The strategy has been widely adopted in Europe and Australia. In the United States, it has found its most striking success in reducing homelessness among military veterans in cities like New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Phoenix. But no country has embraced the approach as firmly as Canada.
And nowhere in Canada has as much progress been made as in Medicine Hat, a small energy-rich city on the South Saskatchewan River. In November 2015, the city declared that it had succeeded in ending homelessness, bringing accolades and attention from all over the world.
But Medicine Hat’s claim points to the fuzzy logic of the problem: The end of homelessness is a state, not a moment. There will always be people who become homeless, and there will always be people who prefer to remain homeless, even in Medicine Hat.
“I like moving around — I can’t explain it,” said Gordon Thompson, a cheerful homeless man of 72, sitting in a Medicine Hat Salvation Army day room where clusters of people gather to pass the time and get a hot meal. He jokes with the caseworkers who come by imploring him to accept a home but stays instead in shelters or on the street, one among a hard-core cohort that shuns assistance.
As elsewhere in the world, Canada’s homelessness problem grew in recent decades as rising rents pushed the country’s most vulnerable citizens into the streets. The oil boom fed the real estate bubble in Alberta.
Calgary, the center of Alberta’s energy industry, had the worst homeless problem in the province. In 2006, the province gave the city money to test the housing first approach, which had been pioneered more than a…