03/12/2013 08:08 EDT | Updated 05/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Politicians Get Frank About Homelessness

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BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 20: An elderly Polish man takes coffee after having a free lunch at the Bahnhofsmission Protestant charity facility at Zoo train station on February 20, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. The Bahnhofsmission feeds up to 600 needy men and women every day, up from 400 only three years ago. Approximately 60% of the visitors are from Eastern Europe, many of them workers in low-paying jobs who became unemployed and ran out of money. Dieter Puhl, who runs the Bahnhofsmission, says he is seeing a steady increase in the number of visitors, especially among older Germans whose pensions are insufficient for them to make ends meet. Poverty in Germany, defined as someone who makes less than 60% of the median wage, has risen steadily in recent years, and according to statistics 14% of people in Germany lived below the poverty line in 2010. Both poverty and pensions that have not kept up with the rising cost of living will be contested topics in federal elections scheduled later for this year. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Leadership races are an important time for a party to define -- or re-define -- itself. I have had a chance to talk to two of the contenders for the federal Liberal leadership, former MP Martha Hall-Findlay and Ottawa lawyer David Bertschi. It was great to hear that both emphasized the importance of social housing, citing both the business and humanitarian cases for combating homelessness.

The businesses case is that getting people into housing, off the streets, saves public spending in healthcare and law enforcement, and is an important step in bringing people into the economy and into gainful employment. These are factors cited in, among other places, Malcolm Gladwell's article "Million Dollar Murray." The humanitarian case for ending homelessness is that it is unethical for a society -- and its political leaders -- to neglect the poor and vulnerable, those who most need help.

It is encouraging that this message, Housing First, is being received by policymakers and it is a positive sign to see the social policy side of the equation factoring into the federal Liberal leadership race. In my conversation with him, David Bertschi also emphasized the importance of mental healthcare, citing this as a too-often neglected issue by policy-makers. Martha Hall-Findlay cited childcare as a centre-piece of her platform.

Unlike the 1990s, where public policy seemed focused almost solely on austerity, there seems to be a growing realization of the importance of both the social policy and fiscal/business sides of the equation.

On the issue of ending homelessness, Tim Richter, past president and CEO of the Calgary Homelessness Foundation, spoke in Fredericton a while back on efforts in Calgary to end homelessness, on how he found a valuable partner with Alberta's Progressive Conservative premier, Ed Stelmach.

Here in Fredericton, Timothy Ross of the Community Action Group on Homelessness (CAGH) and Fredericton City Councillor Mike O'Brien are playing key roles in promoting the building of affordable housing in the city.

On March 20th, at the Fredericton Convention Centre, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna will be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser to raise money for social housing, Let's Get Frank About Homelessness (Tickets to this event can be purchased online here or by phone at 1-506-451-7791; the reception will be at 5:30PM and the dinner at 6:30PM). This event will be an opportunity to draw attention to the issues of homelessness and the benefits of social housing, to shed new light on the case for Housing First.

The efforts to end homelessness in Calgary -- at roughly halfway through a comprehensive ten-year plan -- has resulted in over 4,000 people getting permanent housing, and homelessness in Calgary going down for the first time in 20 years. These efforts have recognized the unique needs of youth (under 24) and the high rates of homelessness among First Nations (where First Nations are 2-3 per cent of Calgary's population, they represent 21 per cent of the city's homeless).

On the efforts in Calgary to combat homelessness, a statement from CAGH stated that "this work has resulted in significant cost savings to the public through reductions in emergency room visits, hospital nights, and justice system interactions." In this same statement, Frank McKenna stated that "there is a solid business case for ending homelessness" and that "I'm looking forward to supporting this cause that's an example of social innovation and fiscal prudence."

In fiscally difficult times, too often policymakers take the easy route, targeting the poor who are not as politically well-connected or organized as the wealthy and the middle-class. It was a federal Liberal government in the mid-1990s which abolished Canada's national housing program which is something that in the long-run has negative social and fiscal consequences.

In this context, an emphasis on the business case for ending homelessness is essential. Fulfilling short-term demands to "balance budgets" can ultimately result in more public expenditures in addition to social crisis. There is a needed shift -- which seems to be happening -- among policy-makers to recognize the importance of combating homelessness, of standing up for the poor and vulnerable.

In all this, it is important to engage all stakeholders -- anti-poverty activists, the business community, and entrepreneurs (The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative -- BCAPI -- in Saint John is an excellent example of engaging business leaders in the work of poverty-reduction).

An understanding of both the fiscal and moral cases is key to achieving this broad consensus. The Let's Get Frank About Homelessness fundraising dinner is potentially a pivotal event in raising awareness and promoting the necessity of ending homelessness.

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