A few weeks back, I was honored to keynote Homeward Trust's Road Home Conference in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It was a sold out event with sessions that were literally standing room only. For a homelessness conference, that is amazing. It was an awesome time and a real learning experience for me. I was also able to connect in real life with some twitter friends like Tim Richter. Tim is President and CEO of the my campaign, Calgary Homeless Foundation and has supported We Are Visible from day one.
While there, I met Murray Soroka, who is now on my list of heroes. Murray owned five restaurants and sold them all to open a day center and basically drink coffee all day with homeless people. Just imagine the conversation he had with his wife to sell that idea!
Murray founded Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre in Edmonton. The 4,000 sq ft centre provides showers, laundry services, access to computers with internet, legal advice, food, storage and medical services, all for free. That's all cool and everything, but what's truly amazing is the local faith based community came together to have real impact in changing lives. A group of local churches have now housed 400 people in apartments using the housing first model. I am sure other churches have done something similar, and if you know of any please leave a comment below. But this is the first time I heard of a church supporting the housing first model.
For those that don't know what "housing first" is, it's a model where housing is provided first in a recovery plan. The old model is a homeless person has to get sober -- or their mental illness go away -- before some form of housing is provided. If you think about that for a second you will realize how unpractical the old model is. It's nearly impossible to get sober while going to the bathroom behind a dumpster day after day. And mental illness left unattended on the streets does not heal itself. People need dignity to heal and housing must be first.
Of course, you can see why many people have trouble with this, and especially churches. Pay for an apartment and allow the person to continue to drink might seem crazy. But housing first saves lives and saves money. It has been proven time after time that once a person finds housing, they eventually want to change ON THEIR OWN. The typical church homeless solution is forced structure. A recovering homeless person does great while having structure in their life, but when they return to society, and the structure is gone, they often go back to drinking and drugs. And I should clarify some. Most, if not all, church recovery programs are very picky on who they allow in. The most drug-addicted and the most mentally ill are left to die on the street. The housing first model helps the most vulnerable who are ignored -- yet need our help the most.
Let me be point-blank honest here. If we are going to really fight homelessness in our community, we must change from the old shelter system to more of the housing first model. We also need the support of the faith based communities. I still believe faith based organizations can make the biggest difference. I have traveled all over and have only seen a very few who are actually having a real impact permanently getting people off the street. You cannot imagine how excited I was when Murray told me a dozen or so churches are paying rent on 400 apartments for homeless people!