04/08/2014 06:01 EDT | Updated 06/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Housing mentally ill homeless cheaper than alternative: study

New research has found it’s cheaper for governments to house homeless people with mental illnesses rather than pay for the problems associated with homelessness — including health care, policing and temporary shelters.

The research findings come from a $110-million study started in 2008 in five Canadian cities — including Winnipeg.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada used a federal grant to see if a “housing first” approach to homelessness and mental illness was a good way of transitioning people off of the streets.

It was the largest research study in the world targeting homelessness and mental health.

Essentially, the program, dubbed At Home, found housing for the homeless and mentally ill.

'Most terrible experience of my life'

Winnipeg’s Joe Hatch was one of them.

For 12 years, Hatch battled mental illness, eventually ending up on Winnipeg streets for a year and a half — spending many nights under the Osborne Street Bridge.

The university-educated man was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and lost his job, his wife, family and friends.

“It was the most terrible experience of my life,” he said.

Then, Hatch became involved with the At Home program, which found him a place to live on his own.

“Oh it’s been great,” said Hatch. “It’s a very nice place.”

He’s now had stable housing for years and also has a job with the program.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that without housing, I would have gone nowhere,” he said.

Cheaper for taxpayers

On Tuesday, the results of the four-year study were released confirming that putting a roof over someone’s head helped them work through mental illness and kept them off the street long-term.

With more than 2,000 participants in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton, researchers said they found the program not only found the housing-first approach worked at keeping people off the street, but it also cost taxpayers less.

Researchers found for every $10 spent on a housing-first approach, taxpayers saved $21.72 on other services.

Feds buy in

It’s a strategy Canada’s Minister of State Candice Bergen said the federal government is already implementing.

“We want lasting results and that’s what housing first has demonstrated it can bring,” she said.

Bergen said the federal government’s homelessness partnering strategy will now include a housing-first approach.

Groups that currently get federal funding will have to put 65 per cent of it to programs like At Home.

Bergen said the savings on “emergency services, hospitals, police [and] shelters” will make a big impact.

”The cost that is borne by the taxpayer is big,” she said.

Louise Bradley, the CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said the program wasn’t just about providing people with a house.

“At Home offered them physical safety, but it also offered them a rare and precious thing — dignity and respect,” said Bradley.

But the director of operations at a Winnipeg homeless shelter said he’s cautious about the results.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” said Dan Maxson of Siloam Mission. “It doesn’t address the community issues. It doesn’t address all of their health issues.”