Thinking outside the box on homelessness.


Less than a month ago, Calgary’s ambitious ten year plan to end homelessness came to an end. While Calgary bureaucrats and folks within the established social services industry are trying to sugarcoat the outcome, it is clear that the plan was an abject failure. With roughly 3,200 people remaining homeless after a decade of effort, there really is no reasonable way to call the plan a success. That is down a few hundred folks but then again, Calgary’s population growth has been stunted this last few years. The plan was supposed to end homelessness either way, not simply slow the growth of it.

As with so many programs spawned by the establishment, they insist on linear thinking and placing more merit on the intention of their plan than they do with the outcome. Rather than look at the ten year plan as a failure, most of those in the homeless industry (and it is an industry) keep insisting that we need to follow the same path and perhaps spend even more money.

The first thing that needs be added to plans to address homelessness is a strong dose of reality. Homelessness will never be ended, it can only be mitigated. Let’s stop setting lofty but unrealistic goals and model plans based on what can actually be accomplished. We can reduce and mitigate homelessness and need to set our goals based on that.

It is in everybody’s interest to reduce homelessness. Homelessness impacts us all and costs us all through social services, correctional services and health care costs. Every homeless person who can be permanently housed helps reduce pressures on society on all levels and we need to seek those secure homes for these people where they may have a better chance of stabilizing their lives.

Shelters are important but who can really build a stable life when living in such conditions over the long term? How can one settle down, maintain a job, build personal possessions and get that ever important sense of self worth while living on a cot?

Investment in support services for addiction and mental health is critical of course. Simply putting a roof over the head of a homeless person does little to address the root issues that got that person into a state of homelessness in the first place. People need support to get off the street and stay off the street. These supports are expensive however and when we waste so much money on inefficient housing, we find ourselves lacking in the resources needed to truly help people rebuild their lives.

Housing in Calgary and most major cities is simply very damn expensive. There is only one way to reduce the cost of housing in Calgary. We must increase supply. Rent controls are always a failure and we are already fully utilizing all of the subsidized housing that we can.

The current way of thinking in addressing the supply shortage however is the old way. They want to maintain the system but spend more money. This simply isn’t sustainable. Look at the projected numbers below:

Projected unit costs are huge and are not taking into account the massive maintenance deficit that exists in current subsidized housing projects.

Now I am going to get to the guy who is thinking outside the box.

I have written on Paul Hughes a couple times before. What I most like about Paul is that he doesn’t ask, he simply does. Rather than contact the city and ask about an idea in order to give bureaucrats an excuse to explain why the idea won’t work (and then work to stop it), Paul acts and gets the job done. It is tough for bureaucrats to pooh pooh a notion when Paul has already proven that it can and does work. That is what Paul did with his Grow Calgary site which I wrote about last fall.

Paul has done an excellent job in addressing local food supply and has now turned towards addressing local housing supply.

Appalled by the projected $200,000 per unit projections for housing units, Paul Hughes has been working with micro homes to seek far more affordable housing solutions.

With common sense applied and bureaucrats moved aside, we can do all sorts of things for a fraction of the cost. Who can forget the Toronto man who built a set of stairs in a local park for $550 when the city bureaucrats has determined that $65,000 needed to be spend to address the issue? Sure the $550 set may not have been adequate but he proved that $65,000 was an obscenely high number when a couple thousand would have been more than enough.

It takes solid examples to prove the naysayers wrong when they come out with their grossly inflated numbers in project costs.

Paul has been building a micro home on the Grow Calgary site with volunteer help and donated materials. So far at virtually no costs, he has a little home that will be quite habitable for a person very soon.

With a tiny footprint and the use of a loft or sleeping quarters, a person can live quite comfortably in this micro home. Utility and maintenance costs are minimal in such a small abode too. What these little homes can do though is provide stable, private home spaces for people where they can settle and get things together.

Hughes understands that he doesn’t know it all by any means and he knows that there are all sorts of great and creative folks out there who can contribute to this project. That is why he has put out the call for others and is holding a micro-home building contest on the Grow Calgary site. Details can be found in the poster below and applications and rules on the Grow Calgary website.

