This question came to us from Mike D. through our latest survey.

I’m glad that this question is being asked as it touches on a number of shifts in public policy that restrict the daily lives of homeless people including subsistence strategies such as panhandling, squeegeeing, and sleeping in public spaces. Often, the logic behind these laws contribute to the marginalization and stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness under the pretext of public safety when in reality, these laws have very little to do with protecting the public from the supposed “dangers” that the homeless population bring on society.

Anti-homelessness laws are not a new phenomenon; they can be traced back to old English vagrancy laws. Individuals experiencing homelessness are criminalized in specific ways, from creating anti-homelessness laws, increasing surveillance by police, increasing likelihood of being imprisoned, and discharging people from custody into homelessness. A study of homeless adults in Toronto revealed that while 73 percent had a least one arrest, of those who received a custodial sentence, almost all were sentenced to less than six months. This suggests that people experiencing homelessness are being convicted for minor offences at disproportionate rates. It is important to note that while the homeless population have a high rate of interaction with the criminal justice system, much of it can be attributed to the public nature of homeless life. Research shows that homeless individuals are much more likely to be fined than those who are housed, and even incarcerated for causing a nuisance, public intoxication, loitering, or urinating in public. (Chesnay, Bellow and Sylvestre, 2013; O’Grady, Gaetz and Buccieri 2011, 2013). Marie-Ève Sylvestre’s research on Montreal police reveals that they specifically target the homeless population for these behaviours rather than the rowdy crowds of bar patrons on Saturday nights.

Another pressing problem is the number of people being discharged from corrections into homelessness. The lack of discharge planning and resources for those leaving correctional facilities to support them finding safe and affordable housing makes it exceptionally difficult to abstain from criminal activity. As we shift towards the prevention of homelessness, systems based prevention for individuals transitioning from correctional facilities will be key to stopping the cycle of homelessness and criminalization.

As I explore anti-homelessness laws below it is important to keep in mind that those experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than housed individuals. Youth and those who are mentally ill are among those at highest risk of experiencing violent crime. In turn, risk of victimization and the trauma that comes with being a victim of crime can lead to criminal behaviour as a form of protection.

In our modern era, geographers like Don Mitchell have highlighted the links between the criminalization of homelessness and the debates around the privatization of public spaces in cities. Mitchell argues that the purpose of anti-homeless laws is to dispossess the homeless from their right to public spaces in order to privatized these spaces as a way of fueling the economy. While this may sound good for businesses, people experiencing homelessness who use public spaces for their survival are usually not provided with any sorts of suitable alternatives nor further supports than what is already made available. Mitchell calls this phenomenon the “annihilation of space by law”. In order to better illustrate this, I’ll use Canadian examples to elaborate on his point but first I’ll discuss what is meant by anti-homelessness laws.

What are “anti-homelessness” laws?

Mitchell describes anti-homelessness laws as legislation intended to outlaw everything from sleeping outdoors to sitting on the sidewalks to restricting food donations. Such laws were enacted throughout the United States in the 1990s as a response to the explosion of street populations that emerged out of the rise of unemployment and deep financial cuts made to social benefits. These laws resulted in the “annihilation” of public spaces that many within the homeless population rely on for their very own existence. Advocates argue that anti-homelessness laws do very little to address the root causes of homelessness and instead intensify the marginalization of this population. Unfortunately, this draconian legal approach has also been adopted by a number of Canadian municipalities and provinces in order to control how public spaces are used while keeping specific people out. Below are a few examples:

1. City of Kelowna

As of December 2016, the homeless in Kelowna are banned from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks or otherwise face a $50 fine.  The new regulation expanded on a previous bylaw that restricted  sleeping or sitting on sidewalks between 8am to 9pm (regular business hours). According to the public official, the new bylaw will keep the public safe and businesses from losing customer.

