It is estimated that there are approximately 11,000 homeless people currently living in Alberta. As has been the experience in most cities across North America, Medicine Hat has also witnessed an increase in the number of citizens struggling with homelessness, despite our efforts to ensure that their basic needs are met.
Homelessness is a complex issue requiring multifaceted solutions that are as unique as the individuals struggling with this trauma. In our community, the impact of homelessness and the many affiliated social issues resulted in 1140 citizens (including 230 children) requiring emergency shelter during 2008-09. Although these citizens would be included in our visibly homeless population, this number does not incorporate the many citizens that make up our hidden homeless population. In addition to the 878 households in Medicine Hat which rely on rental subsidies to maintain their housing, an additional 1,405 households are at high risk of entering homelessness since they are forced to dedicate more than 30% of their income to cover rental costs, ensuring a continued struggle to feed their children and cover living expenses.
In recent years, we have learned much about our homeless population in Medicine Hat. This population includes youth and senior citizens, individuals and families with young children, and employed and unemployed citizens.Many are struggling with health issues, some are transients en route to a different destination but many are long standing ‘Hatters’ with strong connections to the community. They have lived in abandoned buildings, under bridges, in the escarpments, under parked trailers, in our shelters, and some have couch-surfed for lengthy periods of time. The current economic downturn has caused some individuals and families to experience the fear and uncertainty affiliated with homelessness for the very first time. Medicine Hat has worked to improve our capacity to meet the needs of our vulnerable citizens over the past eight years. Community collaborations and innovation have contributed to the evolution of our efforts to a renewed commitment to ending the trap of homelessness in our city.
This requires moving away from the current approach of managing the homeless population to focusing on Housing First with the provision of appropriate supports, leading to self-reliance. It is important to not only re-house the homeless, but to respond to the underlying factors that have contributed to their homelessness and to provide different levels of support to ensure that a person, once housed, is able to move to self-reliance. In keeping with a Housing First philosophy, an individual’s issues are best addressed from the safety and dignity of their home.