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Bergen in U.S. to tout homelessness efforts

Bergen in U.S. to tout homelessness effortsConservative MP Candice Bergen responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 13, 2013. Bergen, Canada's minister of state for social development, is heading to Chicago to discuss Canadian efforts to combat homelessness.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Canada's minister of state for social development is heading to Chicago on Wednesday to tout Canada as an emerging world leader in the battle against homelessness.

Candice Bergen is slated to address the international Housing First conference on Thursday after a day of meetings with anti-homelessness advocates on the opening day of the event. The conference is sponsored in part this year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"My message is that with the Housing First focus, Canada is leading the way when it comes to fighting homelessness," Bergen said in an interview on the eve of her trip to the U.S.

"The investments we're making we believe, over time, will reduce the rate of homelessness."

The international community is particularly interested in hearing about Canada's At Home-Chez Soi pilot project, Bergen says, because of its size, scope and success rate in getting people off the streets permanently. The pilot project ended a year ago.

The program, run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, helped find and pay for homes for mentally ill homeless people in five cities across Canada. At Home-Chez Soi also provided recipients with as many social services as they needed to stay housed.

The government surprised anti-poverty advocates in its 2013 budget by announcing a five-year renewal of funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, which is using the same Housing First approach that made At Home-Chez Soi such a success.

Some on the front lines of Canada's homelessness have praised the funding renewal — and the Housing First principle — as game-changers in the fight given they target the neediest Canadians.

The chronically or episodically homeless — many of them mentally ill — comprise only 15 per cent of Canada's total homeless population, but they take up the lion's share of resources for those living on the streets.

Far more Canadians, however, find themselves homeless simply because of changes in economic circumstances.

Tim Richter, president of the Calgary-based Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, says Ottawa must take serious action on the affordable housing front before it can declare it's vanquishing homelessness outright.

"Housing First is by no means a silver bullet, but that isn't meant to under-estimate how important it's been," he said in an interview Tuesday.

"They have prioritized people with the greatest needs and moved them directly from shelters or from the streets and into housing. It's a really critical shift .... But it's not going to end homelessness."

The Conservative government has to vigorously tackle Canada's growing affordable housing crisis, he said, as polls suggest as many as a third of Canadian families struggle to find homes they can afford to live in.

"The scale of the affordable housing demand in Canada eclipses the investments being made. We absolutely need funding for affordable housing in addition to Housing First if we're truly going to end homelessness," he said.

The Tories have faced repeated calls for a national strategy on affordable housing from people ranging from the mayor of Vancouver to P.E.I. Senator Catherine Callbeck.

Richter says he hopes Bergen listens to and learns from many of the American stakeholders at the Chicago conference who have been grappling with the homelessness crisis for as long as 20 years.

The Housing First approach was, in fact, founded in the early 1990s in New York as an inner-city experiment. Since then, it's had an 85 per cent success rate in permanently housing mentally ill homeless people.

Bergen said she looked forward to consulting with her U.S. colleagues during her visit to Chicago.

"It's always good to talk to our counterparts, especially our neighbours who have some of the same conditions in terms of climate, and some of the same challenges," she said.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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