St. Andrew's-Wesley Homelessness and Mental Health Action Group

November 16, 2007 15:59 ET

St. Andrew's-Wesley Homelessness and Mental Health Action Group: New Ways of Dealing With Chronic Homelessness Could Offer Hope For Broken Lives

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Nov. 16, 2007) - Over 800 people attended a public forum at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver last night dedicated to finding new solutions to the growing crisis of chronic homelessness in Vancouver.

In helping to open the forum, Geoff Plant, Vancouver's Civil City Commissioner and former BC Attorney General, said: "The City is committed to long-term sustainable solutions to homelessness. We will all have to work together, faith groups, the community, business and government. Governments will be required to listen, act, and respond."

The keynote speakers for the event were Heather Lyons, Homelessness Program Manager for the City of Portland and Ed Blackburn, Executive Director of Central City Concern, the primary provider of transitional and supported housing in Portland. In the first two years of their 10-year plan to end homelessness, Portland has reduced "chronic homelessness" (people on the street for over one year) by 70%. To date, they have housed 1,260 chronically homeless people and reduced the overall homeless street count by 39%.

As Lyons explained, getting to a plan that works requires "system changes and targeted solutions...a focus on housing the chronically homeless first, an emphasis on measurable results and outcomes and an environment of shared accountability, but it can be done."

Lyons also said, "Once the plan was producing results, the support from business and the greater community grew even stronger."

Ed Blackburn said, "The Portland experience was all about finding the political will to change. Once that happens, remarkable things are possible." He described the work of his agency which includes 22 buildings of which 75% of the over 1000 units are part of an alcohol and drug-free community. The community includes transitional and permanent housing for homeless people. Homeless people can be moved directly off the street, through detox if necessary and then to a recovery centre or into supported housing. His agency also has five businesses which employ formerly homeless people.

"Within a year, 50% of the people who go through our system are off the street and generating incomes," said Blackburn. "Many of these are the kind of people who are now proud to be paying taxes, to be giving back." He also talked about the hidden costs of homelessness which amount to millions in tax dollars for things such as jail time and hospital emergency visits.

Moderator Nancy Hall told those attending the forum that there has not been an official count of the homeless since 2005. "We count eagles, we count whales, and we count all kinds of things on a regular basis. We should be counting the number of homeless people on the street. That's something that's vital to solving the problem."

Going forward, Hall suggested there are potential solutions to Vancouver's homelessness crisis in the Portland example. "These include having a firm plan with timeline, targets, and annual counts and a focus on the chronic homeless as well as ways of preventing homelessness," said Hall.

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