housing and homelessness and cheaper... Sometimes people get overwhelmed. So it's important to say, "And here's what we can do. Here's where we can start. Here are some things that work." Man, we all talk about Medicine Hat, we talk about this great stuff that they've done in Alberta, what provincial leadership made a difference there, we can look to the states and see some of the... There's lots of great stuff going on all over the place. We can really lift up some of those promising practices, share them, scale them up. So when you start to say there are ways to deal with it, then you get people motivated and not so overwhelmed and that kind of stuff. It's a national conversation, again, not just the groups that have been trying to get it on the table. Most people make the link between the difference that safe, affordable housing can make in people's lives, in children's health, in seniors, in communities and all. It's not a big jump anymore. There's a lot of work to do, I'm not being naïve.
SD: It is a lot of work.
SB: It's a conversation it seems like you can get a lot of different people around the table. Not just the usual suspects, I guess.
SD: And it's understanding your audience, too. It's just like basic marketing, understanding what your audience wants, like I mentioned earlier, the business community and understanding the value of affordable housing to their bottom line. That might be the link that they need, because that's what they deal with. They may not deal with a senior that is struggling because they don't have enough money for food because they're spending so much on housing. It's finding those links and, like I said, finding your audience, knowing what they wanna hear, and creating those stories that pushes the entire society to a place where we have a correct housing system and a housing market for our entire country, which is lacking right now.
JK: That link that we need might be health. We hope at Upstream that that can be the galvanizing force, and we're gonna dive deep into that next episode. Listeners, make sure to subscribe so you hear that. We're gonna have some excellent doctors from St. Mike's in Toronto and others talking about that. For now, I want to dive a little bit into talking about what we can do, because for the first time in history, Canada is gonna have an actual official national housing strategy, which our federal leadership claims will be able to alleviate housing needs for 530,000 families over the next decade, investing to construct 100,000 homes. Sheri, just end of last year you introduced the motion M147 in Parliament. What prompted you to do that? What is the motion, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
SB: Well, I want us to get started sooner. I don't wanna wait 10 years.
SB: And the strategy has all the elements to get us to where we need to go. But it's not... To me, it needs to include more people in the actual moving it forward. Not just the usual folks like the government folks and community groups, but parliamentarians, community groups, whatever. And you can do that, like I feel like we did in Saskatoon, is to create a plan. Because I don't quite get the urgency I need from the government now. Like over 10 years, we're going to end half chronic homelessness. Wimpy. We can do a lot better. The longer we leave it... We've already left it for 30 years. And so the motion is to create a special committee to create a national plan to end and prevent homelessness. And it will delineate what exactly is the federal government's role in the issue, so that communities can see where they fit.
SB: So a community like Saskatoon can say, "Okay. We've got a plan here. We wanna get somewhere. We see where the federal government will invest. We see what resources they're gonna share with us. So we can fit our activities into theirs." And then the biggest piece is, because what I said earlier, it's gonna be a huge amount of money. Not a big amount of money when it comes to total federal budget. But most people get those numbers totally out of context. So someone just comes up and says, "Oh my God! They're gonna spend $40 billion on housing." Everyone goes, "Oh my God, that's a lot of money." It's not a lot of money. It is a lot of money, but it's not a lot of money...
SB: When you put it in context of the overall Federal budget, and what we could do with that money. And a plan is a way to say this is where we wanna be. This is what we're going to do by then. This is how much it's gonna cost. Here's how we're going to report out on it. And it's an accountability mechanism, because it will be critical to keep Canadians engaged so that they come alongside the government and support that kind of investment. Because when it comes to making decisions, you have to do this sometimes or that. And if we want the government to do this, we need to be able to talk about what we're doing with Canadians within a context so they can see results. So they can say, "Yeah, that makes sense." Or, "I can see that in my community." Otherwise, it ends up being sort of this conversation, one group says, "It's not enough money," and the other group says, "It's way too much money." And we're all sitting around in the middle going, "I don't know. Is it enough? I don't know." And that's the kind of conversation I wanna have.
SB: So the motion will create that special committee where we could also bring up what is working and share that nationally. And include Parliamentarians, 'cause up until now it is just a government strategy. There's been no conversation in Parliament other than the conversation I shared with you [chuckle] where we stand up and go, "It's a crisis. It's a crisis." But there's no urgency. It's just a back and forth. So that's what I'm hoping. At the very least, it's allowed me to keep the conversation going with a lot people, and including my colleagues in the house, to try to get some urgency happening. And regardless of what happens with the motion, we can keep that momentum in whatever the next step is for us.
JK: Who did you talk to to inform what went into the motion? Did you talk to experts? People with lived experience?
