07/10/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 09/09/2014 05:59 EDT

The Backlash Against "Homeless Spikes" Misses the Point

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 09: A general view of a set of metal spikes outside a private block of residential flats on June 9, 2014 in London, England. The metal spikes which have recently been installed are believed to be to deter homeless people from sleeping in the alcove, which is situated outside a block of private flats in Southwark, London. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Stories about "homeless spikes" created a collective gasp on the Internet. One popular publication asked its Facebook fans whether the spikes were immoral, and nearly everyone emphatically said "yes." When Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre realized such spikes existed in Montreal he forced the property owner to remove them. The Internet collectively cheered. And everyone missed the point.

Homeless spikes aren't the problem: homelessness is the problem. Rather than focusing on how urban residents and businesses cope with the impact of homelessness, we should concentrate on alleviating homelessness. Up to 200,000 people experience homelessness every year in Canada at an estimated cost to society of $7 billion. Fortunately, the solution is straightforward: give the homeless housing and support. It might even actually save us money.

People become homeless for many reasons. Laziness is not the problem. Studies show that roughly two-thirds of homeless people suffer from mental illness - nearly half have suffered traumatic brain injuries. The distance from the football field to the streets is shorter than we'd like to think. Moreover, roughly two-thirds suffer from addiction issues. While some might view this as a moral failing, the reality is that many if not most of these people grew up in households where they were surrounded by violence and substance abuse. That easily gets passed on from one generation to the next.

While some might argue that many homeless people should just "get a job," it's not that simple. In an increasingly professionalized workforce with increasingly automated hiring practices, walking onto a job site and earning a job by demonstrating willingness to work is an outdated concept. Hiring is more elaborate than ever. Lacking regular Internet access, clean (office appropriate) clothes, adequate grooming, a phone number, or a mailing address, are significant barriers. Licensing restrictions and tighter employment legislation and liability laws provide additional challenges. Those barriers might be reasonably low for people with stable housing, but they are daunting when one hasn't had a good sleep, a shower, or a regular meal in days, weeks, or months.

Some might shrug and claim that homelessness isn't their problem. Charity will take care of it. That statement is far removed from reality. Even if society decides that homelessness isn't a priority, the costs don't go away. They still need to be policed, cleaned up after, sheltered during the winter, treated for mental and physical health issues, and sometimes imprisoned because they break the law out of desperation. Credible estimates put the costs per homeless person at up to $130,000 annually depending on a number of factors.

Homelessness has a much more direct impact on urban residents than everyone else, since most homeless people migrate to downtown cores. Suburban areas aren't walkable to homeless shelters and don't have many places to find shelter if one is refused access to a shelter due to intoxication. That leads the destitute to flee from the country, the reserve, or the suburb to the city. Homelessness isn't a downtown problem. It's not even a city problem. It's a provincial problem.

Aggressive panhandlers scare residents and keep frightened suburbanites from spending leisure time downtown. This costs downtown businesses money and erodes public safety. Public spaces become less safe when the only people on the streets are panhandlers. Having to wake up a homeless person sleeping in front of one's shop is not only unpleasant, but potentially risky. Moreover, they often urinate or leave behind trash. Those spikes may seem tasteless, but they don't exist because local property owners are immoral. They exist because downtown residents shoulder the burden of homelessness.

While non-urban residents might find "homeless spikes" distasteful, they are basically the urban equivalent of fences. And no one gets upset when their neighbour puts up a fence to keep people out or calls the police when the see a "suspicious person." It's not legal to put up a fence on a city sidewalk, and the police can't just drag away every person who loiters in front of a building.

Fortunately there is a widely tested solution endorsed by experts who range from libertarian to socialist. The shockingly simple truth is that the best way to deal with homelessness is to give them housing, treatment, and counselling. The cost per person? Estimates range from $10,000 to $37,000 per year. This can even get some seemingly unemployable people back into the workforce, further mitigating the cost imposed by homelessness.

Some might argue that if we just gave housing to homeless people, the system would be abused. However, housing first programs are closely monitored and spots are only given to those who are in desperate need. The alternative isn't that they pay market rate for rent. The alternative is that they move from shelter to street to shelter. These are people who will require government intervention no matter what. We either pay for housing and mental health support, or policing and acute care. There is no "free" solution to homelessness.

Providing stable housing and support can be cheaper and more humane than shunting them from the street corner to the hospital to the mental institution to the prison or grave. It is an approach that has tested in cities such as Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, and is on pace to effectively end homelessness in conservative Utah by 2015. The Mental Health Commission of Canada's Chez Soi study yielded such positive results that the governing Conservatives have been sold on housing first. Governments representing every major political party in North America have embraced this approach. That is as close to consensus as it gets in the policy world.

The really unfortunate part of the "homeless spikes" panic is that everyone leapt to blame the property owners rather than addressing the issue: we have a homelessness problem. Gawking at the symptoms rather than searching for a cure is a waste of time. Those solutions exist, and are widely agreed upon by experts. It's time that provinces and municipalities move aggressively to mitigate homelessness.