A billion fewer people live in poverty than 20 years ago; however, many people continue to experience homelessness and hunger. At a recent Engineers Without Borders learning forum in Calgary, experts on homelessness and international economics talked about changing approaches to decreasing homelessness and improving living conditions both here, in Canada, and overseas.
Dr. Eugene Beaulieu, Economist from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, observed that future reductions in poverty will be challenging. While he noted that “economic growth is key to reducing poverty on a worldwide level”, he also suggested that the approach to decreasing homelessness must be “holistic” and that economic growth must be supplemented by consideration of how people respond to incentives when designing effective programs. Dr. Beaulieu assessed that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals had a “mixed report card”, but expressed cautious optimism about the new round of UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include more environmental considerations than their predecessors.
Vice President of Strategy for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Kevin McNichol, spoke about buffers from homelessness including social support and networks, education, and employment opportunities. He observed that a major move in approaching homelessness has been to provide housing as a first step. He also suggested that “listening, understanding and appreciating people” is key to adjusting programs for the homeless.
Although the issues of homelessness and global development may seem disconnected at first blush, the panelists made multiple connections between their respective spheres of expertise. Both emphasized that initiatives to reduce poverty at both levels need to focus on how delivery systems can effectively respond to recipients’ needs at a local level, rather than simply conforming to broad theories. McNichol also offered advice to aspiring change agents for any social cause. “Give up the need to convert me to how you see the world,” he said, noting that his agency had made progress by bringing together various agencies and companies with different worldviews, but who all saw value in eliminating homelessness.
The panel discussion was followed by breakout sessions where the more than 30 attendees discussed homeless issues and solutions in greater detail.