Homelessness strategy headed in a new direction

Bonnie Belec
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Feds tell groups to dovetail approach

St. John’s is working on a new plan to combat homelessness.

The capital city’s Community Advisory Board on Homelessness has been working on it for about a year, driven by the federal government’s desire to streamline efforts to end homelessness across the country.

In fact, community groups across Canada are re-evaluating their approach.

The St. John’s advisory board, formed in 2001, is a 25-member committee of community and government representatives.

Bruce Pearce is a longtime community development worker with the group.

He told The Telegram this week that for the past nine months committee members have met with about 150 people from 35 organizations, as well as about 80 people who have been homeless, to discuss what needs to be done under the new strategy.

He said one thing has become clear.

“We’ve been told we need some way to co-ordinate the system and the services we have so that when someone is at risk of homelessness, they have a place to go that will lead them out of harm’s way quickly,” Pearce said.

“People don’t know where to turn. There isn’t a service map and there is no co-ordinated access to housing and supports in St. John’s.”

The new strategy includes a name change for the group — End Homelessness St. John’s — as well as a plan that will be launched in the fall.

The Federal Homeless Partnering Strategy provides funding to groups bent on ending homelessness and has directed them to provide the most basic need for survival before anything else — housing.

“The housing-first approach involves giving people who are homeless a place to live, and then providing necessary supports to help them stabilize their lives and recover,” notes a federal government news release.

In St. John’s this week, representatives from the RNC, Eastern Health, Stella’s Circle, business and government gathered to discuss the implications of the new strategy.

While there will always be a need for shelters and other forms of transitional lodging in the community, what role they play in

St. John’s new strategy remains to be seen.

“It means transitional housing and shelters will be bypassed, by getting people into permanent, stable housing,” said committee chairman Shawn Skinner.

“It doesn’t mean there’s not go­ing to be a need for them. It just means we’re going to try something different, a different philosophy,” he said.

Skinner said there are good reasons why the federal government is moving in that direction.

“When people are in chaos, they can’t focus on treatment. They can’t focus on getting better,” he said.

“Statistics and research have shown people need a place to call their own, something stable and clean. When you provide that, the other services can be built on top of it to help people get on their feet.”

Some of the information that will  shape the plan came from a day-and-a-half-long forum held at St. John’s City Hall Monday and Tuesday.

Pearce said the federal government’s $2.3-million, five-year strategy marks the first time the feds have gone past two years’ funding for homelessness efforts.

Skinner said groups are working together to make change instead of having it made for them.

“We’re all going to be affected by this. We all need to have the discussion about how we are going to respond to it rather than have it thrust upon us,” Skinner said.

“I think if we’re part of the response the result will be better for the community.”

He said he’s talked to other groups across the country, and some organizations feel threatened.

“‘Does it mean you’re going to close me up? I’m not going to have a place to go. I’m going to lose 20 jobs.’ It doesn’t mean any of that,” said Skinner.

He said it’s going to mean doing things differently, but the advisory board will be there to help.

“Instead of us telling you how you’re going to fit in, come and tell us how you fit in, but we have to take the focus off the infrastructure and put the focus on the clients and what’s best for them,” he said.

bbelec@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Community Advisory Board on Homelessness, The Telegram

Geographic location: Canada

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