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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