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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Getting real with homelessness

I had an unusual experience in the last few days. A homeless gentleman showed up in my pub one evening. He was friendly enough. He paid for some food and a few drinks and then hung about with some of our regulars for the evening who ended up putting him up for the night. While homeless folks are pretty common in Calgary, it is unusual in Priddis as we have little in the way to shelter them.

The next morning the fellow showed up in our coffee shop and hung about there for the day. Again, he caused no problems and bought a couple items. He is pretty rough around the edges though and made our younger staff members in the coffee shop a little uncomfortable. He then moved into the pub for the evening when it opened. He ate a pizza and then wandered off to where he had camped.

This morning the poor devil showed up at the coffee shop at 7am quite frozen and exhausted. It turns out that while he had a tent, he had no sleeping bag or blanket. He says he had heard large animals moving about in the night which is very possible as we have many cougars and black bears in the area. He was quite miserable and had barely slept.

I had tried to coax him into coming to Calgary with me yesterday to no avail. He was quite eager for a lift into the city today after his experience last night. I drove him in and dropped him off downtown today.

I had a long conversation with him on the drive. It sounds like this guy led an interesting though rough life (as I am sure is the case with many homeless). Substance abuse had taken it’s toll on him physically and while I am not a professional by any means it was pretty clear to me that while the gentleman was quite smart, he had some serious mental health issues.

This man was harmless and troubled. I very much hope he finds some help and settles in somewhere.

Now what I am getting to with this long ramble is that we have to get over this ridiculous and ongoing notion of “ending homelessness” and get more realistic in mitigating it. The man I was dealing with in this last couple few days will never be able to hold down a regular job and likely will never be able to place himself into a position where he can maintain an independent living arrangement. This man needs help mentally and fiscally and will need a degree of care to ensure that he doesn’t come to harm.

Rent controls, forcing developers to build certain housing units, secondary suites etc. and all the rest of that trash that comes from these initiatives to “end homelessness” will do nothing to aid folks like the man I met this week and the thousands of others who are in similar states yet this is exactly what these people who claim to want to end homelessness keep focussing on.

We need to realize that there are some people who will forever be transient no matter what we offer for housing. Some of these people will never kick their substance abuse nor will they somehow beat mental health issues.

Let’s work with those realities and see how we can best help these people with realistic mitigation and care options instead of pursuing expensive pie-in-the sky housing goals that will not help the people who have truly fallen through our cracks in society. I know that the authors of these countless initiatives are predominantly well meaning, but they are also blinding themselves to the true realities of some of these situations.

We need to invest more heavily in mental health facilities and yes, even have some people institutionalized at times. We also need to invest much more in temporary sheltering and substance abuse treatment. The funds wasted chasing potheads around would be well spent on this for example.

Like so many things (such as native issues), we need policy makers to work on dealing with hard realities rather than fluffy ribbon cuttings. It will make a world of difference to us all down the road.

::rant off::

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Let’s get real on secondary suites in Calgary

lawnpark

Every time secondary suites come before city council in Calgary, we hear the usual chorus bemoaning the status of secondary suites in the city. The process is indeed tedious and not an efficient use of city council time as every suite application comes before council for discussion for approval or rejection. There is no doubt that this is a terrible system of approval and it needs reform. That being said, this does not justify the radical changes to zoning that the secondary suite obsessed want to see throughout the city.

Nenshi has a vocal cult following and secondary suites have always been a frustrating pet issue of his. This of course has led to quite the crusade over the years by his faithful to push to have secondary suites legalized throughout the entire city. Every year the hype gets louder and if these zealots were to be believed, everything from homelessness to nose-warts would end if only those darned stubborn NIMBYs in the city would allow widespread secondary suites.

What we have is a mess in the system for approval and regulation that indeed needs to be addressed. The potential benefits of widely legalized secondary suites have been grossly exaggerated by proponents for years though and we have to get back to reality here.

