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Updated: 6th January 2019 01:35

Homeless need more funding, fewer promises: conference organizers

When Amanda Noble, a York University social work graduate, recently set out to find how much governments have actually spent to help the homeless, she realized those numbers were a bit of a mystery.

Amanda Noble's quest began when she looked at the parade of politicians pitching promises here and there to help end homelessness.

She thought it would be interesting to compare the value of those promises to the actual costs of people living on the streets.

One estimate showed homelessness costs Canada between $4.5 billion and $6 billion each year for emergency shelters, social service costs and increased burdens on the health care and justice systems.

But when the social work graduate student at York University tried to find out how much governments had spent to help the homeless, she realized those numbers were a bit of a mystery.

"It's been very difficult to find concrete pictures of where the money's actually going and how much is actually being spent, as opposed to being promised," Noble said.

The federal government is throwing $7 billion at bridges and roadways, and $2 billion at housing. I'm thinking that perhaps the homeless are now going to have new bridges under which they can sleep.

In a lot of cases, she said, big, splashy promises weren't necessarily followed up by action. And despite combing government registries, it was nearly impossible to figure out exactly where the money went.

"It just kind of seems like they're putting a big Band-Aid over the situation," she said.

Her supervising professor at York, Thaddeus Hwong, said he was surprised at the lack of government accountability.

"I would say nobody in Canada actually has a clear sense of how much the governments have spent and how much we gain from the spending," he said.

"There's no comprehensive vision in dealing with homelessness in Canada, even though almost one per cent of our population is homeless."

Noble's findings will be presented this week in Calgary at a massive interdisciplinary conference dealing with all aspects of homelessness.

About 600 people from across the country will share information on the complex interplay of social and economic factors that contribute to people ending up without a place to live, said organizer John Graham, a University of Calgary social work professor.

Homeless estimated at 350,000

"It's a terrible problem that has a profound impact on the lives of people — and there are estimates that there are upwards of 350,000 homeless people in this country," he said.

Senator Art Eggleton, who will take part in a roundtable at the conference, said he heard similar concerns to those raised by Noble's research as he held hearings as chairman of the Canadian Senate Subcommittee on Cities.

"A lot of people think the federal government should have a national strategy on housing, on homelessness and on poverty," he said.

"They feel that the federal government hasn't been doing enough in any of these areas, and the biggest issue they have is the programs are all short-term and it's difficult to plan, especially for something like housing."

Much of the existing funding runs out at the end of March, Eggleton said, and while some extensions and additions were promised in last month's budget, it's not yet clear where the money will go.

"The federal involvement in housing has been hit-and-miss for some time," he said. "There has to be, definitely, a co-ordinated approach."

The problem of homelessness is growing worse as those who were living paycheque to paycheque fall victim to an unstable economy, said social work professor Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, another conference organizer.

Shouting together

One goal of the gathering is for people from across the country to shout together that more help is needed, she said.

"The federal government is throwing $7 billion at bridges and roadways, and $2 billion at housing," she said. "I'm thinking that perhaps the homeless are now going to have new bridges under which they can sleep."

The issue of homelessness has been growing for years, but has in many ways managed to stay hidden to the public, said Eggleton.

"They see people on the street, people on grates, people in doorways. That they understand," he said.

"But there's an awful lot more people sleeping in conditions that are deplorable — either in garages, or doubling up in people's living rooms. They're in effect homeless, but they're not on the street."

The public expects the levels of government to work together to fix that, he said, adding such conferences are a step forward.

"We need to put forward to the public ideas on how this can be solved."

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