Putting an End to Child and Family Homelessness in Canada

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
February 15, 2016

Imagine waking up in a strange place one morning and not knowing where you are, not recognizing any of your surroundings. Your mom takes you and your siblings to a cafeteria-style dining hall where you eat a bit of breakfast before taking a bus to school. After classes finish, your mom meets you in the schoolyard and you take transit across the city to another strange building for the night. This time, you are sharing a bed with your younger sister, your brother is on the couch and your mom sleeps on the floor of the living room. Yet you know you were lucky to be out of the shelter tonight and in a friend’s house. Tomorrow you know the process will repeat itself.

This could be the life of one of hundreds of children who are homeless in Canada right now. Thousands more are at-risk of homelessness as a result of abusive situations, poverty or unsafe housing.

One of the often missing faces of homelessness is that of children, dependent youth and their parents/caregivers. Family homelessness is often hidden, but it represents a significant proportion of the overall homeless population. Our new report, Putting an End to Child & Family Homelessness in Canada, shines light on the crisis of homelessness amongst children and families and aims to support communities and government in addressing and ultimately ending this crisis.

What Did We Do?

Cover of the Raising the Roof reportRaising the Roof’s comprehensive three-year Child and Family Homelessness Initiative examined how homelessness is affecting children and their families across Canada. We did this by:

  • conducting an environmental scan to review existing programs
  • examining Housing First in the context of families
  • creating a comprehensive framework by which to understand the issues
  • conducting interviews with 40 service providers, community advocates and academic researchers
  • partnering with eight community organizations across the country
  • interviewing 103 agency staff members and 36 family members who were accessing services at the agencies
  • hosting a National Summit with 30 representatives from across the country
  • hosting a Provincial Summit with 20 representatives, made possible by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario
  • developing recommendations aimed at ending child and family homelessness in Canada

Child and Family Homelessness Framework

The framework – discussed in depth in the body of the report -- includes three key areas: Primary Prevention, Systems-Based Responses and Early Intervention Strategies. We have also identified eight pillars which are connected to all three of the framework components. These are:

  • Poverty/Income
  • Affordable Housing
  • Child care
  • Food (In)security
  • Discrimination
  • Intimate partner violence (IPV)
  • Children’s Mental Health and Family Wellbeing
  • Stigma

Canadians currently spend over $7 billion each year on emergency responses to homelessness. However, the systemic factors that create and maintain homelessness are inter-related and cross-sectoral responses need to be developed. We must also understand that the diversity of homeless families means we cannot use a one-size-fits-all response and expect to succeed. There are many pathways into homelessness, and we must develop a wide range of pathways out of homelessness to achieve the greatest results. 

Children’s Mental Health

We have also dedicated a significant portion of this Initiative – including a supplemental report—to children’s mental health, thanks to the generous support of the RBC Foundation. Children who are homeless – and their parents, primarily mothers – deal with a wide range of emotional impacts that often go unnoticed and/or untreated because of the transient nature of their lives and housing instability. One study showed that nearly half of the children (47%) who experienced homelessness had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or withdrawal, compared to only 18% of children who were living in stable housing (Hart-Shegos, 1999; National Centre on Family Homelessness, 2011; Zima et al.; 1997).

As a result, our first and foremost recommendation is aimed at addressing action on children’s mental health to improve the lives of homeless children and their families.

Our Recommendations

Our report includes short and long-term recommendations for communities, service providers and governments at all levels. Our proposals are in alignment with existing work from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Campaign 2000, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and other housing, homelessness and anti-poverty groups. 

Recommendations for ALL Levels of Government

We recommend that the federal government, in conjunction with the provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments:

1.0 Support and fund national coordinated response and action on Children’s Mental Health.
2.0 Develop and fund a National Housing and Homelessness Strategy.

Recommendations for the Federal Government Only

We recommend that the federal government:

3.0 Develop and fund a National Poverty Reduction Strategy focusing on family poverty.
3.1 We further recommend the implementation of a National Housing Benefit.

Recommendations for the Provincial/Territorial Governments Only

We recommend that provincial and territorial governments:

4.0 Implement a “One Child, One Case” policy for all government services.
5.0 Develop a Ministerial Homelessness and Housing Secretariat/Roundtable to Work on Preventing and Ending Homelessness.
6.0 Develop a province/territory-wide Plan to End Homelessness.

Recommendations for Municipal Governments Only

We recommend that municipal (or regional where relevant) governments:

7.0 Review by-laws and municipal practices to ensure a focus on “inclusionary zoning” and development of affordable housing.
8.0 Develop, in partnership with other levels of governments and/or non-profit or private developers, new emergency shelters, transitional and/or permanent housing aimed at families with children.

Recommendations for Community Agencies

9.0 Work to develop a system of care within your local community to provide holistic, wraparound services for clients, including coordinated assessment and common intake.
10.0 Develop trauma-informed services to better support clients and staff.

These are not, by and large, new asks. They are repeated requests that have been made by communities across the country. However, they are recommendations that have the ability to create change and stem the flow of children and families into homelessness. It is possible to provide long-term solutions to child and family homelessness, but it will take commitment from all levels of government and cooperation between all human sectors. We have the ability to do it; the question is, do we have the will to do it? We know the answers and have the solutions needed to put an end to Canada’s biggest crisis. Now, let’s make it happen.

Raising the Roof provides national leadership on long-term solutions to homelessness through partnership and collaboration with diverse stakeholders, investment in local communities, and public education. To learn more, visit www.raisingtheroof.org.

Tanya Gulliver-Garcia is a research coordinator for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness based at York University. The COH works to mobilize research results so that they have a greater impact on the elimination of homelessness in Canada. Tanya is also a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University with a special interest in community resiliency and recovery after catastrophic disasters. From 2003 to 2010, Tanya taught a course on Homelessness in Canadian Society at Ryerson University. She is a co-founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial's site at the Church of the Holy Trinity and served on the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee as well as numerous City of Toronto committees on homelessness.

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