SB: Yeah, I kind of reached out to... I'd had a lot of people I'd worked with when I was here at United Way, and kinda local folks. I've been to a couple of national conferences, started reaching out to people in the states and hanging out with folks in Alberta 'cause they did some cool stuff. And so before I decided what my motion would be, that's what I did. I said, "What could I do?" You have to remember I'm an opposition member. So what can I do as an opposition member? I'm not a government member. So I have to kind of figure out what is my leverage here? And that's what people said. If we could have a committee on this issue, a Parliamentary committee, so that we can profile that piece, so that we can deliver something to the government. So it has a beginning and an end. That we can build on what the government has said they're going to do. That's how I started those informal conversations. And I always knew in the back of my head that the reason why I became a member of Parliament was around housing and homelessness. And I had to figure out what could I do? Yeah.
JK: Talking about what works, what we should be doing, you're both based in Saskatoon. Is Saskatoon a model for what Canada can do? Are we doing things that work here or is there stuff we need to learn from bigger cities, other places.
SB: Probably both.
SD: Yeah. We haven't ended homelessness, but I think we've done... As a community, as the community based organizations in Saskatoon, have done an amazing job over the last few years. In November at the conference we announced that over 800 people have been housed in the last five years in Saskatoon. And that's due to a broad range of services that are available. We have Housing First. We have Housing First for Families. We have had Rapid Re-Housing. We have housing location right out of shelter for people that don't need a heck of a lot of help, just maybe just a couple hours. We've got Supported Housing. We've got Sanctum as an AIDS hospice and transitional housing through the Beehive. Things are growing and people are getting better served in Saskatoon. The system is working in a more cohesive fashion than I've seen in a long time.
SD: A lot of it has to do, I think, with the way that the programs are working together, starting with a centralized intake system feeding into many organizations that have case managers depending on the level of need that someone needs, either through Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service or the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre that provides service primarily to people that are aboriginal, First Nations, or Metis. So I think there's a lot to learn through what has been achieved, and the great thing that we're seeing is that these organizations are starting to work together to discuss some of the challenges they're having with the systems. And that's where we have had the opportunity to work with them to go to government and say, "These are the systems that are handcuffing us." Just little tweaks to an income security approval process and bang! You're housing people. These are these little tweaks that I think other communities should hear about, and as we've been talking recently with other cities, it's funny to watch that these systems are organically happening. I think if we start sharing these practices, we'll see a lot of commonality, but a lot of opportunity to duplicate and make things sort of move faster and move forward in a more organized fashion that can really propel us into ending and preventing homelessness.
SB: I was at a just a symposium the other day and a woman from the United States said, "Anonymity is the enemy." Is that how she said it? See, I should never start these things.
SD: That's okay.
SB: Is sort of the enemy of homelessness. 'Cause there's a real push to have by-name lists. That we should know every person's name, not you and me, but if there's a system in the community that's helping people who are homeless, we should all know who those...
JK: It's a lot harder to walk by someone or look away if you... Even if you may not personally know their name, but just someone does.
SB: Well, because systems go and flow where... And communities have systems too, just like big bureaucracies. They tend to deal better with the easy things. And it's the people that are really falling through the gaps that come up against the system all the time. So that everyone knows that Fred doesn't have a place to live. No one will help him. Fred is someone else's problem. And you're protecting people's privacy, and I'm not gonna go into all the sort of thing, but they know everyone's name. Because what happens then is you start to... 'Cause government's really good at giving a little bit of service that kind of helps you for a lot of people. It costs a lot of money, but doesn't really get to... If you could move resources and really identify what needs to happen and really focus on Fred, and do what you need to do to get Fred to where he wants to be, you free up other resources.
SB: And so I think we can learn from others. We've done some awesome things here. And what I hear often from people is, "I never knew they were doing that. Oh, it's out of our... " So being able to also bring that up to a national level and really highlight what works. And I think the Mental Health Commission... That was world class research, never been done before around Housing First. We were world leaders in that piece of giving the evidence and the research for that. And we need to keep sharing that kind of stuff, which just doesn't happen. We need to purposely intentionally say, "We're gonna learn how to do this together," and to share.
SD: Yeah. From what you said, that anonymity is the enemy of homelessness, it makes a lot of sense in the people that I've talked to over the last year, people like Jesse Thistle out of Ontario and Sidney Gill at the Aboriginal Friendship Centres in Calgary. A lot of the things that they've seen is the fact that there's this disconnection to family, to community, to social structures. And when you're anonymous, you lose all that connection, and that also is that connection to help. And like you said, Fred's in trouble. It makes a lot more sense than, "That guy." No, it's Fred. We know Fred. And the more that we know about someone, the more social connection that we have, the more opportunity there is to create that safe place where people can find their way out of what trauma they've experienced to get them into a place of homelessness.
SB: Well, it also puts the onus back on the system.
