06/19/2015 07:54 EDT | Updated 06/19/2016 05:59 EDT

Medicine Hat Proves Idealism and Realism Can Walk Hand in Hand

RPAP Communications/Flickr

When the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society approached councillor Ted Clugston six years ago with a plan to end homelessness, he was cynical. The group wanted to just give homes to the homeless.

"You're going to end homelessness? Yeah ok, good one," he recalls thinking.

But the society argued that the $20,000 per year cost of housing someone was as much as four times less than the expense of policing and health care when that person lived on the streets. By the time he was elected mayor in 2013, Clugston agreed to let the experiment proceed.

The leap of faith paid off. This year, Medicine Hat became the first city in Canada to effectively end homelessness. Almost 900 people in this small town of 61,000 have been placed in rent-free apartments or houses. And the benefits are clear: police calls and hospital emergency room visits are down.

The world is full of idealistic sentiments: ending homelessness, ending poverty. The lesson of Medicine Hat is that just because it's idealistic doesn't mean it's not realistic. The history of human achievement is one of people setting epic goals and getting past 'it can't be done.'

"Nobody believed man could fly, then along came the Wright brothers," observes Clugston.

Consider small pox. Although vaccines existed since the 1800s, the disease was a fact of life right up to the 1970s, with 50 million cases and two million deaths a year. Could society eradicate a virus prevalent in every nation? You might as well try to stamp out the common cold. But groups like the World Health Organization believed it could be done and devoted a massive effort and resources starting in 1958. It took 20 years, but in 1979 small pox was declared extinct.

We wrote recently about child soldiers. Last year, the United Nations set a goal to stop national security forces around the world from recruiting children by 2016. Of the eight nations identified as still having children in their armies, seven now have concrete plans in place to meet the target and one, Chad, has already been declared free of child soldiers.

Investing in idealism means having faith in humanity.

Raised in a strict conservative family, Clugston says he once firmly believed that, since he had worked hard to get where he was, the homeless poor were just lazy. He had to check his assumptions. And he found that, when you choose to believe in people, they'll often exceed your expectations.

While police and emergency visits fell, Medicine Hat officials were mystified to see courtroom appearances rise by seven per cent. When they investigated, they discovered that the newly housed citizens were getting their lives in order by voluntarily settling outstanding legal issues, from unpaid fines to arrest warrants for past criminal offenses.

Six other Alberta cities expect to follow in Medicine Hat's footsteps, thanks to support put in place by the previous Alberta government. More than 10,500 individuals and families have been housed. In the U.S., Utah is close to ending homelessness using the same approach.

Clugston is already looking to the next idealistic goal: ending local hunger. City food banks will give food to anyone who wants it, and the only questions they will ask are: Why are you hungry? And how can we help change that?

The lesson of Medicine Hat is one the world needs to take to heart this year. The period to accomplish plans and targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is coming to an end, and the world is asking, What's next?

The MDGs were born out of idealism. Although all the targets will not be met, incredible strides were made on issues like education, and child and maternal health.

The world must not lose that sense of idealism. Just like eradicating small pox or ending homelessness, let's aim for idealism, and believe ending extreme poverty is achievable.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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