Dara Sutton was one of two speakers invited to Nelson for Homelessness Action Week. Photo: Tyler Harper

Dara Sutton knows how to solve homelessness

Sutton was in town Wednesday to speak about Medicine Hat’s success

Dara Sutton was so successful in her job finding homes for people that she ended up without one herself.

Sutton was part of a housing first campaign in Medicine Hat that made international headlines two years ago for declaring it had solved its homeless problem. But when she moved to Grand Forks to take a new job, she couldn’t find anywhere to rent.

She found a place in Christina Lake for three months, but then had to couch surf for the next six months with her 22-year-old son. Sutton only recently secured a home to rent, and even that hadn’t been advertised.

“The irony is so deep,” she says. Sutton, who is now executive director of the Boundary Women’s Coalition, was one of two speakers Wednesday at an event for Homelessness Action Week held at Hume Hotel. Nick Falvo, who does research and policy for Carleton University’s Centre for Community Innovation, also spoke via Skype.

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Medicine Hat’s program began in 2009 with the goal of finding a home for anyone in need within 10 days of the first meeting. They were, and continue to be, successful, although the plan had help from factors beyond organizers’ control.

According to Sutton, steadily dropping oil prices led to an abundance of rentals in Medicine Hat. That opened up housing options for the program, which was also carried out in six other cities.

Sutton said the program eventually received federal and provincial funding, but also required political support it got from Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston who has admitted publicly he wasn’t initially on board.

She also understood early on that money alone wouldn’t solve the situation.

“Pretend all of the funding went away,” said Sutton. “There was none. What would we do?”

The answer was to work hard at keeping people in homes once they had been sheltered.

Sutton’s clients often required counselling for mental health or substance abuse issues, so continual visits and support was made part of the initial agreement between the client and the organizers.

Clients were triaged into four categories: those who needed the least amount of intervention, those who required counselling and housing, clients in need of 12-to-18 months of support and housing for clients in need of permanent support.

The program then gathered progress reports to measure the rate of people staying housed, which two years ago led to the city’s declaration of success.

The housing first model needs open units to work, which doesn’t translate to Nelson where there currently is a zero occupancy rate. But Sutton said there are still ways the city can address homelessness at the municipal level.

City council, she said, could re-examine existing bylaws to consider factors such as square footage, or remove barriers to landlords interested in adding standalone suites.

“It has to be habitable,” she said. “I’m not saying, ‘Yes, slum lords rise!’ What I am saying is there are means to create secondary suites in many homes. The difference is investment.

“Would it be worth it if there was some form of incentive for a home owner to basically divide their living space and have a self-contained suite? Those are things perhaps council has some direction on.”

If Nelson were to find the number of units needed to open up a housing first plan, Sutton said the city already has the social infrastructure necessary to make it work.

She also scoffed at the misconception that social services and plans such as the one in Medicine Hat draw more homeless people to cities.

“Folks don’t really understand all the pieces and their beliefs are based on myths,” she said. “Just because you have services doesn’t mean people seek those services out and, looking forward, wouldn’t we want people to access services and be well?”


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