SB: Instead of saying they're failing, it's the system. Fred is Fred. Why isn't he getting the help that he needs? And so the question comes back. It's easy to ignore a number and say, "We've helped five people, and I don't know who's... Is it the same five people every year?" And it builds more of a sense of community and more of a sense of accountability. And I think if you... It's that sort of cheaper to fix than ignore. If you really focused on Fred, and you really gave social workers and frontline workers the ability and the resources to do really good work, no matter how long it takes, there would be so much benefit from that. And then, Fred would be housed or where he wants to be.
SD: Exactly. And that's the challenges that we see. And off the start, when Housing First was first introduced in Saskatoon, we had around four case managers doing that work, helping house people and provide them the support they needed in terms of case management to be successful. Now it's up to 20 case managers, and they're all busy. We're at capacity again, there is so much demand. But we need this long term investment, which through the National Housing Strategy, and hopefully the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, 10 years of investment into this crisis that we're in.
SB: And I think that's the piece probably that both Shaun and I are waiting for, is what will that renewal... He probably knows more than I do [chuckle] what the renewal for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy will look like. And how will the Federal Government provide both leadership and allow communities to have solutions or priorities that make sense in their community. So how do we have some... You don't want it to be... You don't want Saskatoon to be a good place to be homeless, and Winnipeg not to be. We don't want that. We want some Federal Government leadership on the issue around homelessness so that communities can work in a way that makes sense to them, but to common priorities and outcomes and those kinds of things. So that will be a big announcement we'll hear in April.
JK: Oh, really?
SB: Yeah. So it's part of the National Housing Strategy. We don't know the details of that.
JK: Are you going to be in session early April then?
JK: Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned the factor of indigeneity in housing, Shaun, because we're gonna be diving deep into that next month on Upstream Radio. And also you mentioning Jesse Thistle, he will be at Closing the Gap in April in Ottawa for our conference. We're gonna hopefully have him on the next episode if we can get him in time as well to talk about his personal experience with housing and homelessness, and colonialism, and inter-generational trauma.
SB: As you've said, it's a whole other conversation and a whole different relationship with the federal government, and the urgency there...
SB: We really need to move that piece forward. And it's not for lack of leadership in the communities, but it's the government really needs to understand the urgency there, and it needs to feel like an emergency. We need to move forward. And that comes back to my conversation about we have to start... The investment is gonna get bigger and bigger. And we need Canadians going along with us.
JK: We're already in a crisis.
SB: Yeah. Well, we are there. We're trying to get the political will and the urgency to sort of feel like there's something... We've gotta get going, not to do things willy nilly, just some... Governments take a long time to do things. [chuckle] So we gotta... Yeah. I don't wanna be talking about... Three elections from now, I don't wanna be talking about this. I wanna be talking about it, but I wanna be talking about it, in a very, very [chuckle] different way.
JK: Yeah. So before we wrap things up, where can listeners go, Sheri, to find out more about your motion, and where would you send people to find out how they can help support an end to this crisis?
SB: Sure. Well, they can go to my website, which is sheribenson.ndp.ca, and there's the motions on there. There's an opportunity to share a letter with your local member of Parliament, and we have a couple of videos from some of the speeches in the House. The final hour for the debate will be on the 15th of February. And so just go to the website. And of course people can give us a call if they want some more information. And yeah, just keep those postcards, keep the conversation going no matter what happens with my motion. I'm hoping to keep the momentum going and building up those contacts, and we can keep talking about housing and keep people engaged, and keep the strategy moving forward.
JK: Right on. And Shaun, if people wanna find out more about SHIP and how they can get involved, or how maybe they can learn in other cities for how to implement some of the good work you've been doing in Saskatoon, where should they go?
SD: They should check us out on the web, of course, it's the best way to find us. We're at shipweb.ca. We also are on Facebook under the Saskatoon Housing Initiative Partnership. And you can also find out more about what's happening in Saskatoon at our Facebook page, Saskatoon Homelessness, and soon to come saskatoonhomelessness.ca.
JK: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us.
JK: And it's been fantastic talking to you both and trying to find out exactly the kind of solutions we need.
SD: Thanks Jared.
And thank you dear listener, for hanging out with us today and digging all this important knowledge on what we need to get better and healthier as communities, and as a country. And you won’t want to miss part two, coming in less than two weeks.
Clip (Jesse Thistle): Coming out of, I guess, “my career as a homeless addict”, I was just trying to survive. I was desperate enough, and I was just trying to survive. When I got to rehab I was trying to figure myself out and I was asking myself questions like “why were there so many Indigenous people like me in the exact same situation?”
That's Jesse Thistle, who is currently a PhD candidate at York University, with a remarkable story to tell.. We’re also speaking to a pair of inner city Toronto doctors, to dive even deeper into the ways that housing and homelessness impact our health.
Clip (Ritika Goel): The best prescription for their health is just safe and affordable housing. It’s just so obvious for them.
Clip (Stephen Hwang): We all benefit when we reduce these disparities that ultimately are corrosive to our entire society.
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