2. Ontario Safe Streets Act

The Ontario Safe Streets Act came into effect in 2000 and was designed to address the growing number of squeegee kids on the streets of downtown Toronto. The legislation prohibits “aggressive” panhandling and anyone attempting, approaching or stopping a motor vehicle for the purpose of offering a service or commodity. However, there are exceptions to the law such as stopping vehicles for charitable purposes is permissible which emphasizes the classist nature of the law as truly being “anti-homeless” rather than being “anti-solicitation”. It also prohibits panhandling of any kind near a bank machine, bus or subway stop, bathroom or parking lot – virtually eliminating urban spaces (often public) as sites to legally panhandle. Despite no evidence of this, the City of Toronto argued that squeegee kids were contributing to urban decay and crime by endangering drivers while negatively impacting tourism and retail businesses.  

3. British Columbia’s Assistance to Shelter Act

The Assistance to Shelter Act was enacted in 2009 in order to enable the police to take people experiencing homelessness into a shelter during extreme weather. While this may seem like a good idea, some advocates argued that the new law was conveniently passed months before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver as a way to “clear street people” months prior to tourists arriving.

Anti-homelessness laws such as the Ontario Safe Streets Act and the BC Safe Streets Act (2004) are arguably counter-productive as they force homeless people to seek out other, less public and less safe spaces and as a result are more vulnerable to victimization and may be harder to reach out to in terms of service provision. For those unable to pay their fines, imprisonment is a reality which could have an adverse effect on their social benefits. Many homeless simply do not have the means to pay fines (hence survival strategies such as panhandling in the first place).  It cost the Toronto Police Services $936,019 to enforce the Ontario Safe Streets Act between 2000-2010 and only collected $8,086.56 in fines. The public discomfort of witnessing people experiencing homelessness trying to survive doesn’t justify these laws so why are public officials so keen on enacting them? By focusing on Ontario’s Safe Streets Act, I’ll discuss the annihilation of space by law, which provides a response to this question.

Capital accumulation & anti-homelessness laws

According to Mitchell, in order to attract new investments, maintain local capital and protect cities' competitive advantages, governments rely on a number of strategies for growing the economy such as creating tax incentives for businesses and deregulating environmental and labour standards laws. But due to fierce global competition, municipalities are pressured into rolling out further business protection schemes and investing in infrastructure and city amenities to the extent of attracting new investments and keeping existing ones in place. In addition, municipal business strategies often include ways to drive up middle-class spending by appealing to the shopping needs of suburbanites by revamping the image of the city. Consequently, many cities and provinces have turned to the legal system as a way of cleaning up their streets from the “undesirables” by taking away their rights to public spaces in which they often have no other choice but to live in. To gain public support, politicians usually create a moral panic and/or some type of fictional discourse denigrating the homeless population. In this sense, anti-homelessness laws are not intended to help the homeless population but rather to beautify the city as part of wider strategies for attracting and protecting businesses while boosting the economy.

Let’s take Ontario’s Safe Streets Act as an example. Making their debut in Toronto in the summer of 1995, squeegee kids became part the city’s landscape by the following year. Armed with a few drivers’ complaints, Mayor Mel Lastman declared an anti-squeegee kid campaign in 1996 that turned into a full-blown public debate among homeless advocates, drivers, downtown retailers, the media and politicians at the local and provincial level. Then Ontario Premier, Mike Harris, built his case against squeegee kids on a metaphor that depicted homeless youth as the “antithesis of social respectability” while accusing them of negatively impacting tourism and retail businesses. It became clear to downtown retailers and politicians that the only solution to address their presence was to criminalize their income generating activity. The idea that people could earn a living in unconventional ways was completely out of line with capitalist labour relations. In addition, youth street homelessness just did not fit with the appearance of a clean, aesthetically beautiful and safe city that is open for business.

By turning Toronto into a landscape of lifestyle consumption, Toronto has disposed the homeless from their social benefits, from the spaces that they live in and ultimately from their right to exist and do whatever is possible in order to secure their survival. In other words, cities are discriminating against the livelihoods of those in the lowest social strata and rewriting whose lives matter, who is allowed to live in the city and who is worthy of social entitlements. Other scholars such as Roger Keil from York University tend to agree, stating that the goal of anti-homelessness laws is to equate public spaces to spaces for tourists, the inner-city gentry and the urban lifestylers as a means of accumulating wealth rather than maintaining public safety and helping the homeless population.

