04/08/2013 03:14 EDT | Updated 06/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Frank McKenna Getting Frank About Homelessness

"I come here more as an imposter than a role model, I've not accepted my share of the burden, and that's going to change starting right now."

The above quote is from Frank McKenna, as he addressed the Let's Get Frank About Homelessness dinner in Fredericton, a fundraising initiative organized by the Community Action Group on Homelessness Fredericton (CAGHF) to both raise awareness and money to combat homelessness, to provide those on the streets and in emergency shelters with permanent housing.

In addressing the 500 attendees at the diner, in making the above statement, McKenna was being upfront - "frank" - that he had not been a leading advocate in the past on homelessness. To show the importance of this issue for him, however, upon making this statement McKenna pledged to donate $100,000 to the organizers of the dinner, to help in the cause of alleviating - and ultimately ending - homelessness.

The donation was made in the name of Bob Kenny, a well-known volunteer in Fredericton - who was not able to make it to the dinner.

The Let's Get Frank dinner was a remarkable event, with members of the community - from various walks of life - coming together for the cause of homelessness. I was glad to have had the opportunity to attend the dinner myself.

During the dinner, the case for Housing First was clearly made, including the fiscal and moral case to end homelessness and to help those on the streets or in emergency shelters find permanent housing.

The presentations at the dinner included a dialogue between CAGHF's Tim Ross and Calgary Housing First advocate Tim Richter on the success of efforts in Calgary and Alberta to combat homelessness, and how such efforts could be implemented in New Brunswick. Richter cited successes in Calgary in alleviating pressures (and thereby financial costs) on public services by promoting affordable housing, referring to steep drops in calls to police, amount of time spent in jail, and amount of time spent in the court system.

Richter talked about successes in other Alberta cities, including Medicine Hat which was one housing development away from ending homelessness.

A press release from the Calgary Homeless Foundation highlighted successes of efforts in reducing homelessness. From 2008 to 2012, homelessness decreased by 11.4%. The press release cited data from the Homeless Management Information System which showed that, of a sample of 270 people provided with housing, "use of public systems went down by 40 per cent," and "emergency room visits and days in jail decreased by about 40 per cent and interactions with police were down by 60 per cent."

From this data, it is clear that demands on public services decreased when rates of homelessness decreased. Where Calgary once had the fastest growing rate of homelessness in Canada, these reductions represent significant process, both in terms of fiscal responsibility - in reducing demands on public services - and morally, in combating a serious social problem.

In the dialogue between Ross and Richter, Tim Richter cited successes in Fredericton such as the work of the John Howard Society. He stated that New Brunswick's smaller size - compared with Alberta - could be a distinct advantage, that the "big small town" environment in the province created a strong sense of community, an environment where people readily get together to help each other out. This was clear in how people quickly got together to help residents of public housing developments in the Isaac's Way building in downtown Fredericton which burned down in a Thanksgiving Day fire.

The fiscal and moral case for ending homelessness, for combating poverty, continues to be important in fiscally difficult times. Unfortunately, too often governments of various political stripes find the poor and vulnerable to be an easy target for budget cuts, especially as the poor are less able to politically organize than the wealthy and the middle-class. However, such actions, ignoring the need for housing and ignoring the need to combat homelessness, ultimately lead to greater fiscal and social problems.

In Saint John, a report by the Saint John Human Development Council shows that, over the course of the last year, use of emergency shelters in the city have increased by 25%.

Randy Hatfield of the Human Development Council, speaking to the CBC, highlighted especially notable occupancy and vacancy numbers in Saint John - where there was 88.5% occupancy at the Salvation Army and 61% occupancy at Coverdale Centre, the city had the highest apartment vacancy rate in Canada, at 9.7%. "How can we connect these dots?" stated Hatfield, citing the need for more affordable housing in mixed-income developments and the need to work with landlords to provide stable housing in vacant apartments for those without homes.

As shown at the Let's Get Frank About Homelessness dinner, the fiscal and moral cases for housing are clear. It is now time for public officials to act, to aggressively tackle the problem of homelessness, and to make housing first a top policy priority.