Not long after my first election 14 years ago, I nearly stepped over my best friend from junior high. I was walking near City Hall amidst the housing affordability crisis of boom-time Alberta. He was slumped over on the sidewalk, clearly in distress.
We had lost touch, and I was sad to see that after his time on the streets, he looked about 10 years older than me. It is too easy to judge people who are struggling and make all kinds of assumptions, but knowing something of my friend’s story helped me to nurture compassion for him and humanize others experiencing hardship on our streets.
Don Iveson: This federal election, vote to end homelessness
This reality check was timely as Edmonton was just developing our 10-year-plan to end homelessness. Since then, our community has housed 12,895 people, including my friend. I run into him from time to time on the train, and from talking to him, I am convinced that a “Housing First” approach saved his life.
Getting people experiencing homelessness into safe and supportive housing works. It’s like disaster response and recovery: respond to the emergency, keep people safe — from trauma, economic hardship, mental health, addictions — and then work to prevent it from happening again. Meet people where they’re at, and both their needs are better met and society’s resources are much better used.
After a decade of steady reduction in our homeless counts, the pandemic — combined with rising unemployment and austerity measures in Alberta — saw our counts rising again. Overall, however, Edmonton has shown (using precisely the same methods that got Medicine Hat all the way to zero) that ending chronic homelessness one life at a time is possible.
We simply need scale and sustained commitment.
This is the case I have made relentlessly during my five years as chair of Canada’s Big City Mayors, and so I wept (very happy tears, mind you) when I heard the federal commitment to ending chronic homelessness in last fall’s throne speech.
The tears were about many things: relief that this had risen to the fore among COVID recovery priorities; pride in our non-profit partners’ extraordinary work on the front lines (Edmonton’s community results are frequently cited by experts and federal ministers); and renewed hope in Canada’s promise to achieve great things — particularly the hope that we might sometime soon leave nobody out in the cold.
So now we have a national objective. It’s embedded in a substantial National Housing Strategy, with specific Rapid Housing Initiative resources coming directly to communities as part of COVID Recovery. This is great.
What we need next is a specific national timeline, continued dedicated resources for supportive housing, and much stronger alignment from provincial governments who will save the most money in avoidable health and justice costs as compared to the status quo.
I have come to believe profoundly in the transformative necessity of appropriate housing. So, after a deeply fulfilling time as mayor, one area where I must confess to a profound sense of unfinished business is on ending homelessness. It is a goal within our grasp as a city and as a country. I aim to keep up the faith and the pressure. This is why I am honoured to join the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness board and lend my support to the alliance’s “Vote Housing” campaign.
After working with mayors from across the country, rural and urban, I am confident Canadians’ hearts and minds are with us. In fact, polling from Nanos Research says eight in 10 Canadians say they would support a political party proposing action to end homelessness and build affordable housing.
That’s no surprise, as Canadians’ own housing concerns are front and centre in this election. Nanos Research data also shows that 15 per cent of respondents were worried or somewhat worried about how to pay for their housing — in the next month alone. This translates to roughly five million Canadians and their families thinking about this question as they go to the polls.
Across the country, people are deeply concerned about housing affordability, and strongly interested in better housing outcomes — for seniors, young families, racialized Canadians and particularly for Indigenous peoples as we reckon further with the devastating legacy of Indian residential schooling.
Given that Indigenous peoples, and particularly residential school survivors, are massively over-represented in Edmonton’s homeless community, ending chronic homelessness would represent a substantial and timely downpayment on reconciliation.
As a country, we must bring all this urgency to house people experiencing homelessness properly. This election is a moment to press this point with your candidates (both federally and locally). After all, there is nothing more disappointing in Canada than inspiring national goals that go unfulfilled for lack of urgency. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen here.
But good intentions are not enough — this election, I urge Canadians to ask hard questions about targets and timelines to end homelessness, demand bold commitment on affordable housing, and then to Vote Housing.
Don Iveson is the mayor of Edmonton.