On March 17, Archbishop Richard Smith joined with 22 other faith leaders to make a public "shared commitment to eliminate homelessness in our community" and "to support the challenging goals of Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness."
Local congregations and faith organizations were invited to get more involved with the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. A Congregational Housing Action Guide has been prepared to assist local parishes. Several hundred copies have now been distributed across the Edmonton region.
Three months later, there are some signs of increased interest and commitment in local churches and religious communities. The No Room in the Inn Campaign has announced a new record for its Christmas 2010 collection. More than $70,000 was contributed from 59 congregations and Church organizations from eight denominations.
These funds helped the Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre construct Canora Place, providing 30 new units of affordable housing for Housing First clients who have experienced chronic homelessness. Fifteen Catholic parishes and organizations contributed $17,583, nearly doubling the amount of the previous year.
In the last few months, many have asked about getting involved in the Welcome Home program. This program will involve volunteers from local parishes and faith groups who will commit to accompany and befriend men and women in Housing First who are settling into new accommodations in local neighbourhoods all across the capital region.
The details of Welcome Home are being worked out over the summer, and there should be a public launch in September or October.
Last month, the Year Two report card on the progress of Edmonton's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness was published. The news is good: "956 permanent homes have been secured for 1,352 people who had been homeless," and "83 per cent of those housed have kept their housing."
Over these two years, the number of people staying in homeless shelters in Edmonton has dropped 23 per cent. Progress is being made.
The Interfaith Statement on Homeless and Affordable Housing, signed by Archbishop Smith and the other 22 faith leaders, calls upon leaders of all orders of government "to provide the necessary program funding . . . so that the ambitious goal of ending homelessness can be truly realized" within the context of the 10-year plan.
Recent federal and provincial budgets indicate that there is real cause for concern. The 2011 Alberta budget presented last February contains a 20 per cent increase in funding for outreach support services for Housing First clients.
However, this same budget contains a 50 per cent decrease in provincial funding for construction of new affordable housing units in the upcoming year.
Many observers credit Premier Stelmach as a champion for provincial Housing First funding, even in a time of deficit. There is no guarantee that the new premier will share this commitment. There is a real risk that future homelessness funding will be sacrificed in efforts to achieve a balanced provincial budget, similar to what happened in Alberta in the 1990s.
The just-released federal budget contains no new information or commitments concerning funding for affordable housing.
Our faith community leaders have shown courageous leadership in addressing the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. We need to learn more about how our parishes and local Church organizations are addressing these issues. Is the message getting through to people in the pews?
There are lots of practical suggestions for parish involvement in the Congregational Housing Action Guide.
While many parish groups are slowing down for the summer, this is an excellent time to make plans for parish programs starting in September. Some things can be done right now. Parish councils can sign as "endorsers" of the interfaith statement signed by Archbishop Smith and the other faith leaders.
It is a good time to contact our politicians. Our newly-elected federal MPs need to know about our support for continued federal government funding for affordable housing. The summer months are the time for us to make sure that the issues of homelessness and affordable housing are addressed in the Conservative and Liberal party leadership contests that are currently underway.
Further information is available from the archdiocesan Office for Social Justice (www.caedm.ca).
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)