To begin with, how many new secondary suites would Calgary really gain if they were legalized throughout the city? A study back in 2008 estimated that there were 50,000 to 80,000 “illegal” suites in the city already. In the six years since then the city has grown of course so those numbers are likely higher. What this tells us is that those who want to build secondary suites are building them already despite current regulations. Clearly whatever legislation there is against secondary suites is of little to no deterrent for people who want to build these suites. Getting realistic, how many more suites could we expect if the suites were legalized? To be blunt, not a hell of a lot.

The numbers above do not mean that there is no benefit to legalization of more suites, but it does demonstrate that legalizing suites will not be the panacea to solve issues of high rents and homelessness in the city as the fanatical pushers of these suites like to imply they are. The supply really won’t grow by that much.

druh

 

Druh Farrell has long been a strong proponent of the mass legalization secondary suites throughout the city. Druh loves to wax on about the misery of tenants living in illegal suites as they have limited protections in landlord/tenant issues and can often live in unsafe conditions. Druh then loves to point out how high rents are and how limited availability is within the city. The true depth of Farrell’s rationale came to light in a radio interview though when she vapidly went into circles in confusion when confronted with the reality that if we found and regulated all of these illegal suites as she wants us to that we would actually end up with less suites and much higher rent. Druh and her ideological kin have always had something of a deficit when it comes to the concept of supply and demand.

We may have as many as 100,000 “illegal” (grey market) suites in the city of Calgary. Likely well over 75% of them need at least some upgrades to bring them to code in a legal and regulated market. Bringing a suite up to code in Calgary can range in cost anywhere from $10,000 to over $100,000. It simply isn’t cheap. Landlords who find themselves confronted with the sudden legal need to upgrade these suites will have to choose between closing the suite and evicting the tenants or doing the renovations and raising the rent considerably to recoup their costs. Landlords are not charities people. The bottom line is that we will either lose a suite or costs will rise. Neither of those two options aids in availability of suites or rental costs of course (that supply and demand thing). We need to work to ensure that suites are safe but let’s not pretend that enforcement won’t have a very big impact on supply.

Now the next question is whether or not a big market of prospective landlords is waiting in the wings just salivating at the prospect of opening a secondary suite but has not done so yet because it is illegal. The city of Calgary waived their ridiculous $4,500 application fee which is a good thing. This led to what was described as a “rush” by homeowners to apply for rezoning. How many applications were in this “rush”? 11!!! Yes, folks even with free application costs the grand total of initial applicants for zoning was 11 people. There were a couple dozen more pending. We are speaking numbers in the dozens in a city of well over a million people. Folks who want to rent secondary suites are already doing so in the grey market and will continue to no matter what the regulations.

We need some degree of oversight and regulation on where we will or will not allow secondary suites. Some neighborhoods simply are not well designed to handle them. Some people purposely seek out neighborhoods with low numbers of rental properties and they pay a premium to live in these neighborhoods. These people have a right to speak up and be concerned if the city wants to suddenly change the deal in zoning. The fervent followers of Nenshi spit out the NIMBY term at such folks of course but it has to be kept in mind that most of those followers are hipster renters who dwell in the Beltline who have little regard for the property values or taxation of others. These are issues that cant be dismissed.

There is a great deal of overreaction to prospective suites too. As I pointed out, there really are not that many folks who want to open new suites out there and having a suite or two on your block wont be a disaster by any means. Stuffing 10 suites into a cul-de-sac however will cause havoc and that is why rezoning still has to be considered case by case even if not by city council itself.

There is a need to reform policy on secondary suites in Calgary. Let’s set aside the zealous density ideals though and be rational about what needs to be done and what benefits can be gained. If one’s concerns are about availability and cost of living in the city, they should aim their guns at the essential suburban land freeze that Nenshi’s administration is practicing. The effect that broadly legalized secondary suites will have on homelessness and cost of living in Calgary will be negligible at best.

