Summary Report: Edmonton Roundtable on Housing and Homeless Issues for Vulnerable Populations 

August 30, 2017 

This session was co-sponsored by Beth Israel Synagogue of Edmonton and the Intentional Community Consortium.  Approximately 70 participants were in attendance, including the Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, five MLA’s, senior staff from the Province of Alberta and City of Edmonton, several housing providers and community service agencies and families of vulnerable individuals. 

Gary Gladstone, Manager of Stakeholder Relations for Reena and the Intentional Community Consortium, welcomed delegates and spoke about the urgent need to expand housing choices for persons with development disabilities and other vulnerable individuals.  He noted that in Ontario alone, there is currently a waiting list of 40 years for individuals with developmental disabilities to find suitable housing with supports and that the situation is similar across Canada.  He urged delegates to be a strong voice to advocate for change in this sector and to continue to meet and network to share ideas, information and resources.  He noted that the ICC is an organization comprised of agencies serving persons with development disabilities that has been established to help address this situation.  It envisions a community that completely and successfully integrates people with developmental disabilities into all aspects of society. 

There is an urgent need for affordable, accessible and supportive housing that redirects some of the most vulnerable in our community out of basements, hospitals, prisons, shelters and long-term care facilities back into homes of their own with the supports they need to realize their full potential as individuals. 

This can be achieved by dedicating 5% of any funds flowing through the National Housing Strategy for people with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.  

He then turned the session over to Martin Garber-Conrad, CEO of the Edmonton Community Foundation. 

Martin Garber-Conrad, CEO of the Edmonton Community Foundation, spoke about the urgent need for a wider range of housing choices for vulnerable individuals and about the need for all stakeholders to work together to develop solutions to meet these needs.  He then introduced Minister Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. 

The Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and MP for Edmonton Mill Woods, noted that he understood the needs and commitments of agencies to develop and operate housing for vulnerable individuals.  He pointed out that he previously worked for Edmonton Transit and worked with many persons with disabilities.  He stated that persons who serve vulnerable people are also vulnerable and need the support of the community to succeed.  He said our goal should be to build welcoming and inclusive communities and that we can’t marginalize and isolate people.  He emphasized that the Federal Government plans to spend $180 billion on infrastructure investments over the next 12 years and that affordable housing is a big part of these plans, as is early learning and child care.  He emphasized that the government will work together with all stakeholders to tackle these issues and that his Department will be working very closely with Minister Duclos on investments in affordable housing.  He also noted that these investments don’t only make sense from a social standpoint; they are also good economic policy, as the individuals receiving support and assistance will contribute much to the economy and that when there are inclusionary policies related to the work force, everyone benefits. 

Following a brief question and answer period with the Minister, a five person panel addressed the Roundtable and fielded questions.  The panel session was moderated by Katie Soles, President of Soles and Company and author of a number of reports about Housing and Homelessness. Prior to introducing the panel, she noted the extreme difficulty in Edmonton at present finding suitable housing for persons with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.  She emphasized the need for everyone in the room to work together on solving this most urgent problem. 

Jan Reimer, Executive Director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, explained that her agency was at the intersection of domestic violence and housing.  They have to build safety nets in such projects in order to ensure the safety and security of residents.  The stakes for housing are high – women can lose their children and be abused if they stay on the streets.  There are traumatic impacts on children; domestic violence is a big contributor to youth homelessness.  She emphasized that the National Housing Strategy should incorporate significant support for female victims of domestic violence and that efforts were needed to expand the supply of shelters and transitional housing.  These needs are particularly urgent for On Reserve First Nations communities. 

Rabbanit Batya Ivry-Friedman, Coordinator of the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative, noted that Canadian faith-based think-tank Cardus recently laid out a social cities research program on “What makes a great city and how do we get there?” She explained that, in its first report, “Religion and the Good of the City”, University of Alberta, Prof. David Goa relates the following story: 

“Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church, challenged his own bishops to resist a temptation offered by Emperor Arcadius, a temptation that would be beneficial to the building of church institutions and provide them with more public presence. It is hard, I should think, for bishops to resist an offer to develop institutions. The emperor had promulgated an edict banning all street people from Constantinople, “the city of the world’s desire.” He then turned and, with his left hand, granted licenses to bishops to open hostels to house street people and give them a permanent address inside the walls of the great city. 

