Taking the lead: A federal plan for preventing homelessness

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University
September 14, 2017

To end homelessness, we have to prevent it from happening in the first place. But how do communities shift to prevention? And how do we engage in prevention consistently and on a national scale for maximum impact?

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) has developed a plan for the federal government to prioritize prevention. This plan, when coupled with the current investment in Housing First, will create positive outcomes for those at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. Leading the Way: Reimagining Federal Leadership on Preventing Homelessness sets out to describe what prevention is, the federal government’s role in preventing homelessness, and why and how prevention should be made a pillar of a national strategy on homelessness.

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The release of the policy brief comes at an important time. The federal government is currently redesigning and expanding the federal body on homelessness – the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). The federal government has committed to investing $2.1 billion over 11 years dedicated to reducing homelessness for 500,000 Canadians. The government has convened an Advisory Committee on Homelessness, made up of experts on homelessness from across Canada, to advise them as they develop the new strategy. The COH has submitted Leading the Way to the Advisory Committee to inform their thinking on prevention. The brief advises the Committee to position homelessness prevention at the forefront of the redesigned strategy. 

There is precedent for the federal government to take on such a bold initiative. In 2013, the HPS renewal centered around an investment in Housing First, where large communities were directed to use 65% of their funding towards Housing First initiatives. This same ambitious policy shift can be used in 2017, this time to prioritize prevention.

The time is right for a shift to prevention. Not only is the federal government redesigning their homelessness strategy, they are also in the midst of developing the National Housing Strategy and the Poverty Reduction Strategy. Combined, these three new strategies set the tone for a federal government poised to do more than simply manage the homelessness crisis. Shifting to prevention and supporting initiatives that will keep people from experiencing the trauma of homelessness provides the opportunity to do things differently.

The role of the federal government

Homelessness prevention is a fusion policy issue. This means that adequately addressing and preventing homelessness requires multiple sectors to take responsibility and work collaboratively. Housing, child and family services, health care, corrections, income support, education, and employment sectors all have a role to play in preventing homelessness. 

So where does the federal government fit? The Government of Canada should take a leadership role in establishing policies and funding to implement a national prevention strategy. The progress made in adopting Housing First across the country under the guidance of the federal government is testament to the impact of federal leadership on encouraging systems change. The federal government brings to the table its unique ability to invest in long-term strategies and to bring innovative solutions to scale on a national level. 

The homelessness prevention initiative: A four-point plan

Leading the Way offers a national homelessness prevention plan as part of the renewed national strategy on homelessness. The plan will complement the continued focus on Housing First to significantly reduce homelessness in Canada over the next ten years. The plan consists of:

1)    Alignment: As part of a broader homelessness strategy, the homelessness prevention initiative must work alongside other government priorities to create a comprehensive approach to reducing homelessness and promoting equality and prosperity for all Canadians.

2)    Investment: We can expect to see significant results only when policy frameworks are supported by financial investment. A shift to homelessness prevention requires a dedicated Prevention Funding Stream.

3)    Innovation: The homelessness prevention initiative must include funding to support innovation and research to develop cost-efficient and locally contextualized programs.

4)    Partnership: Preventing homelessness requires collaboration and shared responsibility between federal departments, across provinces and territories and in equal partnership with Indigenous communities.

Proof that prevention works

Homelessness prevention can and will reduce homelessness in Canada if adopted by the federal government. We know this to be true because there are examples around the world of state governments taking a stand and moving to prevention.

Wales recently passed legislation that mandated prevention services as a universal right. Already they have seen significant success in preventing individuals and families from experiencing homelessness. Similarly, Finland developed an action plan for preventing homelessness that ensures that anyone who touches the service system has housing. Australia has been at the forefront of preventing youth homelessness for close to twenty years. Back at home, Medicine Hat’s success with the Housing First model has made it clear that prevention is the other side of the coin in efforts to end homelessness. Cities such as St. John’s, Calgary, Edmonton, and Yellowknife have all incorporated prevention into their community plans to reduce and end homelessness. 

With the leadership and financial backing of the federal government, homelessness prevention programs will be developed, expanded, and scaled up across Canada. The redesign of the national homelessness strategy is an opportunity for the Government of Canada to be bold, innovative, and forward-thinking, and to help Canadians access and maintain their homes.

Erin Dej is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University. She received her doctorate in Criminology from the University of Ottawa. Her area of research includes homelessness, mental health, and autonomy among homeless men and women. She has also conducted research projects on the legislative shifts to the not criminally responsible designation, and the medicalization/ criminalization /racialization of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Dr. Dej has taught in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, as well as in the Department of Law and Legal Studies and at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Carleton University. Dr. Dej teaches in the areas of punishment, law, criminology, and mental health.

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