REGINA - An Albertan who is helping lead the charge to eliminate homelessness in Calgary is imploring Regina to take action before the cost of doing so increases exponentially.

A Tuesday afternoon session at the Mayor's Housing Summit included an address from Tim Richter, who is currently the president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

He was also part of the group that in 2008 started Calgary's 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Richter says Regina's growth has put it in a position equivalent to where Calgary was in 1992.

He says the city, the province, and the private sector will have to completely change how they think about dealing with housing.

He says there's ample evidence that the reactionary system currently in place, where people go to an emergency shelter first, is backwards.

"A shelter in homelessness is a bit like building a parking garage to deal with a traffic jam," he said. "You have to find a way to move the cars, not store them."

He explained that Calgary's strategy, which eventually led to a partnership with several other Alberta cities and the province of Alberta declaring its intention to end homelessness, was based on the efforts of 350 U.S. cities that have homeless strategies in place.

While the traditional approach involves forcing a homeless person to address root causes like addiction or unemployment before housing is provided, Alberta makes housing the first priority.

"Once you get them into an apartment they can begin to deal with all that other stuff from the safety and stability of a home," Richter said.

He argued that the results are tangible in Alberta already.

Calgary has managed to cut its homeless rate by more than 11 per cent in just four years, he said, while Edmonton has seen a 30 per cent decrease, Medicine Hat has experienced a 40 per cent cut, and the margins are even higher in Lethbridge and Fort McMurray.

Richter's figures suggest that getting 6,600 homeless from across the province into housing has meant 61 per cent fewer homeless calls to EMS, 56 per cent fewer emergency room visits, 64 per cent fewer days spent in hospital, 59 per cent fewer interactions with police, and 84 per cent fewer days in jail.

Those additional benefits are what helped convince the Alberta government get behind the provincial strategy, Richter said.

He said once the cities joined forces and pitched their plan to the government, outlining how it could cost a tenth as much to house a homeless person as it does to provide shelter and other services, it was relatively easy to convince the province to get on board.

But he stressed the housing situation will only get worse if rental units are lost to condominium conversions or demolition, adding the private sector needs to have a stake in any homelessness action plan.

(CJME)

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