10/28/2013 05:23 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Homelessness In Canada: Tories Praised For Combating Problem

OTTAWA - The Conservative government is getting high marks from a non-profit group that fights homelessness, as an estimated 30,000 people sleep on Canada's streets each night.

At a conference on homelessness, a keynote speaker had praise for an otherwise embattled government's commitment to the issue.

"The policy shift that the federal government announced in its budget this year is going to radically overhaul Canada's response to homelessness," Tim Richter, head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said Monday.

"It changes our efforts from simply a response to an emergency situation to one that focuses on permanent housing for chronically homeless people.

"We've not seen anything like it in the past. It's really going to shape how communities respond to homelessness in the future."

Candice Bergen, social development minister since July, affirmed that solving homelessness remains a priority.

"Our goal and our desire is to equip and empower people to lift themselves out of poverty and out of these difficult situations," she said in an interview.

"The ultimate goal is to see them fully participating in society and having the joy of full employment. That's the desire of most everyone."

The critical piece of the strategy, Bergen said, is Housing First, a program that finds residences for the homeless with no strings attached.

The government surprised anti-poverty advocates in its March budget by announcing a five-year renewal of funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

The budget cited evidence from a massive pilot project, run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, that helped find and pay for homes for mentally ill homeless people in five cities across Canada. The pilot also provided recipients with as many social services they needed to stay housed.

Bergen said that in Montreal, 80 per cent of those who enrolled in the program two years ago are still housed, and receiving treatment for their mental-health issues.

Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson, launched a campaign Monday calling on the federal government to develop a long-term housing plan as polls suggest a third of Canadian families struggle to afford housing.

"Our cities and communities need a stable and secure housing market that creates jobs, attracts new workers, meets the needs of seniors and young families and keeps our most vulnerable citizens off the streets," Robertson said as he announced the campaign at the conference.

"The Housing First approach for homelessness is a promising start, but they need to back it up with real results and expand that action to other areas of our affordable housing problem. Canada's housing challenges are too big and too complex for any single order of government to solve on its own."

The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates about half of homeless people in Canada have severe mental illnesses.

A study in Toronto found that 71 per cent of people in shelters have a mental illness, an addiction or both.

Some have suggested, however, that Canada must not limit its efforts to combat homelessness only to those with mental illness. Other Canadians find themselves homeless simply because of changes in economic circumstances.

Richter said while the chronically or episodically homeless — many of them mentally ill — comprise only 15 per cent of Canada's total homeless population, "they take up more than 50 per cent of the resources in the system." Finding those Canadians permanent housing, therefore, is a priority.

Richter added he's heartened to see Ottawa treating homelessness like a national disaster, akin to the Alberta floods.

"When you think about our national response to natural disasters, we have an immediate, co-ordinated emergency response, but then we also concurrently have ideas about how to rebuild and how to prevent it from happening again," he said.

"That is at the heart of our 10-year plan to end homelessness. This problem is on the same scale as natural disaster.

"In Calgary, you saw 75,000 people evacuated and it cost $5 billion to rebuild. Homelessness costs us $7 billion a year and 200,000 people a year grapple with it."

Also on HuffPost

Organizations that help the homeless