Roslyn KuninAs most of us remembered on Canada Day, this is a pretty good country to live in. It’s hard to think of a better one. But it’s not perfect. We do have some serious problems that need fixing, like homelessness.

In a country as rich as Canada, no one should have to go hungry, and everyone should be able to have a roof over their head. Alas, this isn’t the case.

During the recession of the 1980s, homeless people first started to become noticeable on the streets of Canadian cities. The numbers have continued to grow.

It’s hard to get an exact count of people who have no address, particularly if they don’t want to be found. You can check sleeping bags on sidewalks and alleyways, but what about the people who are couch-surfing or living in their vehicles?

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Best estimates, which are recognized as an undercount, tell us there are about 230,000 people in Canada who don’t have a home.

That number is appalling and surprising, but it comes with another surprising statistic that offers some hope.

The person who comes to mind when most people hear the word homeless is barely functional, has addiction issues, mental illness or both, and has been on the streets for some time. However, only about 30,000 of the 230,000 homeless people meet that description.

The vast majority have lost one or more of the three conditions that allow most of us to function in society: family, health and job. Lose one of the three and you may be able to carry on. Lose two or all three, and you may find yourself at the door of a homeless shelter.

This information comes from Foundations for Social Change, a charitable organization in Vancouver that looks for viable, innovative solutions to social problems like homelessness. They work closely with social scientists and researchers, including those at the University of British Columbia, to ensure that any projects they try are fully documented, tested and evaluated, and actually accomplish what they set out to do.

Their project on homelessness is called The New Leaf and is based on a similar project that appeared to work well in Britain. A pilot project gave unconditional one-time cash grants of $7,500 to participants.

These grants weren’t just randomly handed out to homeless people. They went to those people referred through the shelter system who didn’t have mental illness or substance abuse issues and had been on the street for less than a year or two. These conditions cover the vast majority of homeless people.

This pilot project gave grants to 50 people, with another 50 as a control group. The participants and the control group were set up with bank accounts, and cellphones and data plans. An app on the phones gave access to social services.

The results were positive. Compared to the control group, the number of nights that the people in the project were homeless dropped, saving the shelter system $8,100 per person over the course of a year, an amount greater than the grant itself. Food security increased and spending on alcohol, drugs and tobacco fell.

Perhaps as important as the grant itself was the way it was given: unconditionally and in a lump sum. This offers dignity, respect and trust. Not only could the recipients fix their car or pay a security deposit on an apartment, but they could also hold their head up in society and feel that they were part of it.

The pilot is being followed by a larger test group of 400 people, half of whom will receive $8,500 with the remainder being used as controls. Academic researchers will document the results.

If the test replicates earlier findings and is successful, we may well have a solution for most of the homeless people in Canada.

We will still have to deal with the long-term, dual-diagnosed people on the street. But we will have made a large, positive difference to many Canadians.

Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.  For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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