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U.K. expert to share insights on homeless

C algarians who are working to end homelessness will gain some insight today from an expert who’s played a key role in significantly reducing the number of people sleeping outside in London, England.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of a voluntary sector organization called Thames Reach, will speak to more than 300 business, government and social service agency leaders this morning at the 2010 Community Summit to end homelessness.

As Calgary’s 10-year plan enters its third year, Swain will provide expertise on one of the city’s key milestones: decreasing the chronic homeless population.

“I am coming over with a degree of humility,” Swain said in a phone interview this week. “In London, we still have, on any one night, 300 people sleeping rough.

“But in comparison with the problem in Calgary, it’s a smaller problem and when you compare the populations of the two cities — with London at seven million and Calgary at one million — we’ve done pretty well.”

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Recent surveys have shown there are up to 570 Calgarians who sleep rough — meaning they make their beds in the streets, parks, alleys, doorways, riverbanks or vacant lots.

In February 2009, Swain helped launch a campaign to end rough sleepers in London by 2012.

Seventy-five per cent of London’s 205 most entrenched rough sleepers are now off the streets, according to an annual progress report released last month.

Swain said he hopes Calgary can learn from the plan, which includes getting people into housing.

“That’s what you are trying to do in Calgary as well,” he said, referring to the 10-year plan’s focus on a strategy called Housing First.

The strategy focuses on taking homeless people out of shelters or off the streets and moving them into permanent housing before dealing with any other issues. Once housed, they are provided services such as counselling, employment training and mental health support.

The approach began in New York and has been used in Calgary for the past couple of years.

Since it started, more than 1,200 men, women and children have been re-housed in Calgary through several Housing First programs.

Sam Tsemberis, founder and executive director of the Pathways to Housing in New York, said he’s struck by Calgary’s early results.

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“The success speaks for itself,” said Tsemberis, who will also be speaking at the community summit.

Both he and Swain will share their experience with the 300 Calgarians registered for the summit.

Tim Richter, chief executive of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, said New York and London are further down the road of ending homelessness than Calgary.

“We wanted to get their perspective from that vantage point,” he said. “They are dealing with many of the same issues; they have to deal with the addiction and the mental illness and sleeping outside and some of the housing challenges.”

The one-day event, which is being held in the Palomino Room at the BMO Centre, runs today from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

cderworiz@theherald.canwest.com