It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mo Ettehadieh knows first hand the importance of diversity and the strengths it can bring to boards in Canada. As the President & CEO of Mettko, a professional engineering firm and founding member of the Diversity Business Network (DBN), he understands that diversity is a fundamental aspect of our society.
However, joining the board of Homes First this year was a new experience. “I must admit that it was a whole new experience for me to have a board meeting in the common room at one of their buildings,” says Mo, accustomed to being around the iconic landmarks and heritage buildings his team built or restored, including Ryerson University in Toronto, Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum and Lebreton Flats.
“But very quickly I came to learn what an important role Homes First plays in Toronto,” he says about the organization that put the housing-first approach into practice 30 years ago. While housing people to end homelessness may seem self-evident, the basic premise here is that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed. Other services, including help with addictions and mental health issues, can and should come after that.
Research backs Homes First’s approach
“It houses those who have the fewest options in our society,” says Mo. “People with serious life challenges that even social housing providers do not want.” In Toronto, there are over 5,000 people without a safe stable place to live. Hundreds live rough in ravines, stairwells or on the street. This forgotten segment of the population comes to Homes First because they have nowhere else to go.
“Homes First is not the sexiest of charities and trying to attract new board members can be hard,” says Mo. “But what is most impressive about the board is the true diversity in the makeup of its members. The board has women, various visible minorities, aboriginals, persons with disabilities as well as three current tenants. I think they are a good example of having diversity on boards and the benefits that come with it.”
Recent research pulled together from across Canada and the United States reinforces Homes First’s approach. One study showed that taxpayers pay between $66,000 and $120,000 to cover the basic annual costs for prison or psychiatric hospitals for just one homeless person, suggesting it’s far cheaper to give a homeless person a place to live than to provide a patchwork of emergency services.
“Homes First believes that the way out of the streets and back into recovering from whatever challenges they face is to have an address and home,” says Mo. “From there they have in-house help to give people a hand in getting health cards and other documentation to help them back on their feet and benefit from social safety nets available to all.”