This may have been the beginning of the church’s engagement with empire (and nations) in providing social services at state expense. In response, the crusty archbishop preached a fiery sermon to his fellow bishops pointing out the implications: “If you do not have a bedroll, a loaf of bread, and a candle sitting in the corner of your home waiting for a stranger to knock at the door seeking shelter and sustenance, and if you do not invite the person who speaks a word to you on the street, as you are returning to your home, in the hope of receiving a little toward what is necessary to live another day, you do not have a Christian home.” If the bishops accepted the emperor’s offer they would be outsourcing an essential aspect of the Christian home.” 

She pointed out that faith has always played a role in building community – dating back to biblical times with Abraham and Sarah opening their tents on all four sides to passersby. This may have been the first “religious social services”. Every religion believes in helping the stranger. 

Every parish is doing something to help those in need in their own way. The Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative allows the space for all the religions to come together to share their stories work together to have a stronger impact on society. The work will be greater when we work together. 

Cardus also prepared an estimating tool called the Halo Calculator, to measure the effect that faith has on common good services. They estimate that for every dollar in a religious congregation’s annual budget, a city gets an estimated $4.77 worth of common good services. The Halo Calculator is an estimating tool and does not represent a formal research result. An estimate for Edmonton puts this number at $2 billion annually from its 703 places of worship. This only includes places of worships, mosques, synagogues, churches etc.. It does not include all the social services that religious institutions began such as Catholic Social Services, Islamic Family Services, Jewish Family Services and so on. 

She said that there is no doubt that religion/faith groups have an impact on social services but asked:  “Are we doing enough? Are we focusing on just own people with the same ideological views? Are we helping the vulnerable populations enough?” It is complicated and it’s not that simple to work together to make a difference. It takes work, education, and patience to understand the intricacies of the need of not only the less fortunate but also of those that have a different belief and process. 

She urged everyone to continue to work together to learn from each other to understand each other to love each other to have a greater impact on the world around us. 

Jay Freeman, Executive Director of Housing and Homelessness for the City of Edmonton, spoke about the U. N. resolution supporting the inalienable right to adequate housing that was signed by the Government of Canada.  He also pointed out that the C.D. Howe Institute has stated that housing is a basic pillar of society and that the T.D. Bank has stated much the same in its reports on housing.  Therefore, there is clearly widespread agreement that every effort is needed to ensure all residents of Canada can find safe, secure, adequate and affordable housing. 

He pointed out that the City of Edmonton supports diverse, inclusive, complete communities and has adopted a target that 10% of the housing in each neighbourhood should be affordable housing.  He observed that millenials are leaving cities like Vancouver because they simply can’t afford to live there and that Jimmy Carter, one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity, has stated that the measure of society is how they treat the most vulnerable. 

He emphasized that we need to support the Housing First philosophy which argues that the most effective solution to homelessness is to first ensure the individual has safe, secure and affordable housing and then tackle their other challenges and support needs.  He pointed out that, ultimately, the solution to housing and homelessness for vulnerable populations is an adequate supply of permanent supportive housing and that governments should work towards such programs.  There should be on-site staff at all times to provide the support needed by these individuals, who should be provided with independent accommodations rather than collective environments.  

He noted that there are four potential models: 

  • Tenancy management, where visitors are controlled 
  • Tenancy management and mobile support 
  • Tenancy management and limited on-site support 
  • Tenancy management and on-site care 

He also noted that the T.D. Bank has written that providing support for housing isn’t just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do, as it not only meets needs but also reduced the drain on social services and the health care system. 

He doesn’t think the ICC request for 5% of government spending on housing to go to vulnerable populations is sufficient, as targets often become maximums.  

Ed Starr, Partner with SHS Consulting and consultant to the Intentional Community Consortium, described the work of the Consortium in bringing together agencies from across Ontario involved in providing housing and supports for persons with developmental disabilities.  They meet on a regular basis to share ideas and information, to discuss practical solutions to the provision of housing for vulnerable populations and to advocate to governments at all levels about the need for greater funding to meet the gap in this form of housing.  They are guided by the following values: 

  • Members are dedicated to help meet the growing demand for accessible supportive housing for persons with developmental disabilities. 
  • The ICC supports an inclusive community-based housing strategy that envisions collaborating partners building housing developments in communities across Ontario that provide independence and support modeled after the success of existing projects such as the Reena Community Residence. 
  • We believe a co-ordinated multi-community effort is the best way to generate significant positive results. 
  • Using scale and shared learning will result in creation of a significant number of housing units designed for individuals with developmental disabilities and other similar support needs. 
  • We are committed to the rights of each and every individual supported, and increasing choices and opportunities for the individual. 
  • Members will aim to develop projects of at least 20 units and to contribute at least one third of the cost through their own contributions/community fundraising. 
  • Members will encourage governments at all levels to dedicate 5% of housing funds towards persons with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations. 

