Solutions: Transitional Housing

York University
April 21, 2014

Transitional housing refers to a supportive – yet temporary – type of accommodation that is meant to bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent housing by offering structure, supervision, support (for addictions and mental health, for instance), life skills, and in some cases, education and training.

Transitional housing is conceptualized as an intermediate step between emergency crisis shelter and permanent housing. It is more long-term, service-intensive and private than emergency shelters, yet remains time-limited to stays of three months to three years. It is meant to provide a safe, supportive environment where residents can overcome trauma, begin to address the issues that led to homelessness or kept them homeless, and begin to rebuild their support network.”

Transitional housing is conceptualized as an intermediate step between emergency crisis shelter and permanent housing.

Historically, transitional housing programs were situated within dedicated, building-specific environments, where there was more common space and less private space than might be the case in permanent housing environments. However, as the concept of transitional housing has evolved, new approaches that incorporate scattered-site housing are now being adopted. In such cases, some of the transitional ‘supports’ are considered portable.

Transitional housing, as an approach, has long been seen as part of the housing continuum for people who are homeless, and in particular for sub-populations such as youth. However, in recent years it has become somewhat controversial, particularly in light of the success of Housing First models, which do not require ‘readiness’ for a transition. Eberle Planning and Research identified two key concerns:

  1. Transitional programs reward those who do well by requiring them to move on; and
  2. They can only be effective if affordable independent housing is available to move to afterwards.

An additional concern has to do with the time-limited nature of transitional housing. Most programs in Canada determine a maximum length of stay, which is often quite short (usually one year, but there are some examples in Canada where young people can stay eighteen months or more). Nevertheless, in spite of these criticisms an argument can be made that transitional  or ‘interim’ housing is still necessary in contexts where there isn’t an adequate supply of affordable housing, and also when dealing with sub-populations such as youth. 

Though there have been some broader Canadian studies on the role of transitional housing as part of a range of housing options for people experiencing homelessness, there is surprisingly little evaluative research on the effectiveness of transitional housing programs for youth in Canada. Key exceptions include the recent report Live, Learn, Grow, which surveys the literature on the Foyer model; a study of  Eva’s Phoenix, a Toronto-based program that has demonstrated positive outcomes, and Peel Youth Village. However, are no longitudinal studies on the long term effectiveness of such programs for youth in Canada, or of their success in helping young people transition to stable housing afterward.

The situation is the same in the United States. In their policy briefing on youth homelessness for the 2010 Opening Doors Homelessness Strategy, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness lamented that while there were an estimated 130 transitional housing programs in the US serving 4,000 young people annually, there was very little data in existence regarding the effectiveness of these programs. There are now a number of research projects on transitional housing underway in the United States, however.

Learn about one youth's experience with transitional housing by listening to this podcast.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.