What's the cost of the status quo?

What's the cost of the status quo?

When the city of Medicine Hat in southeast Alberta decided to opt for a radical approach to end chronic homelessness, there were a little over 1,100 personsexperiencing homelessness, including a little over 200 children, in a city whose population was, at the time, about 61,000. 

These people were experiencing complex challenges, issues and difficulties, the first of which is that they didn’t have a stable roof over their head. The Housing Firstapproach, as the name strongly implies, starts by giving unhoused people a place to stay. Once people are settled in, other services can be offered, covering a wide range of needs. 

Last year the city of Medicine Hat (current population: 63,000) declared it had no chronic homelessness anymore. The status lasted five months and today there are a few people considered “chronically” homeless (approximately 20), in addition to the few dozen who are in and out of homelessness and those whose situation is precarious. It is extraordinarily difficult to keep chronic homelessness to zero. Certainly in Ottawa our numbers (adjusted for population size) aren’t so low. 

You know what’s even more awesome than the demonstrated success of Housing First in this small Alberta town? That when the mayor went about selling his residents and taxpayers on the initiative, he did a cost-benefit analysis and spoke of the savings this would represent for those who have to foot the bill. 

Then-mayor Ted Clugston took some convincing before he started championing the idea. But when he did, he smashed it: “If you can get somebody off the street, it saves the emergency room visits, it saves the police, it saves the justice system — and so when you add up all those extra costs … you can buy a lot of housing for that amount of money.”

Why, I want to know, do we not always talk about the economic benefits of progressive ideas like Housing First or fighting our car dependency or improving infrastructure or investing in mental health supports instead of hiring more cops? 

Why, I want to know, do we not ever talk about the costs — economic, but also social — of keeping things the way they are? Why is it that progressives are unable to talk about cost-benefit analyses to people who understand nothing but? Why can’t we convince suburbanites that the best way to keep their tax bill low is to provide enough supports that residents everywhere have what they need to be healthy and productive? That progressive policies properly understood and applied are the best way to not just balance the budget but reach that lovely place where we stack up surpluses for a rainy day? 

That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Ottawa Citizen.