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Susan McGee
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Susan McGee
2020-08-17 15:05
Thank you very much, and thanks for the introduction.
I am the chief executive officer for Homeward Trust. We are a community-based organization utilizing a system-planning approach to ending homelessness in our community of Edmonton. We are the local entity supporting the implementation of Reaching Home, and we have actively supported the evolution of Canada's national housing and homelessness strategies. I was very privileged and fortunate to sit on the advisory committee on homelessness, chaired at the time by Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan, and I currently sit on a number of national committees.
I'm joined today by Giri, our chief strategic officer. I expect there will be some questions that he would be better at answering than I would be. We want to allow time for that.
We and our partner agencies have been recognized nationally and internationally for our collective efforts to end homelessness, housing nearly 11,000 people since the beginning of our Housing First program in 2009. Our organization brings together funding from all orders of government to support service providers, indigenous communities and government partners in Edmonton to collectively plan, act on and monitor our solutions to end homelessness in our community.
We're grateful for the opportunity to speak today about the Government of Canada's response to COVID-19 and what is needed to ensure that vulnerable and homeless Canadians are supported and protected on the long road ahead.
It has been just six months since COVID-19, and the risks it presents to our community members have required a complete rethinking of our priorities and programs. This has been an intense and exhausting effort, but one that we can be proud of and that wouldn't have been possible without the quick mobilization of resources from municipalities and provinces and, indeed, the federal government.
For Edmonton's homeless response, Reaching Home funding played a critical role. Funding was committed early, processes were accelerated, and both local organizations and federal program staff were empowered to make necessary decisions, building on existing accountable relationships. For many of us involved, the lasting reflection is that we can and should continue to respond that way by treating homelessness as the national emergency it is in any situation.
Homeward Trust is a strong supporter of Recovery for All and the six-point plan already presented to government by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, and we support other national organizations such as the CHRA and its advocacy of greater investments in affordable housing, specifically indigenous-led housing investments.
Rather than reiterate those well-considered positions, we will focus on what we consider to be critical and immediate steps to support their successful implementation.
First is that our country requires a sustained investment to make sure that communities' Herculean achievements over the last six months, which has been a sprint, have the endurance for the marathon that lies ahead. With no commitment on the horizon, planning has ceased and programs are being wound down, while individuals are exposed to the same health and safety risks that we experienced in March from the beginning.
Second is that all orders of government focus efforts not only on protecting vulnerable Canadians from the pandemic but also on addressing the many systemic issues that have made people vulnerable to homelessness in the first place. The pandemic has laid bare these system failures, and we can't unsee what we have seen.
Last is that the government reinforce communities in leading this response in a coordinated system-planning approach, bringing together the various cross-systems and interjurisdictional roles that, operating independently, risk recreating the system failures we are working so hard to address.
On the first point of sustained investment, there is no question that all orders of government recognize that we are many months away, if not years away, from this pandemic's being completely behind us. There are more waves on the horizon and, perhaps most critically, large numbers of people losing their jobs and families in crisis. They are losing their homes and their mental health is being significantly affected. We've never experienced anything like the initial pandemic response before, and there is no precedent, certainly in our lifetime, for the economic and fiscal fissures that are already forming.
Initial investments were made quickly, and we were fortunate to have strong program infrastructure and partners to work with to activate those resources.
In Edmonton, our response prioritized mobilizing critical services in an alternate location, as agencies, public spaces, and other locations that often provided respite for homeless individuals closed. We brought in our coordinated access and Housing First program with additional rapid rehousing and diversion efforts, and included new partners and prevention initiatives by providing immediate funding to address short-term needs. We were able to secure and headlease a hotel to provide bridge housing, which has played an important role in our community's response in housing over 700 people to date since April.
In the absence of sustained funding, we are faced with having to contract all of those efforts at a time when we are seeing significant increases in homelessness and encampments on a scale not seen in Edmonton since 2007. We know that housing is a solution to homelessness, and we have seen the direct health risks to those without a home. We cannot build our way out of the situation fast enough, but we can ensure that our pandemic response results in long-term permanent solutions if program funding is sustained and targeted. There is a role for all governments and charitable funders in supporting our efforts, but it is important to recognize that community-based providers are reeling from lost fundraising revenue and staff capacity and will have difficulty dealing with the onslaught of needs, let alone the existing demands. It is imperative that the federal government lead with a commitment now.
Reaching Home has incorporated many important changes in community planning approaches, emphasizing evidence-based models, clear accountabilities and system-wide engagement. This means having the infrastructure to enable a culture of knowledge-driven decision-making so that our interventions can be targeted, evaluated and corrected continually, and taxpayers can be confident that public dollars are achieving the results they'd expect. As such, I have great confidence that continued investments through Reaching Home will have the greatest immediate impact.
This brings me to my second point: that the pandemic response has to address the foundational issues that contribute to poverty and homelessness, especially those that are institutional in nature. The homeless population is dynamic. There are no clean boundaries between people who use shelters, people who sleep rough or in encampments, and people who are unstably housed and people who are living with friends and family.
With rising unemployment, bankruptcies and evictions, people who faced housing insecurity before the pandemic will become homeless. Addiction and mental health issues are increasing rapidly and threatening the ability of families and individuals to stay resilient, yet for homeless and vulnerable populations, various systems and government departments get involved in a way that creates a patchwork of responses, with huge gaps and blind spots and far too many unmet needs. Their roles are often defined by narrow mandates and cost containment, without a holistic sense of how all their parts interact—and they don't.
An effective pandemic response for the homeless population has to incorporate commitments to fix the underlying systemic problems that create and sustain homelessness. There may not seem to be an obvious first step to address this issue. Indeed, governments have spent years in system-planning meetings trying to turn the Titanic in an inch of water. However, during the pandemic we have seen health authorities actively participating in local efforts, and they have been required to address the specific risks that homeless community members are exposed to. The pandemic has highlighted how quickly we can adjust how we work together when the urgency and the will are there.
This leads to my final point, which is about the importance of community-based leadership in the pandemic response.
In March, community organizations were navigating shifting and sometimes conflicting authorities in the federal government, provincial ministries, health authorities and local governments. Siloed internal command structures and interjurisdictional confusion can threaten an active, effective and comprehensive pandemic response. One of our key roles as community entities and system-planner organizations is to transcend and bridge across these chasms so that we can enable communities to do what needs to be done. In many ways, governments and systems need to take a back seat to let communities lead the way. They have the knowledge, experience and relationships to ensure that we are doing what is best for vulnerable people. This means empowering and resourcing communities to enable community-level leadership and governance. It also means building the necessary infrastructure so that community partners can implement actions collectively and leverage resources and strengths across the board without having to manoeuvre between funding and institutional roles.
Reaching Home clearly embraces the role of local leadership, and as such has been able to deploy resources quickly during this time, with demonstrated impacts. While other investments are considered, whether to support housing developments or mitigate housing loss, we strongly recommend reinforcing community-level leadership in coordinating that deployment of those resources.
In summary, for an effective pandemic response, the federal government needs to commit to supporting community-based leadership with funding and policies that can address two public health emergencies: the recent and ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and the long-standing institutional causes of homelessness. Continuing investments by the federal government are the only way to ensure that community efforts and achievements over the past six months are sustained and that we don't regress in our ability to protect vulnerable people from the impacts of the pandemic in the long run.
A critical component of this is to accelerate efforts to realize an end to homelessness, including the six-point recovery plan put forward by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, and intentional engagement with provincial and municipal governments to support communities in making this happen by transforming systems so that they facilitate their work instead of hindering it.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the committee today, and we are certainly happy to answer any questions.
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