JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Bob McKeon

May 20, 2013

Last month I attended a special event at the Bissell Centre in the heart of Edmonton's inner city. This event was the occasion for the public release of the Year 4 Update report on progress in Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

There was a real mix of people attending, including the mayor, business leaders, news media, Church workers, front-line outreach staff and people making the challenging transition from homelessness to having a home. Similar events are taking place this year in each of Alberta's seven largest cities, as leaders in each city report on their progress in ending homelessness as part of Alberta's provincial 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

There was some good news in Edmonton. In the first four years of Housing First in Edmonton, 1,664 permanent homes were secured for 2,325 people who had previously experienced chronic homelessness. The latest Homelessness Count found a 29 per cent reduction in the number of homeless men, women and children encountered on the streets and in shelters since 2008.

Three levels of government have been continuing to make commitments to fund Housing First support services. There was also some bad news with declining government funding for preventive programs such as rent supplement, and for the construction of new or renovated affordable housing units.

A highlight of the Year 4 Update was an inspiring presentation by volunteers and a participant in the Welcome Home program. Welcome Home is a program operated by Catholic Social Services where faith community volunteers join together with previously homeless women and men to provide personal support and encouragement, and a community welcome. Everyone got to see the newly produced Welcome Home video (available at www.catholicsocialservices.ab.ca).

The most challenging part of the Year 4 Update was the issue of permanent supportive housing. It is clear that there is a group of formerly homeless people with intensive needs who would not be successful living on their own with only occasional visits from outreach workers and volunteers.

SPECIAL NEEDS

They require housing with on-site support staff on an ongoing basis in order to remain successfully housed. Edmonton's 10 Year Plan sets the ambitious goal for 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing for 2014.

One major obstacle for achieving this goal is local community opposition to supportive housing projects for formerly homeless women and men in neighbourhoods across the city.

Mayor Mandel addressed this issue directly. He spoke with passion as he challenged residents in local communities to adopt a stance of community welcome and inclusion, and to move away from attitudes of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard).

This issue of neighbourhood welcome and overcoming NIMBY has also been a consistent theme in the ongoing meetings of the faith community representatives participating in the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative. This interfaith initiative has conducted workshops on homelessness and affordable housing in local congregations throughout the Capital Region, and has distributed nearly 1,000 copies of a Congregational Housing Action Guide.

One of the main strategies in this guide is to "Become an advocate: participate in neighbourhood housing conversations."

Increasingly, as progress is made in Edmonton's 10 Year Plan, the most effective action for members of local churches will be to take action with this same biblically-grounded social concern in their own families, neighbourhoods, social networks and congregations.

In many ways, this may prove to be more difficult than making the journey to be of service in the inner city.

This is not a new challenge. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a fast pleasing to God where he challenged members of his community "to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house" (58.7).

Likely most of us reading Isaiah today will find that inviting those who have experienced homelessness and poverty into our homes is too challenging and difficult. Maybe an invitation and welcome into our neighbourhoods and local community, while still challenging, is indeed possible.

Mayor Mandel indicated that the ultimate success of Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness depends on our successfully meeting this challenge.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)