There is a great flat space on the Grow Calgary site where these houses will be constructed and they can eventually be utilized to house volunteers to work on the fantastic farm there.

It is going to be quite exciting to see what kind of units are built and at what kind of costs they come in at.

Hughes has a broader vision for these micro-homes and how homelessness can be addressed with the great capital savings.

Paul’s vision is pretty high level and there are surely details that would need some ironing but it is compelling and even if not implemented in whole, it surely is worth trying in part.

Hughes estimates that with good design and economies of scale that good micro-homes can be built for about $10,000 each. If building for 4,000 homeless there would be an initial capital cost of $40,000,000.

In order to avoid developing slums or enclaves, Hughes is looking at 400 communities of 10 micro homes each.

Paul understands that supports beyond simple housing are required. Let’s say that each community of 10 has one social worker, one job manager for training, one health/farm manager (I expect he wants to incorporate urban farming in the communities), and one administrator. That is four people supporting every ten housed. Assuming costs of $60k per year each for those folks, that comes in at $96,000,000.

With a miscellaneous budget of $20,000,000 built in Hughes plan comes in at with a capital cost of $40 million and an annual cost of $116 million for the manpower and supports. I imagine there are many other unanticipated costs and land costs have not been accounted for but this is still a tiny fraction from the projected $200,000 per unit for unsupported housing in current plans.

As is expected, the city and established homeless groups aren’t enthusiastic about Paul’s plans. Too many are simply too invested in the status-quo.

The hipster dominated urban planning festival of “Bacon Fest” snubbed Paul and prevented him from even bringing flyers to the event. They like to jealously guard their vision of urban planning unfortunately.

Undeterred of course, Hughes is plowing ahead and I expect he will promote and round up some great competitors for his competition.

Is Hughes vision too ambitious? Perhaps. Is it a panacea? Of course not.

What Paul is proposing though is a radical departure from what has already been tried and failed. He is looking at a new approach and we dearly need one.

Micro-homes have applications outside of aiding in homelessness as well. Seniors looking at downsizing, veterans establishing themselves after leaving the service, young people and under employed people could all potentially use micro-homes. It is nearly impossible these days to get into the housing market if a person doesn’t have a head start. Micro homes could provide a great way to start building equity in a home until a person is ready to move into something larger.

I can’t see any authority signing off on a 4000 micro home project quite yet. I don’t see why we can’t try at least a few of these communities on an experimental basis and then expanding on that if it is successful. Its not like the city can point to their resounding success with the current strategy.

It will be harder to say no when a small community is built and functioning at Grow Calgary as well. Paul as always is leading by example and taking excuses away from those who fear trying new things.

I really look forward to seeing what is springing up there in the coming months and seeing how these innovations can be applied throughout Calgary and beyond. I encourage others to contact Paul if they are interested in participating or lending a hand. He can be reached through the website.   Drop him a line and see about dropping by Grow Calgary’s location. It is impressive and well worth the visit to see what can be accomplished by a guy who just goes out and gets things done rather than asking or waiting for others to do it.

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Grow Calgary gets the job done.

Paul Hughes and I don’t always see eye to eye on issues. He trends a little more towards the hippy sort and has more of an environmentalist streak in him than I. I can’t help but admire how Paul doesn’t just bitch about things or ask others to fix things. When Hughes wants an issue addressed he literally gets his hands dirty and works on it. Paul doesn’t ask, he just does.

Paul Hughes is probably best known for his advocating for urban chickens in Calgary and his past run for Mayor. He has always been quite focused on domestic food supply. Food is indeed a need for us all.

We all would be better off if more folks took on that kind of attitude.

A few days ago, I found myself driving into West Calgary on Highway 1 when I passed the Grow Calgary site.

A few years ago, Hughes set up shop on a few acres of vacant city land and began Grow Calgary. This lot is just West of Canada Olympic Park. The land will eventually be developed for the Calgary portion of the Ring Road but as we all know, that may still be over a decade away. In the meantime, the land has languished vacant, weed filled and of little purpose. Why not bring the land into production for the time being? It is a pretty unique venture.

