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Conservative Canadian town is ending homelessness

By Cathryn Wellner / June 10, 2015

Signs like this will soon be more rare in Medicine Hat, Alberta; photo by A McLin, via Flickr Creative Commons

No one would mistake Medicine Hat, Alberta’s mayor Ted Clugston for any version of a bleeding-heart liberal. He is more in the camp of those who figure people can pull up their bootstraps if they really try.

When his province proposed the city adopt a housing-first model for dealing with homelessness, he was more than a little skeptical. That was 2009, and the idea that addicted, mentally ill and unemployed people should be housed before they made life changes was anathema to him.

Clugston, elected mayor in late 2013, was on council at the time and actively opposed the idea of tackling homelessness with housing. The Medicine Hat Community Housing Society brought him around. It took years of persuading, but he finally came to realize the economic, moral and social value of what they were advocating.

Medicine Hat was doing what most cities still do. Volunteer organizations were providing shelters, clothing and meals for over a thousand homeless residents. With a population of only 61,000, they were having trouble keeping up with the needs. On top of that, the cost of health services and policing for a down-and-out population was stressing those institutions.

Something clearly had to change, and it has, drastically. Adopting the Housing First model, Medicine Hat has provided housing for 875 homeless people, including 280 children. Helping people struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues and helping those who are unemployed and at the end of their resources is both easier and more cost effective when those people have fixed addresses.

As a consequence, Medicine Hat is edging toward the status of becoming the first municipality in Canada to end homelessness. My own city of Kelowna, British Columbia, has taken small steps in that direction, but most of our homelessness is still addressed through charity rather than through the dignity of ensuring people have housing. We have a lot to learn from communities that have adopted the housing-first model.

Thanks, Medicine Hat.

Read more about Medicine Hat’s commitment to ending homelessness:

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