By Jim Bell, CEO

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **

How can we end homelessness in Winnipeg?

It’s one of the most frequent questions I get asked.

For a long time I didn’t have a clear answer. So I would reply by saying homelessness is a complex issue; that there are no easy solutions.

I would say most people who use the services of Siloam Mission are not finding the support they need to cope with severe mental health issues and depression. Many have become stuck in life, often due to trauma they can’t overcome. They lack affordable housing and employment that fits their skill level.

While all of those things are true — and we’re working hard to address each of them — my answer has changed.

Because there is a clear way to end homelessness: make sure nobody ends up homeless in the first place.

That might sound simple, but it’s not easy.

Because the way to prevent someone from ending up on the street in the first place is to intervene years, sometimes decades, before they arrive at the moment of crisis that renders them homeless.

When we survey the men and women who use our services, we find the majority of our clients have grown up in foster care or spent significant time in care.

That’s not surprising.

We know Manitoba has the highest rate of children in care in all of Canada. And we know that many youth in care suffer from the lack of a stable and supportive family, which often leads to depression and addictions.

We also know that thousands of them could end up homeless in the next decade.

The truth is, many young people who turn 18 — regardless of their family or background — simply aren’t ready to make it completely on their own. They still rely on their parents for support, or as a safety net, as they start to navigate life.

Many young Manitobans are able to go to college or university because of the support they receive from home, including living with their parents. I know that was the case for me.

But too many young people simply don’t have those opportunities.

That’s why we at Siloam Mission have launched Exit Up!, a program designed specifically to help Indigenous youth aging out of care avoid becoming homeless in the future.

The program focuses on gaining life skills and employment-readiness.

Participants move through three stages of housing — from communal living to completely independent — and meet with a caseworker regularly to set them up for success.

They attend workshops, learn life skills and volunteer in the community to get them ready to enter the workforce. And through the program they find relationships without an expiration date — a first for some.

It’s one way we’re being proactive to reduce the number of men and women who end up in our shelter.

But we need to do more. We see the number of people turning to us for help go up every year.

So, as I said, the answer to ending homelessness is not an easy one. But being more proactive in helping our youth gain the skills they need to navigate life would be a great start.