What’s being done about it?

A couple of years ago, the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act launched a petition to repeal the Ontario Safe Streets Act, calling it an “ineffective, expensive and inhumane” response to homelessness. Last year, an Ontario judge wiped out $65,000 in fines amassed by Gerry Williams who was homeless at the time when he accumulated over 400 tickets for non-criminal offences in Toronto. In exchange, Williams must serve two years probation and complete 156 hours of community service for the single conviction of “soliciting in an aggressive manner”. While this is a harsh and unfair punishment, Williams hopes that the ruling will help him get his driver’s licence, improve his credit score and eventually land a job. The Coalition hopes the province will to strike down the law and focus on ensuring that people have access to safe and affordable housing instead.

On the upside of things, in 2015, the BC Supreme Court ruled in favour of a group of homeless people who challenged the City of Abbotsford’s bylaw prohibiting the homeless from sleeping in public spaces. The court recognized the right to public spaces and individuals’ right to safety and security. Last year, Abbotsford passed an amended bylaw allowing people to camp in parks from 7:00pm to 9:00am in order to secure their safety which brought the city in line with the court’s ruling. A similar bylaw in Victoria that prevented the homeless from sleeping in city parks was struck down in 2008 by the BC Supreme Court. The court ruled that the bylaw deprived the homeless of life, liberty and security in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, in 2016 the BC Supreme Court ordered to shut down a camp of about 300 people living on the lawn of Victoria’s courthouse. Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson wrote in his decision that the “encampment is unsafe for those living there and for the neighbouring residents and businesses and cannot be permitted to continue.” While parks in Abbotsford and Victoria are "open" to the homeless population, not all public spaces remain accessible to them depending on the situation as per the BC Supreme Court.

Lastly, the group Homeless in Kelowna continues to oppose the 24-hour ban on sleeping on sidewalks and organized a protest when the new bylaw was being debated at city council. For now, the city is reaching out to community partners to develop a long-term strategy to deal with homelessness and seeking additional funding opportunities as they prepare the 2017 budget. 

These are just a few examples of groups organizing or having organized against regressive anti-homelessness laws. While advocacy groups continue to challenge their municipalities and/or provinces, let’s be clear that the homeless population has the right to public spaces. As cities across Canada struggle to provide safe and affordable housing to its residents, we should at least ensure that public spaces remain what they are – public!

Related posts & links

Image credit: The Phoenix News from the article “Kelowna Bylaw Protest Makes a Storm”

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer. 

Calgary Homeless Foundation
February 15, 2017

To understand homelessness in Canada, it’s important to understand the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Poverty is not always about homelessness, but homelessness is embedded in poverty. Reducing poverty impacts homelessness, always.


Days after the 2015 federal election, a Globe and Mail opinion piece pointed out something many anti-poverty advocates already knew: “Every province and territory but British Columbia has a poverty reduction strategy in place or in development. Many cities and towns do, too. Until now, the big missing piece has been our national government.” This was timely, as the Trudeau Liberals had just promised such a strategy in their election platform.  More recently, the mandate letter for Canada’s Minister of Families, Children and Social Development charged the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos with the task of leading this effort.

With that in mind, here are 10 things to know about poverty as it relates to Canada’s federal government.

