Dr. Stephen Hwang, a researcher at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, believes homelessness can be solved but all members of society will have to chip in to make it happen. Photo by Michael Swan.

Solution to homelessness at hand, but it won’t be cheap

  • April 24, 2014

TORONTO - Homelessness is solvable and even if the solution isn’t cheap every dollar spent to put homeless people in an apartment of their own saves $2.17 that would otherwise be spent on hospital emergency room visits, other medical services, shelters, prisons and policing, a new study has found.

St. Michael’s Hospital researcher and physician Dr. Stephen Hwang gave a preview of results of the largest study ever on the Housing First method of tackling urban homelessness earlier this month at the annual Martin Royackers lecture at Toronto’s Regis College. The $110-million At Home/Chez Soi research project began in 2008. It has tracked the progress of more than 2,000 homeless people in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton using a randomized test method.

Half the study participants were put directly into housing at an average cost of $20,000 per year and then had their mental health, addiction, social integration and income problems addressed afterwards. The other half went through the usual process that requires homeless people to deal with addiction, mental health and other issues before they are deemed ready for housing.

Among those who got their apartments first, 72 per cent remained securely housed two years later, compared to just 34 per cent of those who went through the normal steps to earn their housing.

Even if politicians see scientific evidence that Housing First will dramatically reduce the number of people sleeping on sidewalks and in church basements, that doesn’t mean society is ready to seriously tackle the problem, said Hwang, one of the lead researchers in the Housing First project.

“These kinds of solutions do not come free and do not come cheaply,” said Hwang. “The idea that we can be selfish, that we can want more and more for ourselves and end up with a society we want to live in, we’re fooling ourselves. It’s going to require social and political change.”

That means higher taxes.

“We’ve come to accept the idea that taxing is bad. That’s a fundamentally flawed idea,” said Hwang.

But social change isn’t the sort of thing that should scare Christians, Hwang told about 200 people gathered in the Jesuit graduate faculty of theology’s chapel.

“The power to change ourselves lies within ourselves and within an understanding of Jesus Christ our Saviour,” he said.

Catholics have much to answer for when it comes to direct service to the poor, said theologian John Berkman in response to Hwang’s lecture. He pointed out that surveys consistently show Catholics dead last in giving.

“What should fundamentally characterize us as a faith community should be direct service and giving,” he said.

The Catholic Worker movement and the Catholic religious orders show the way, but too often Catholics are happy to admire them from afar, Berkman said.

Real solutions to homelessness require more than individual help to individual homeless people, said Hwang. “We have to look beyond treating individuals and look at our society,” he said.

An Evangelical Christian, Hwang looks to the Gospel and finds constant calls for conversion.

“The Gospel calls us not only to a personal relationship with God and personal righteousness, but to a fundamental commitment to justice,” he said.

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