Edmonton lauded for approach to homelessness, but major hurdles remain

The progress Edmonton has made to end homelessness has been called an inspiration by an organization focused on tackling the issue.

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness kicked off Monday at the Edmonton Convention Centre, bringing more than 1,500 front-line workers and community leaders to the Alberta capital.

"Edmonton was selected as the host city this year because its leadership and success in reducing homelessness provides a model and inspiration for communities across Canada," the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the conference host, said in a statement.

There's no doubt the city has made major progress when it comes to getting people off the streets.

Since 2008, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton has been cut nearly in half, dropping from about 3,000 people to 1,600 people, according to Homeward Trust.

Christel Kjenner, the city's director for housing and homelessness, said local agencies have taken a coordinated approach to the issue.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

"One thing that makes Edmonton's strategy unique is just the sheer degree of commitment we have from city council with respect to issues around homelessness and affordable housing," she said.

"Collaboration is really key. And so ... if you can align the political support of your mayor and council with administration and the community-based organizations like Homeward Trust and social agencies, that really is the recipe for success when it comes to making an impact on the ground."

But with 1,607 Edmontonians still homeless, there is still progress to be made. 

Kjenner said a key hurdle the city has to overcome is increasing the supply of permanent supportive housing — affordable housing with on-site health and social supports.

Homeward Trust Edmonton CEO Susan McGee noted supportive housing is a major focus of Edmonton's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, released in 2009.

The city hopes to develop 900 supportive housing units over the next few years.

The need for permanent supportive housing is pretty critical if we're going to be successful. - Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust Edmonton

"Some of the goals in the plan very clearly state that we need permanent supportive housing that is designed to support people with more complex support needs. And we just don't have that product," she said.

"The need for permanent supportive housing is pretty critical if we're going to be successful."

McGee noted another obstacle is prevention.

"People become homeless all the time, so we really, really also need to be working on that end," she said, noting youth homelessness in Edmonton contributes to chronic homelessness in adults.

Trevor Wilson/CBC

That requires continued support for key support services — services that have helped young women like Salma Osman and Sonya Seneca come out of homelessness.

The 20-year-olds are part of Homeward Trust's youth advisory committee, having experienced homelessness after leaving challenging home environments.

Both Osman and Seneca found homes through Homeward Trust's Housing First program. Seneca said the program and counselling services proved to be crucial supports as she transitioned out of homelessness.

"People that are homeless [aren't] homeless because they want to be homeless," she said. "They're dealing with stuff, like with mental health and drugs and maybe even violence in the home."

Osman has been living in her own apartment for about a year now.

"After hearing about the program, I just couldn't believe that they would be able to help me out as a youth," she said.

"They actually gave me hope."

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness wraps up on Wednesday.