06/16/2015 09:54 EDT | Updated 06/16/2016 05:59 EDT

Communities pledge to find 20,000 homeless people permanent shelter by 2018

OTTAWA - Twenty-one Canadian communities are banding together to try and find homes for 20,000 homeless people by 2018.

Cities in six provinces are recruiting volunteers to conduct local surveys of homeless populations to assess housing and health-care needs and build a database to help find permanent shelter for those most in need.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness is spearheading the Canadian campaign, modeled on a similar U.S. program that found homes for more than 100,000 people over four years.

Among the 235,000 Canadians who experience homelessness each year, there are an estimated 33,000 known as the chronically homeless — those who struggle to find shelter in part because of complex psychological and medical problems.

A strategy known as Housing First has found that providing those people homes, backed up with social support, is more effective and cost-efficient at getting them off the street than first treating their underlying conditions.

Alliance CEO Tim Richter says the program will work with existing financial resources but in order to really end homelessness more meaningful federal investment will be required.

"Homelessness is a solvable problem and we believe if we work together, apply proven strategies like Housing First, we'll achieve meaningful, nationwide reductions in homelessness within three years," he said.

The 21 communities signed up to participate in the program include major Canadian cities such as Calgary, Regina, Ottawa and Halifax, as well as smaller communities in British Columbia and Ontario.

In 2008, the federal government contributed $110 million for a five-year research project to explore the Housing First strategy compared to traditional programs addressing homelessness.

The project found an average of 73 per cent of participants in the Housing First group remained in stable housing, compared to 32 per cent for the group receiving usual care.

In 2014, the Conservatives announced a further $600 million for the program over the next five years.