  1. Public social spending in Canada is considerably lower than the average for other member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Indeed, total public social spending in Canada represents about 17% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By contrast, the OECD average is almost 22%. (You can see these figures for yourself here.) Every 1% of GDP translates into approximately $560 per Canadian per year. Public social expenditure includes spending on social housing and social assistance (i.e. welfare, disability benefits). A full list of items included in these OECD figures can be found here.
  1. Our current federal government has already taken several important initiatives pertaining to poverty reduction. In creating the Canada Child Benefit (CCB), the federal government increased federal spending on child benefits, making them more generous than previously for low- and middle-income households (but less generous for higher-income households). The CCB has reduced child poverty, though not as much as the current federal government once claimed. What’s more, the Guaranteed Income Supplement ‘top up’ for single seniors will lift an estimated 37,000 Canadians out of poverty; David Macdonald has blogged about this here. Further, expanding the Canada Pension Plan and returning the age of eligibility for Old Age Security to 65 will both reduce the number of seniors living in poverty. (The federal government has also made important announcements pertaining to new funding for affordable housing and homelessness; these initiatives will be discussed in point #9 below.)
  1. More public investment (including on affordable housing and child care) could create jobs and reduce poverty even further. A recent report by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards recommends that federal, provincial and territorial governments take advantage of low interest rates to make public investments. It notes: “Running deficits need not be inconsistent with a goal of not raising the debt to GDP ratio, provided that the deficits are small enough that the debt does not grow faster than GDP. Temporarily running larger deficits to fund valuable public investments while stimulating the economy during periods of poor economic performance are justifiable (p. xii).”  This advice has been echoed by Bank of Canada Governor, Stephen Poloz. What’s more, even former Prime Minister Paul Martin has recently argued for the need to continue having public deficits at the present juncture. Along these lines, the Trudeau government has already announced important public investments (however, their decision to finance such investments via expensive private borrowing has been called into question both here and here).
  1. Canada’s federal government could do a better job of redistributing income, which in turn could reduce poverty even more. Three recent reports (all published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) make a strong case for better redistribution of income via Canada’s tax system. An October 2015 report by Lars Osberg makes a strong case in favour of tax increases for Canadians making $200,000 annually or more. A November 2015 report by Jordan Brennan argues persuasively in favour of increasing corporate income taxes. Finally, a December 2016 report by David Macdonald argues that Canada’s current tax expenditure system disproportionately benefits higher-income earners, and that a reformed system could change that.
  1. A National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care could reduce poverty. The federal government has already announced $500 million “to support the establishment of a National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care.” Such a framework is now being developed in partnership with provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments. The Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada has weighed in with its demands in this respect here. In addition to helping children, child care can also have immediate results on a government’s bottom line—indeed, research from Quebec makes clear that a well-funded child care program can pay for itself (i.e., more parents enter the labour force and the taxes they pay increase government revenue more than enough for the government to finance the cost of the child care). For a fulsome discussion of this phenomenon in Quebec, see this 2012 report; for a shorter analysis, see this December 2016 opinion piece by Pierre Fortin.
  1. Expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit—a measure that has appeal on both the left and right of the political spectrum—could reduce poverty. The Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) was introduced in 2007 by Canada’s federal government. A refundable tax credit, it’s intended to make precarious work more attractive to workers. This December 2016 analysis by Rob Gillezeau and Sean Speer notes “there is actually a broad political consensus” nationally in favour of expanding WITB. People and groups on the left of the political spectrum generally like it because it transfers more money into the hands of low-income households; and people on the right tend to like it because it increases labour market participation. Gillezeau and Speer note: “How broad is the cross-party Canadian consensus on the WITB? In a 2013 report on income inequality presented by the Standing Committee on Finance, the three major parties called for a further expansion to the program.” There are other more recent examples of such cross-partisan support. The federal NDP’s 2015 platform proposed a 15% increase in WITB’s value. In June 2016, the Trudeau government announced a $250 million increase to the WITB to offset increased contributions being made by low-income workers in light of the expanded Canada Pension Plan. And in November 2016, Conservative Party leadership candidate Michael Chong proposed that the WITB be doubled.
  1. A national pharmacare program could both: a) help a lot of people in poverty afford prescription medication, and b) prevent people with low incomes and health problems from falling into poverty. recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argues that a universal pharmacare system would cost governments an extra $1 billion annually…yet, it would save Canadian households collectively approximately $7 billion annually. A big reason for this differential is that a nationally-administered drug plan can take advantage of the buying power of one large body to negotiate lower prices from pharmaceutical companies. In November 2015, more than 300 health professionals and academics wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, calling for such a plan—they also note that almost 90% of Canadians support adding prescription medication to Canadian medicare.Public Debt Charges as a % of Federal Revenue (Canada)
  1. Net Federal Government Debt as % of GDP (G7 Countries)Canada’s public debt is low. Combined with low interest rates(discussed in point #3 above) this means we have ample opportunity to spend more on social programs that can reduce poverty. Our federal government’s annual public debt charges (expressed as a % of federal revenue) have decreased from 35% to 10% since the mid-1990s. In fact, Canada’s federal government has the lowest net government debt of any G7 country.
  1. A well-funded national housing strategy could help reduce poverty. Canada has much less social housing (per capita) than the rest of the OECD. That said, the Trudeau government’s first budget announced substantial new funding for housing and homelessness. Initiatives included: new investments for housing for First Nations, Inuit and Northern communities (approx. $370M annually for two years); the doubling of annual funding for the Investment in Affordable Housing Initiative (for 2016/17 and 2016/18 only); $100 million in new annual funding for seniors housing (also for two years); new funding for renovations of existing social housing; and $55 million in new annual funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, also for two years.[1] (For more on the need for Canada to develop a national housing strategy, see this September 2016 blog post.)
  1. Any poverty reduction effort by the federal government should be done in partnership with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It is abundantly clear from the data that Indigenous peoples face a considerable degree of poverty. The federal government must remain cognizant of the historical impacts of colonization and the residual impact of race-based policies on this subpopulation group. This has been underlined by contemporary reports, including the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the more recent Truth and Reconciliation Report. In particular, substantial investments should be made towards both on-reserve housing and housing for urban Aboriginal peoples. What’s more, the federal government should direct Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada to consult on a Nation to Nation basis in discussing the details. To read the Assembly of First Nations’ policy recommendations going into the 2015 federal election campaign, see this report.

