Homelessness: Clear Focus Needed
Auditor General’s Comments
Homelessness in British Columbia continues to dominate media and government attention. Hundreds of millions of dollars go towards homelessness-related issues every year. The cost of public services to a homeless person is significantly higher than to that same person being provided with appropriate housing and support services.Other jurisdictions have shown that homelessness can be addressed successfully. The UK developed a Homelessness Strategy in 1997 and had made significant progress by 2003. Portland, Oregon is generally viewed as having made significant gains in its fight against homelessness. Some jurisdictions are just starting: Alberta has started the development of a 10-year plan to address homelessness and Calgary has recently developed a plan to eliminate homelessness by 2018. Similarly, Australia has just completed development of a national strategy intended to halve homelessness by 2020. Canada, as yet, has no national strategy to address homelessness.
Efforts to address homelessness involve many ministries within government, health authorities, non-profit service providers and volunteer organizations. Few issues are more complex and intertwined with other levels of government. A number of municipalities view homelessness as one of their top issues and have developed plans to address it. The recent, dramatic downturn in the economy increases the likelihood of more people becoming homeless.
The provincial government is responsible for many of the policies, programs and funding related to the homeless, primarily in the areas of housing, income assistance, mental health and addictions. The government of British Columbia has committed to “build the best system of supports in Canada” for its most vulnerable citizens. Few are more vulnerable than the homeless. Success in addressing homelessness requires strong and committed leadership at the provincial level. This audit assesses whether there is a strong foundation in place within which to set clear direction, coordinate resources and make informed decisions.
Municipalities and the non-profit sector depend on the Province for commitment and support in addressing homelessness. It is important that government provide clear direction so that these entities can plan, build and coordinate their services to align with that direction.
We found significant activity and resources being applied to homelessness issues but there is no provincial homelessness plan with clear goals and objectives. The foundation of many best practices appear to be in place. However, the absence of clear goals and objectives raises questions about whether the right breadth and intensity of strategies are being deployed. This is further complicated by the lack of good comprehensive information about the nature and extent of homelessness in the province. Homeless counts identify only the “visible” homeless; those in shelters and those found on the streets. The “hidden” homeless, those staying temporarily with friends or family, are not counted. The continuing increase in the number of homeless counted suggests a lack of success in managing homelessness, let alone reducing it. When there are no clear goals or performance targets, accountability for results is missing. How will we know we are successful if we have not identified success?
In its response, government notes the establishment of an “immediate integrated homelessness intervention project”. The response also indicates that government aims to eliminate homelessness — a goal that was not clearly identified until now. I take both of these developments as strong indication of government’s agreement with my recommendations.
I have recommended the development of a comprehensive plan to address homelessness — a plan linking performance expectations to the strategies and programs needed to be successful. Establishing a clear goal, and putting in place a lead agency responsible for accomplishing it, are good first steps. Now that government has identified the goal of eliminating homelessness, I would like to see clarified a time frame and strategies for its accomplishment. I do not expect the development of such a plan to slow down government activities aimed at reducing homelessness, but to give these activities a necessary focus for moving forward.
I would like to thank the staff of the many ministries we contacted and the BC Housing Corporation for meeting with us. Their dedication and commitment to improving the lives of this extremely vulnerable segment of our society was evident. It is hoped this report will assist them in their efforts.
John Doyle, MBA, CA
Auditor General of British Columbia
Victoria, British Columbia
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