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“Homelessness is a black hole. No matter how much we give you, you’ll suck it all in, the money will disappear, and you’ll come back telling me the situation has gotten worse,” a local politician argued to Lynn Macaulay many years ago.

“And you know what? At that time, he was kind of right.”

Macaulay is the initiatives coordinator for the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG), a network of agencies and people working to end homelessness in Waterloo Region.

And yet, thanks to pioneering Canadian – and local – research, Macaulay says the black hole is no longer.

“We now have models and research [which] tell us there are meaningful and impactful interventions we can use to get people housed now.”

Macaulay is talking about the “housing first” approach to ending homelessness. In social-services-speak, housing first combines permanent independent housing with individualized support services. The motivating common-sense idea is that when people are worried about where they’ll sleep they have a harder time addressing mental health or substance abuse issues, or finding a job.

Every person looking for housing has slightly different needs. Locally, about 75 per cent of the people who use shelters only need one stay before they find some kind of housing on their own. Those peoples’ needs’ typically revolve around money; they need more to afford market rents.

Another 15 per cent are episodically homeless, and the last 10 per cent are persistently homeless, often for reasons relating to mental illness and/or addictions.

In a recent research project Courtney Pankratz analyzed one strategy for finding durable housing for the highest-needs group: portable rent subsidies. To complete her Masters degree in community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, Pankratz interviewed 50 participants in the Region of Waterloo’s Support to End Persistent Homelessness (STEPhome) program, which provides intensive case management for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Roughly half of the people Pankratz interviewed received, in addition to STEPhome’s case management, a portable rent subsidy of up to $494 per month. The project’s dramatic results surprised her and Macaulay: the group who received the subsidy were far more likely to find stable, better-quality housing and report an improved quality of life.

“[The subsidy] gives people back their dignity, and allows them to make some choices in their life,” Pankratz said.

Her findings affirm the Region of Waterloo’s commitment to housing first, which was approved by council in March, and confirm also that subsidies are a nimble and effective tool to use to pursue a housing first strategy, especially in our consistently-warming and under-supplied housing market.

Pankratz’s thesis is also a document of participants’ lived experiences of homelessness. Without the subsidy, many said that simple feelings of security, dignity and emotional and physical wellbeing were (often financially) out of reach.

“With the program giving me the top up, it’s allowed me to relax and not have to scramble so much,” one participant said.

Another person said that after starting to receive the subsidy she could now afford groceries, and for the first time in a long time invited her family over for an Easter dinner. That same woman liked to craft, so bought supplies.

“I can do whatever I want in there… I can come and go as I please… It’s great… I can sit if I want to, I can sit, I like to just sit there and think and I can do that… if somebody knocks on my door, I don’t have to answer, I don’t have to do nothing nobody wants me to,” another participant said.

“Security goes a long way for people,” Pankratz told me by way of an explanation for how the subsidies had such a quick and positive impact.

Everyone I spoke with about this article pointed out that no single policy or social change will end homelessness because there are multiple, often intersecting and always complicated underlying causes.

There are not, for example, enough truly affordable rent-geared-to-income units in Waterloo region. More than 3,000 households are currently in line for affordable housing in the region, and the overwhelming majority of those families will never be eligible for one of the 100 subsidies that Pankratz studied.

Portable subsidies also fail to create permanent affordable housing infrastructure, and without rent controls subsidies might lead landlords to increase rents and create a situation where taxpayers are simply subsidizing landlords’ profits.

Also, the cheapest units on the market are typically surrounded by the other cheapest units, which for someone struggling with schizophrenia and/or drug use makes getting clean and staying housed incredibly difficult. Social workers told me that landlords use their discretionary power to refuse units to people touched by the stigmas of poverty, drug use or mental illness.

Finally, of course, is poverty. Current social assistance rates force families to choose between rent and groceries – or the food bank.

“If housing is a basic right… we must think differently about another right: the right to make as much money as possible by providing families with housing — and especially to profit excessively from the less fortunate,” the Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond writes in his 2015 book Evicted. Desmond later quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.”

Whether or not we reconsider housing-as-commodity, inequality imposes unnecessary costs and burdens on everyone. Poverty’s many manifestations – and attendant architecture of social-services – are expensive, whether you do that accounting psychically or economically.

Pankratz’s research points to one way to reduce those costs, and is another bit of evidence in the larger argument for housing first, an argument that Macaulay continues to push across this region and beyond.

“Years ago I was at a conference with somebody who was newly appointed to the civil service, and they said, ‘Lynn I have a pot of money. If I care about people where do I put it?’”

“Early childhood health? Food security? Housing?” she remembers this well-intentioned and well-endowed public servant asking her.

“I really didn’t know what to say. I wish I did, but I didn’t. Now, we actually have an answer. What the housing first research has shown us, which is the international gold standard, done in Canada and by local researchers… is that if you care about people, and care about their wellbeing, the number one and first thing you need to do is to support people to have a place to call home. When they have a place to live, where they want to live, everything else improves.”