The authors wish to thanks the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post:  Jordan Brennan, Gerald Chipeur, Angela Daley, Louise Gallagher, Rob Gillezeau, Ron Kneebone, Kara Layher, David Macdonald, Angella MacEwen, Michael Mendelson, Kevin Milligan, Allan Moscovitch, Robin Shaban, Richard Shillington, Joel Sinclair, Jim Stanford, John Stapleton, Kaylie Tiessen and Seth Klein.  Any errors lie with the authors.

[1] A succinct list of housing-related initiatives from the 2016/17 federal budget can be found here, while a more thorough analysis can be found here.


For a PDF version of the present blog post, please click here: The Federal Role in Poverty Reduction

This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.

A Way Home
February 08, 2017

Having ‘come from away’ I am under no illusion that Ontario, or Toronto for that matter, is the centre of the universe. That said, I’m pretty excited about working with community and government stakeholders to ramp up our efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness in Ontario. As Dr. Gaetz always says, it’s all about readiness. 

So what’s happening in Ontario that makes it ready for a major shift in how we respond to youth homelessness? At this point I have to give a shout out to Alberta as the first province to have a provincial strategy to prevent and end youth homelessness. These efforts to craft and implement the strategy set the stage for critical learnings that are rippling across the country. The plan emphasizes the need for alignment across government programs and systems, and foregrounds prevention. In September 2014, the Ontario government announced its commitment to end homelessness as a part of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. In response, the Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness was established with a mandate to give advice on how to define and measure homelessness in Ontario, how to prioritize and set targets for ending homelessness, and how to build the evidence base and capacity to implement best practices around the province. Based on the recommendations in the resulting report, the Province set four priorities to guide action to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness, focusing on:

  • Chronic homelessness
  • Youth homelessness
  • Aboriginal homelessness
  • Homelessness following transition from provincially-funded institutions and service systems

While this was happening, communities across Ontario were recognizing the need to have targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Two Ontario communities, Kingston and Wellington County, were part of our national pilot program, Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness, and actively engaged in the critical work of crafting and implementing these strategies. Other communities and the province took notice. As we officially launched A Way Home, the Government of Ontario supported the development of our Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit, with a Special Appendix for Service Managers in Ontario. This body of work helps communities go further, faster so they can get to the really difficult work of implementation, and outlines the role provincial ministries and Service Managers can play to align their efforts with those of communities. Around the same time we co-released an Ontario Policy Brief with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to help inform the provincial strategy moving forward.

