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At Budget Time, the Poor Get Ignored

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In times of budget deficits, austerity frequently becomes the buzzword with cuts to social programs, the civil service, and balancing the budget in strict mathematical terms. The programs often most readily cut are those designed to help the poorest and most vulnerable -- as this group has less resources to organize itself politically and lobby governments.

This tendency is true of governments of various political stripes, the Chretien Liberals abolished Canada's national housing program -- making Canada the only industrialized country without a national public housing program -- in the 1990s while, more recently, the Alward Conservatives here in New Brunswick have been rolling back provisions of the last government's poverty reduction program.

Cutting programs that help the poor may be politically expedient, but it is not morally right, and fiscally can have disastrous consequences.

On the fiscal consequences, not addressing (in particular not solving) the problems around poverty creates more costs for government services -- from health to law enforcement as, for example, those who are homeless and lack proper nutrition are more likely to need healthcare services and, in the case of the latter, more likely to have run-ins with the law. As well, neglecting poverty reduction leaves people out of the province's economic and social life, thus decreasing government tax revenues.

Governments cannot and should not approach fiscal issues by sidelining the poor and vulnerable. In this context, a talk given last week in Fredericton by Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Calgary Homelessness Foundation, is especially pertinent.

Richter spoke to a full audience that included party leaders, MLAs, community activists, religious organizations, and other stakeholders. Richter outlined Calgary's Housing First plan -- a ten year plan to end homelessness rather than just manage homelessness. Managing homelessness entails focus mostly on support shelters -- which do play an important, if short-term, role -- aimed at temporary accommodations where ending homelessness means a focus on permanent housing and social inclusion.

In the long-run, in addition to ending homelessness, it saves costs related to healthcare (ie. emergency room visits) and law enforcement. In his talk, Richter stated that the cost for a chronically homeless person in Calgary was $134,000 per person per year. By contrast, with long-term housing and support services, the costs were $10,000 to $25,000 per year.

The Calgary program includes set goals -- to reduce the maximum average length of a stay in an emergency shelter to seven days by 2018 and eliminate 85 per cent of emergency beds by that same year -- with interim goals for these set for 2014. Overall, the aim is to eliminate the kind of long-term homelessness that lasts months, years, and even decades and, through rapid re-housing, to promote social inclusion.

Timothy Ross, of the Community Action Group on Homelessness Fredericton -- who organized the Richter talk -- in a CBC interview cited a local example, a 12-unit apartment building run by the John Howard Society on Fredericton's northside where, by providing proper housing to those who were previously homeless, tenants' run-ins with the justice system dropped from 465 per year to 30, hospital use was down from 136 nights in a year to 17, and 9-11 calls down from 34 to 1 per year.

This represents a dramatic cost savings in public services and a dramatic improvement in individuals' lives by focusing on long-term housing and social inclusion, rather than only temporary solutions.

Randy Hatfield, of the Saint John Human Development Council - who attended the Richter talk - talking to the CBC also cited the importance of a Housing First strategy, citing problems of sub-standard housing units in Saint John and the looming crisis in social housing if this was not attended to right away.

It is certain such a looming housing crisis would entail pressures on healthcare and law enforcement services that would ultimately cost the province more in the long-run.

Calgary's Housing First strategy was developed with input from business, government, and non-profits, and had crucial support from then Alberta premier Ed Stelmach. In any poverty reduction strategy, while municipalities and non-profits play important roles, support from the provincial government is crucial. This existed here in New Brunswick with the last Liberal government which developed its poverty reduction strategy through consultations with business, government, and non-profits, as well as focussed on economic and social inclusion and, by focussing on ending poverty, made fiscal as well as moral sense.

Unfortunately, this commitment is not seen from the current Alward government, even though they were supportive of poverty reduction when in opposition and during the 2010 election campaign.

Promoting access to pharmaceuticals for those on low-incomes shortens hospital stays, as would proper levels of welfare payments where recipients can afford adequate nutrition and a housing first strategy where those in need would have proper shelter. Furthermore, there needs to be investment in areas such as education to promote upward mobility for the next generation.

A narrow pocket-book approach, without a broader and more long-term vision, is dangerous. Helping the weakest and most vulnerable rise up out of poverty and homelessness is both morally right and makes fiscal sense.