The Town That Eliminated Homelessness

In 2009, the city of Medicine Hat, in southern Alberta, Canada, pledged to put an end to homelessness. Now city officials say they’ve fulfilled their promise.

The answer seems simple: if you’ve got no place to go, they’ll provide you with housing. Nowadays, under a programme called Housing First, no one in the city spends more than ten days in an emergency shelter or on the streets.

Like most places, housing is tight in Medicine Hat, and frequent flooding in the past few years has added to their problems. But, with money chipped in by the province, the city built many new homes.

“We’re pretty much able to meet that standard today. Even quicker, actually, sometimes,” Mayor Ted Clugston says. He admits that when the project began in 2009, when he was an alderman, he was an active opponent of the plan. “I even said some dumb things like, ‘Why should they have granite countertops when I don’t,'” he says. “However, I’ve come around to realise that this makes financial sense.”

Clugston says that it costs about $20,000 a year to house someone. If they’re on the street, it can cost up to $100,000 a year. “This is the cheapest and the most humane way to treat people,” he says.

“Housing First turns everything on its head. It used to be, ‘You want a home, get off the drugs or deal with your mental health issues,'” Clugston says. “If you’re addicted to drugs, it’s going to be pretty hard to get off them, if you’re sleeping under a park bench.”

And the strategy seems to have worked. In Medicine Hat, hospital emergency room visits and interactions with police have dropped. But there was one change that initially surprised Clugston — court appearances went up.

“They end up dealing with their past, atoning for their sins,” he says. Mayor Clugston believes that no one on the streets is unreachable.

He says city staff found housing for one man, but he insisted on leaving to sleep under cars. Day after day, they’d search him out and take him back to his new home.

“They did it 75 times, but they had the patience and they didn’t give up on him and, eventually, he ended up staying in the house,” he says. “Ultimately, people do want a roof over their heads.”