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Reality calling.

I don’t quite celebrate the erosion over even outright loss of naive ideals that comes about through life experience. We need those starry goals and ideals when young in order to keep ourselves optimistic and pursuing outcomes even if they may be impossible in reality. Growing past the unreasonable ideals is a part of growing up as well and it is an important one. We do see people who never managed to outgrow their ideals on occasion. They usually are sporting thin, greying braids and a buckskin jacket with a tie-dye shirt underneath. The rest of the folks of that idealistic generation learned through life experiences that one has to compromise to “the man” to a degree and pursue the less savory but very important things in life such as a career and independently sustainable lifestyle.

Some years ago I listened to a radio documentary on CBC where some former residents of a 70s commune outside of Edmonton related their stories of their time pursuing the ideal hippy lifestyle. None sounded regretful and most looked back at it as a growing experience for themselves. They all were utterly confident in the futility of the socialist communal lifestyle as well. Nothing drives those lessons home better than trying to live the idealistic dream. As with countless other communes in the 60s/70s this one fell apart within a couple years. Tensions grew quickly as it was soon discovered that a small portion of the folks were doing the majority of the work while a larger portion sat around smoking weed. The free-love concept was wonderful until somebody actually saw somebody of romantic interest literally enjoying the sexual embrace of another in front of them. Resentment grew, people came and went and the whole thing faded away. The reality is that human nature does not allow for any true communal living no matter how pretty the ideal sounds.

The only communes that are or have had much success and staying power have had a unifying factor keeping in the people together and motivated. That is most often religion as with Israeli kibbutzs or even Hutterite colonies. A vague notion of inequity and socialism has never been enough of a unifying power to keep other communes together.

A generation later and we see the same sort of doe-eyed pursuit of impossible ideals in our “occupy” movement. The ideas of consensus and the talking points are the same. Unfortunately for them, there has been utterly no unifying factor in this disparate gathering of the discontented. There is anti-capitalist mutterings, vague general inequity ramblings, statements about homelessness the environment, currency systems, electoral systems and on and on and on and on. There is no war such as Vietnam to pull these guys together nor any common religious link. There are no social inequities such as there were for black people in the USA in the 60s and there is no dictatorship as the folks in Arab Spring dealt with.

Due to this lack of a cohesive cause and lack of any real identifiable general hardship in Canada, the “occupy” movement simply has not taken off in Calgary. Very few Calgarians are supportive of the campers in Olympic Plaza and outright opposition is growing to the squatting as we see estimates of the damages to the park rise and we hear of more legitimate events and groups being compromised due to the squatters in the park.

What this has left is pretty much a small group of the hardcore of their movement. These are likely the folks we will see still sporting braids in a couple decades as they simply will never let their ideals go no matter how inane or impossible they may be.

What has been interesting to see though is that some of them are learning some lessons. These are hard lessons but they are important ones. In the larger (and arguably much more legitimate) protest in New York, the ideals abounded to begin with. The poor souls displaced by capitalism could find sanctuary in a nice big communal campground near Wall Street where volunteer chefs could feed them organic free range beans and lentils or whatever. Unfortunately, before long it was determined that many who were eating the food were not underprivileged. Many mouths were simply those of freeloaders. The Chefs of Occupy Wall Street have now begun to refuse to cook for the freeloaders. The ideals are waning.

On a local level we can see that these lessons are happening to a degree with our Calgarian Occupy crowd. I thank Lonnie Taylor for tweeting some of the resolutions from yesterday’s occupy Calgary meeting. I honestly would like to attend one of these things but am caught working in Eastern Pennsylvania for a few more days. Should we be unfortunate enough to still have people squatting in our park when I get back, I will be sure to pop by for a visit.