My timing was lucky. I saw perhaps a couple dozen folks working with shovels digging up a potato plot as I drove by which caught my interest and spurred my impulse visit. Paul was with them and they were just about to break for lunch leaving Paul free to give me a tour of the area.

One of my first questions to Paul was to ask who all those people were. It turns out that they were a group of volunteers from Crescent Point Energy. It turns out that Hughes has attracted corporate sponsorship from multiple companies that doesn’t just translate into funds, but into manpower. Different corporate and student groups have volunteered time all year to help develop the urban farm. A healthy day out for the volunteers and invaluable service for the project.

Grow Calgary isn’t a charity and isn’t taking tax dollars. It is reliant on donors and volunteers. It appears that the base of both are growing.

The site looks pretty and eclectic as you wander between what appear to be random plots growing everything from sunflowers to tomatoes to hemp. To a libertarian like me seeing a little chaos is not a problem and in looking closer one can see that there is more planning to the setup than meets the eye. Water is limited and this year’s drought had a rough impact on the farm. Plots were chosen based on potential irrigation and access.

Small greenhouses have been constructed which are quite effective. These were built with completely recycled and donated materials and yes, it shows.

Opponents to Grow Calgary often cite aesthetics in order to demand that this venture be halted. Do we want pretty or do we want effective? Do we want to truly recycle items as Hughes has done or do we simply want to green wash with giant fabricated plastic buildings that will claim to have used some tiny degree of recycled materials? Everything Paul used here was donated and it all would have ended up in a landfill had he not made use of it. The greenhouses are in the center of the area and don’t look bad anyway. As can be seen in this picture, they are loaded with great tomatoes even this late into a dry season.

Paul also constructed what he calls an “earthship”, More hippy stuff but still some effective and interesting engineering.

Using all donated materials including wood, glass, tires, concrete and cans Paul has created a year round growing facility that uses no power. He excitedly showed me his charts as he had tracked the ambient temperature within the structure all winter. The lowest he ever recorded was just above freezing on a day in January when the outside temperature was likely well into the -20s. Not bad for a spot that uses no outside power sources.

The central area houses donated porta-potties along with a few structures that are used for everything from secure storage to a small hydroponic growing system. Donors have been so generous that Hughes has gardening and farm implements stacked and stored in every nook and cranny. Waste is not accepted so I expect that everything will be used in time including a monstrous pile of compost that was donated. It is hard not to be impressed by how much equipment and material has been built up through such a modest project. Security services have been donated by a local company as well. People really do like pitching in on this one.

While the drought reduced crops, there still was a very impressive harvest of fresh produce that has all been donated to various societies in need throughout the city.

This is the sort of thing that can happen when people such as Paul Hughes along with many many helpers say to hell with government bureaucracy and simply work to get the damn job done. The city has been pulled along grudgingly with this venture at best and established food charities have been rather cold as Hughes is producing massive amounts of product without having a giant administration and hand in the taxpayer cookie jar as they do.

Using excuses such as the appearance of the place all the way to liability issues I am sure that the busybodies in Calgary City Hall will work their hardest to shut Grow Calgary down. There are few things parasitic bureaucrats despise more than successful operations existing without their constant and heavy handed oversight. It exposes their uselessness. Paul is pretty determined though and is only setting his roots deeper. I suspect that Grow Calgary isn’t going anywhere soon.

Eventually, the city will develop that land and Grow Calgary will have to move from that site. This is reasonable and such is life. What is to be hoped though is that some lessons have been learned. There will be all sorts of unused city land all over the place at that time. There always is. I see no reason why Grow Calgary wont be able to move in and produce food for those in need on those new locations when the time comes. I mean, why the hell not?

Taxpayers are more than tired of grossly expensive and ineffective government initiatives to ease poverty. Donors to charities are tired of reading how the majority of their donations end up eaten by administrative costs as the bureaucratic worms dine on the bulk of the funds before the people in need see even a nickle of the donated resources. Grow Calgary has bypassed all of that crap. It is run with the most minuscule of administration and directly uses all volunteer time, items and dollars for the production of food. Efficiency is critical.

For folks who want to donate some time or resources, I can’t endorse this venture more strongly.

The site is Grow Calgary.

They get things done.

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