08/10/2017 15:37 EDT | Updated 08/10/2017 16:42 EDT

Cities Urge Liberal Government To Rethink Homelessness Strategy, Revamp Funding

The Liberals' first budget in 2016 set aside $111.8 million for the program.

A woman walks past a man sleeping on the street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Feb. 21, 2017.
The Canadian Press
A woman walks past a man sleeping on the street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Feb. 21, 2017.

OTTAWA — Cities struggling to house their homeless are asking the federal Liberals to rethink the government's cornerstone homelessness program amid concerns about burdensome reporting requirements and inadequate funding.

The details outlined in an internal government report point to the need for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy to provide different levels of funding to rural communities that have to house people over vast areas and to urban centres that are hampered in their affordable housing efforts by skyrocketing real estate prices.

The issue of administrative burdens related to the funding also came up repeatedly in meetings last year, detailed in a briefing note to a senior official at Employment and Social Development Canada.

The Canadian Press
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos speaks to reporters at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary on Jan. 24, 2017.

Cities asked the government to simplify reporting requirements about how money was used or to provide extra cash to cover administrative costs, officials write in the report obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The homelessness strategy isn't up for renewal until 2019, but Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has asked officials to begin work now in order to have it ready sooner, said spokesman Mathieu Filion.

Those in the anti-poverty sector expect funding will stay the same under the revamped strategy, which will likely emphasize prevention, something experts have promoted during the Liberals' time in office.

A briefing note to Duclos, also obtained under the access law, suggests that officials believed the strategy should look to help fund clinical supports for "housing first" clients that could include teams of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and substance abuse specialists.

The federal government can't directly fund these types of clinical supports because they are areas of provincial jurisdiction.

The Liberals' first budget in 2016 set aside $111.8 million over two years for the strategy to give cities more flexibility in trying to reduce homelessness.

Funding an issue in Aboriginal communities

An internal government report says some cities had problems spending all that money in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which ended in March, because the cash wasn't available at the start of the fiscal year.

At a mid-year meeting about the money, cities big and small told federal officials that the strategy's focus on "housing first," which calls to immediately house homeless people and provide services, was becoming more difficult to meet.

Larger urban centres reported that a lack of available affordable housing options, including market rental units, was a major hindrance. In rural and remote communities, the challenge was housing people over large geographic areas.

Funding was also a problem in Aboriginal communities.

Indigenous leaders said the "housing first" approach didn't recognize the unique needs of Aboriginal communities, including the need for multi-generational housing and for communal homes.

Three decades after "housing first" was introduced, an international body of research suggests it works. In 2008, the federal government funded the largest such study — a five-year examination of more than 2,200 previously homeless people across five cities.

The key finding from the "At Home/Chez Soi" project, was that those who received "housing first" help stayed housed at much higher rates than those who received what investigators called "treatment as usual," and scored higher on measures of quality of life.

As a result of the study, "housing first" became a focus of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

A follow-up study last year found a significant gap between current federal and provincial funding and what was provided in the original study period.

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