Over the past few years I have written several columns about the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the research underway into the effectiveness of the housing first approach to addressing homelessness.
In several cities across Canada, people who were chronically homeless (most of whom live with mental illness) were provided housing as a first step toward creating stability in their lives—a base upon which other social and health supports could be built.
A study of this philosophy started in 2008 by the MHCC. More than 2,000 people enrolled in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton.
About half were provided with housing and community supports according to the housing first model while the other half received treatment and supports as usual.
Results after eight years show housing is the most cost-effective treatment of mental illness.
For every dollar spent providing housing and support to a severely mentally ill homeless person, there is a savings of $2.17 as the individual spends less time in hospital, prison or shelters.
This is powerful new evidence proving the importance and effectiveness of stable, safe housing for everyone.
Not only does the housing first approach save money, but the research also shows it improves physical and mental health. Although roughly 30,000 people are homeless in Canada, about 10 per cent are chronically homeless and almost all of those experience mental illness.
Often, homeless people can’t access some services or housing until they meet criteria such as sobriety or stability in their mental health.
Housing first turns this policy on its head with the belief that giving housing provides not only a safe place to sleep, but also the stability, dignity and hope necessary to move forward with attaining employment, education or treatment for mental illness and addictions.
Chronically homeless and mentally ill people use an average of $235,000 a year in services. Although providing housing and support is expensive, the average savings are much higher—working out to $2.17 saved for every $1 spent for those with severe mental illness.
Those with less severe mental illness save 96 cents for every additional dollar spent on housing and for those with low needs 34 cents is saved for every dollar spent.
According to those running the housing first project, the savings are great, but not the only reason housing is important.
After two years in the project, 72 per cent of those who had participated had stable housing compared with only 34 per cent of those receiving treatment as usual. It seems, this support created a lasting stability for many.
It is not beyond our reach to eradicate homelessness in our country and ensure all Canadians have equal dignity and access to health care and other support resources.
To read the final report of this study or learn more about the MHCC, check out www.mentalhealthcommission.ca.