ICC members in Ontario are aiming to secure $66 million in government funding over the next 3-5 years, which would be supplemented by an additional $33 million from their own resources, resulting in $100 million being invested in expanding the supply of housing for persons with developmental disabilities.  This would be sufficient to develop some 500 new units. 

Ed reiterated the statistics about the 40 year waiting list in Ontario and about some of the problems facing persons with developmental disabilities when they are not adequately housed. He said the ICC would welcome members from Alberta and that, by expanding its reach, a greater voice would be heard across the country. 

Brad Perkins, President and CEO of the Excel Society, explained that the Excel Society provides housing and support services to clients with developmental disabilities, mental illness and addictions.  They have a staff of 700 serving more than 500 clients in Edmonton and Calgary.  The majority of their clients have complex needs that their families can no longer support, or they have no family involvement at all.  Without Excel’s support, they would have no other safe place to live with dignity and respect.  They have some of the most complex needs in the community.  Excel’s goal is for every person to actualize their own dreams and to use Excel’s expertise to improve their quality of life on every level.  Excel’s end goal is to provide the best care possible, and to help clients achieve a level of independence that works for them. 

They find that the population they serve has separate and distinct housing needs.  For example, clients are now living longer than previous generations with similar diagnosis and this has resulted in new challenges including increased use of emergency services and increased need for acute health care.  The poses considerable challenges, given that the current housing funding model does not match the unique needs of individuals with a developmental disability as they age.  More specifically, the funding for affordable housing does not recognize the increased health care needs of these individuals.  These needs are different than those of other individuals requiring affordable housing; therefore the funding model also needs to be different, unique and separate.  

Excel Society has piloted a group home in a facility designed for Designated Supportive Living at their Grand Manor residence in Edmonton.  Some of their clients that require increased medical supports due to aging are fortunate to call this new facility home.  The facility is a barrier free environment that enables their team to provide the physical and medical supports they need while still providing the behavioural supports they require.  The pilot project is proving highly successful – clients are excelling, happy and continue to have community inclusion despite their personal challenges. 

He noted that more funding is needed to support more such initiatives.  He pointed out that, under the current funding model, funding is limited to providing for the cost of a room in a single family residential group home, not in the supportive living environment they need.  Without more funding clients will likely end up in acute care settings, where only their medical needs would be met, possibly stripping them of the ability to be active members of the community. 

A question and answer session followed.  There were a variety of opinions expressed about the most suitable forms of housing for vulnerable populations, but it was generally agreed that the goal was to increase choice so that these individuals can function like the rest of society and that we should embrace all options that support independence and choice.  It was pointed out that the definition of “independence” and “choice” differs among individuals due to the difference in the complexity of their needs.  What is needed is collaboration and a collective voice.  

It was pointed out that 10,000 people experience homelessness in Edmonton annually and that we need to ensure that all vulnerable persons are served without exclusion.  Healthy, engaged communities are the key.  

There was also general consensus that asking for government to set aside 5% of housing funding for vulnerable populations was not enough – the goal should be higher.  The current system of responding to funding RFP’s is also inadequate, as it simply results in a scramble to comply with a range of requirements and regulations and often to be competitive with other agencies, rather than collaborative. 

Another key point that was emphasized is that solutions need to be inclusive, not “competitive”.  We need to break down “exclusivity” and change the current mainstream system.  It was pointed out that the current work on the National Housing Strategy provides the opportunity for input and that we should push the Federal Government to provide strong supports for vulnerable populations.  

David Shepherd, MLA for Edmonton Centre, thanked everyone for their participation.  He brought greetings from the Minister of Seniors and Housing.  He said the government understands that everyone deserves a home and that the Provincial Government came up with a Provincial Housing Strategy in June that provides direction towards that goal.  He noted that the Province of Alberta has committed $1.2 billion over 5 years to affordable and appropriate housing.  He said all levels of government have an essential role to play in addressing these issues and that “intersectionality is the key”.  He emphasized the importance of educating the community about these needs and encouraging them to support inclusiveness and complete communities. 

Gary Gladstone wrapped up proceedings and reiterated the ICC goal that 5% of government funding for housing should be invested in housing and supports for persons with developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.  He invited any interested delegates to contact him should they wish to become members of the ICC and expand its voice to a more national scale.   

The session ended at noon and many stayed to network and share their thoughts further.