Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

January 25, 2010

Homelessness is becoming an increasingly important issue in Edmonton and across Canada. Edmonton's most recent homeless street count in 2008 identified over 3,000 men, women and children as homeless. This number has increased steadily in recent years.

In the face of this crisis, two years ago the mayor of Edmonton called for a new way to address this crisis. The past practice was to manage the homeless crisis by annually increasing the number of shelter mats in the inner city and incrementally expanding funding for winter emergency plans.

This crisis became public and visible in the summer of 2007 with the creation of Tent City, a squatter settlement of a couple hundred campers on provincially owned land three blocks from city hall. Mayor Stephen Mandel challenged Edmontonians to move from an approach of managing homelessness to working towards a future where homelessness would be eliminated.

This was a radical idea, especially in the context of the massive cuts in federal and provincial government social housing programs going back to the early 1990s.

The mayor invited a group of community leaders from all sectors of society to come together and create a working group to take on this challenge. Archbishop Richard Smith joined this initiative. This working group put together a document presenting a 10-year plan to end homelessness, with the title A Place to Call Home.

The Edmonton 10-year plan emphasizes the "housing first principle," where the priority is "to find people permanent homes and give them the support they need to be successful in their homes." This approach of developing a 10-year plan followed the example of Calgary and some larger U.S. cities.

The 10-year plan demands the collaboration of all sectors of society. Substantial multi-year funding commitments from municipal, provincial and federal governments are essential to achieving the goals of the plan. This is difficult in a time of government deficits.

COST EFFECTIVE

However, supporters of the "housing first" approach make a strong argument that the costs of implementing the 10-year plan are actually less than the ever-increasing costs of emergency shelters, policing, health care and social services.

WCR FILE PHOTO

Desperate homeless people set up Tent City in Downtown Edmonton in 2007.

Over the last two years, the Anglican primate and the Evangelical Lutheran national bishop have called on the members of their respective churches to advocate for increased funding of federal affordable housing programs with their MPs.

Other church leaders need to add their voices to this important advocacy effort. Members of our Catholic parishes need to tell our elected officials we support government funding for a credible multi-year funding plan to end homelessness.

However the success of this ambitious 10-year plan very much requires the direct support of the wider community, including local church congregations.

The report, A Place to Call Home, makes specific suggestions for faith groups and community organizations.

The first is to encourage us to learn more about homeless persons in our city, meet them face-to-face and find out what they need. Many parish members have already started on this learning process as they assist in local parish food bank programs or assist in the inner city at places like Inner City Pastoral Ministry, E4C, Mustard Seed or the Marian Centre.

For the past 10 years, Edmonton and area churches have contributed to the No Room in the Inn campaign at Christmas in support of specific affordable housing initiatives.

The final suggestion in A Place to Call Home poses a provocative challenge for our local congregations and parishes. It calls us to welcome the Housing First families and individuals into our own neighbourhoods.

ISAIAH'S VOICE

It is interesting that the letter launching the national Anglican and Lutheran advocacy campaign quotes the prophet Isaiah where he asks what true religious observance is: "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?" (Isaiah 58.7).

Are we willing to welcome the homeless poor into our neighbourhoods and parish communities? Too often the public voices from our local community leagues and associations, when faced with the possibility of low-income people moving into our neighbourhoods, have been NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Too often local parishes have remained silent in these important neighbourhood debates.

This year we are observing the 30th anniversary of the private sponsorship of refugees program for international refugees. Many parishes have participated in this program and brought the words of Isaiah to life as they welcomed homeless poor refugees from around the world into their local communities. Housing First challenges us to provide a similar welcome for the homeless poor from our cities and towns.

If all sectors of society, including the churches, truly do their part, we can successfully take up this challenge and indeed end homeless in Edmonton and communities across Canada. Maybe it won't even have to take 10 years.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)