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.

Related: Affordable housing panel brings new perspectives

Related: Nelson landlords needed to address housing crisis

Related: Homelessness on the rise in Nelson

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?”


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Kootenay Lake ferry labour dispute ends with ratified agreement

The deal was approved by 83 per cent of members

Nelson police searching for missing woman

Heather Gunderson hasn’t been seen since Sunday

Marina at former Kutenai Landing site will be half non-motorized

Council says limits will reduce noise and greenhouse gases on the lake

Rob Morrison sworn in as Kootenay-Columbia MP

Parliament set to reconvene on Thursday with election of House Speaker, Throne Speech

Weather warning for West Kootenay passes

Up to 20 cm expected to fall at higher elevations

VIDEO: Rockslide closes Highway 93 in Fairmont Hot Springs

Geotechnical team called in to do an assessment after rocks fell from hoodoos

Illict drug deaths down, but B.C. coroner says thousands still overdose

Chief coroner Life Lapointe says province’s drug supply remains unpredictable

Trustees ask for more help after tearful meeting on B.C. school’s ‘toxic’ stench

Enforcement has ‘no teeth,’ school trustee says, while kids become sick

One of B.C’s last surviving strip clubs baring all again for Christmas charity

25th annual event is Sunday and raises money for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Christmas Hamper Society.

University of Victoria researchers develop industry-changing ‘hyper-glue’

‘Cross-linking’ technology already playing a role in performance body armour

Threats to the Fraser River at ‘new zenith,’ says river conservationist

The ‘Heart of the Fraser’ should be deemed ecologically significant according to ORC statement

Grandparents raising children: Shuswap grandma sees need for support

Peer group formed for those who have unexpectedly taken on the role of parenting

Final appeal rejected for man convicted in deaths of missing Alberta seniors

Lyle and Marie McCann were in their 70s when they left their home in St. Albert in 2010 and vanished

Thieving gun-toting Santa breaks into Princeton restaurant, makes icing sugar sandwich

The suspect allegedly made a sandwich of icing sugar and ham

Most Read