ELLIOTT column:

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The Puritan ethic that so many of us were schooled in dictates that poor and homeless people should get their proverbial act together and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

That traditional approach, emphasizing self-control and good behaviour, regrettably has the opposite effect.

Canada is coming to the end of a marvelous experiment that takes a completely different tack. The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s ‘At Home’ project will wind up next year. At Home (or Chez Soi in French) aids homeless people who have mental illness by combining treatment and housing. It is thought to be the largest experiment of its kind in the world.

Currently focused on Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton, At Home is based on a successful American model. A home comes first, with no strings attached, then, if desired, a support team backs the homeless individual with necessary services.

At Home began here above the 49th parallel in 2006, when former PM Paul Martin’s government needed some propping up. NDP leader Jack Layton called for billions in federal funding for housing and homelessness. Michael Kirby, now the chair of the Mental Health Commission and a former Liberal senator, recalled that some kind of action was necessary.

Government officials, aware of the new approach in the United States that seemed to be producing results, were able to talk the Conservatives into a study about whether reductions in homelessness might save money on social services and law enforcement.

Lead researcher for At Home, Paula Goering, has told CTV that experience has proven the $110 million project is worthwhile. Having heard former Liberal cabinet minister Claudette Bradshaw speak at Acadia University about the success of the program in Moncton, where rural migrants are being aided, I think over a thousand lives across the country are being changed for the better.

This year, the National Film Board began documenting the results of the At Home project. The NFB plans a total of 50 short films as an interactive web documentary if you want to check out the difference this program is making.

Collecting tiny stories for our Cruiser report, I have become aware of the stories of some homeless people in our area. Most of the chronically unhoused suffer from some form of mental illness or disability. They need understanding and support, as well as a roof over their heads.

So I am hopeful that when the province's first long-term affordable housing strategy is crafted that the results of the At Home project will be considered.

Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse wants public consultation.

"For the first time, the province will have a plan to address the housing needs of Nova Scotia families and face the challenges ahead," Peterson-Rafuse has said.

My hope is that families and the single homeless individual will all be factored in, given that a mix of housing possibilities is ideal.

Community Services say they help about 40,000 people each year to find housing, so it behooves the provincial government to examine all facets of affordability – short term and long term.

The public consultation in the Annapolis Valley is set for Saturday, Nov. 24, from 2-4 p.m. at NSCC Kingstec in Kentville. Hopefully key partners, like the Canadian Mental Health Association, have all been alerted already. They need to be at the table to speak to the supportive housing model.

The final housing strategy is expected early next year. The Nova Scotia electorate had some high expectations, in terms of these social issues, when voting in the Dexter government, it is now time for the NDP to deliver before we head to the polls again.


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