Now apparently a fellow named “Paul” has taken it upon himself to enforce security around the encampment. An unfortunate reality is that when one shuns conventional forms of security such as our city police, we will either have anarchy grow or people will take things into their own hands. When people take things into their own hands they often are not as fair, controlled, predictable or restrained as proper law enforcement officers despite the often collective loathing of occupiers of “The man’s” police force. Many people drawn to these encampments have some serious issues and a degree of control is simply needed. There was a bizarre incident with the occupy camp in Toronto for example where a fellow was sneaking into tents in order to sniff women’s feet.

Now apparently the occupiers have resolved to no longer provide tents and food to those who have not been a part of the movement. How membership in this movement is to be determined may be dicey. I thought that the movement was directly tied into the occupation in itself so wouldn’t simply being present mean one is part of the “movement”. Does one have to tweet about their involvement to be included? Is there a formal means of membership?

Look I understand why the occupiers are having to make these tough decisions. Some have tried to cloak this movement into being a thing about homelessness. Many felt that if misunderstood homeless people were simply invited into their commune and shown love that these people will act in control and will happily participate with the occupation. Reality is unfortunately dealing a hard slap in the face to naive idealism here.

Yes, homelessness is a problem in Calgary. There are homeless people in every city in the planet. We have had homeless people since the first human fabricated a shelter and we will have homeless people until an asteroid or something ends life on earth. I am not dismissing homelessness by any means nor do I think for a second that we should stop efforts to reduce it. I am just saying that if we really want to deal with chronic homelessness we need to work within the bounds of reality.

The reality is that the majority of the homeless people encountered on the streets of Calgary are suffering either from addiction or mental health issues. These people have had an extremely rough time and are not able (or often even willing) to try and integrate with society in a settled home. These people can be volatile and even dangerous at times. A deeply addicted person will not hesitate to steal from or lie to other people if they think it may lead to their next fix.

Certainly some people simply have a bad chain of events or decisions and they find themselves homeless for a time. These people are the ones most likely to take advantage of the programs and housing we have available and these people are likely to climb out of their rut with some help. These people are not the chronically homeless and these are not the ones we see moving into the “occupy” camps.

I suspect that the occupiers are learning that the aforementioned people do not belong in a communal tent camp. Simply welcoming these people with open arms and good intent has and will backfire. Complex counselling and treatment by professionals is required for these people. We certainly can discuss whether society is providing enough of these services to these people. Personally I think it is a gross embarrassment that we have followed a foolish and idealistic trend of deinstitutionalization of people with mental impairment which has led to many unfortunate souls being either on the streets or in the correctional system. I am digressing however.

What I am getting at is the point that no matter how good the intentions may be, the occupy Calgary is doing absolutely nothing for the homeless.  The group is not raising awareness of the issue because the group is spreading dozens of messages in a shotgun approach to all that they see as the ills of our society. In light of the recent meeting resolutions thing many of the remaining “occupiers” are realizing this.

What the rest of the “occupiers” need to realize now is that their little campout is really doing utterly nothing for whatever cause they may be claiming to represent. Camping in a park is simply wasting time and pissing off your fellow man who is paying the bill.

Retain your ideals guys. Go out and fight the inequities. We have all sorts of groups whether charitable, government, religious or even political that work to ease all sorts of problems in our city and country.  All of these groups happily welcome contributions whether through volunteering or fiscally and all can claim at least some degree of measurable success.

Yes it is a lot of work to take part in these groups though. It can be tiring and thankless. It is not nearly as easy as squatting in a park for a campout.

Are the occupiers truly interested in making real changes or are they simply kids camping?

Personally I think the productive have already moved beyond this group. How many are really there now? 20? 30? It is time for the rest of them to move on to better things.

I do hope that the city gets around to enforcing our bylaws and kicking the occupiers from our park before they do more damage. I am happy to see these guys learning life lessons. I am tired of seeing this learning experience happening on the backs of the taxpayers as our park continues to get damaged and other citizens have their rights to use the park displaced.

Reality is often hard but is always much more productive than blind ideology.

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