Learn more about the A Way Home Webinar series by clicking here.Given this momentum, what do we have planned for 2017? With support from the Government of Ontario, we have launched a dedicated Ontario Youth Homelessness Planning Community of Practice that builds on more than a decade of experience in convening the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. Free supports available to all communities include a year-long monthly webinar curriculum in partnership with OMSSA and Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to “go deep” on issues of community planning, implementation, change management, prevention and Collective Impact. We have also launched an online forum specific to community planning, moderated by expert planners. The forum is part of the Community Workspace on Homelessness, an online platform for community representatives, service providers and others working in  the homelessness sector to collaborate and share information. We’re offering a free community planning newsletter that features critical resources and case studies from across the country to inform your work. We’re also building toward a province-wide Youth Homelessness Community Planning Institute to bring as many as twenty Ontario communities together to kick-start efforts to work across systems to prevent and end youth homelessness. 

While these efforts are underway, our team is providing targeted supports to a number of communities that have made headway on the issue. Some communities have even adopted the A Way Home name to highlight that their efforts are part of a broader movement for change. They’re signing on to working across systems through a Collective Impact lens and doing the difficult work of investing in and shifting efforts to prevention. A Way Home Ottawa, A Way Home Lanark County, A Way Home Toronto, and A Way Home Peterborough are just the tip of the iceberg. Positive change is underfoot and it couldn’t come soon enough for young people that deserve the opportunity to achieve their full potential in life.

Stay tuned as we work alongside young people with lived experience, communities, and all orders of government to move the dial on the issue of youth homelessness. 

This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman. 

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
February 06, 2017
Categories: Topics

Over the past 30 years, the Canadian labour market has experienced the proliferation of low-wage, precarious, temporary jobs that, when coupled with the rising cost of living across the nation, make it difficult for many Canadians to have the security they need to live a fiscally stable and prosperous life. For those who do experience homelessness, getting back into the formal labour market can prove challenging. This is where the role of social enterprises comes in.

Social enterprises exist on a spectrum. This blog post will focus on non-profit social enterprises, which are businesses or programs that often work to employ those who have been marginalized from the mainstream job market and individuals from backgrounds that often face discrimination in hiring practices. In this sense, non-profit social enterprises operate to break down barriers, ensuring everyone regardless of abilities, health, mental health or housing status are given a fair chance. In addition to job skills, social enterprises also tend to provide support services such as life skills, counselling and access to other services provided by the organization. In some cases, any profits or revenue generated by the enterprise are reinvested back into the organization and its employees. In others, a blended value return on investment implies that revenue generated by the enterprise can be realized financially by investors and shareholders and also used for social good.  

Although there is no single definition of a social enterprise, the following are common aspects:

  • Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses, but focus on creating social good.

  • They create impact and improvement in the areas of social, cultural, economic or environment sectors using market-based principles.

  • Income/revenue generated by the business helps achieve the mission, which is the driving force of the work.

  • They provide meaningful employment and training for individuals who may face barriers to employment.

  • Not only do social enterprises work to eliminate barriers, but can also operate services to improve the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness as well, this way delivering social value through the product and service itself.  

  • Social enterprise can be thought of as combining social and economic values to achieve success. Unlike the traditional ‘return on financial investment” used by the private sector or the “social return on investment” used by the non-profit sector, social enterprises are unique in producing blended value return on investment that is not financial or social but rather both simultaneously.

Social Enterprises & Homelessness

How, then, do the proposed benefits of social enterprises factor in the lives of those experiencing homelessness? We know that a loss of employment is one major factor, along with a host of others, that lead to an individual becoming unhoused. Moreover, experiencing homelessness itself and the stigmatization that comes along with that acts as a barrier to employability. Other barriers include whether an individual is facing mental illness that either contribute to or develop after being homeless, unreliable transportation, gaps in employment history, a lack of education and/or skills and so on, such that, employers are hesitant to extend a job offer. And of course, homelessness intersected with other forms of discrimination against substance use and addiction, disability, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, to name a few, make finding and maintaining employment even more onerous. Which is unfortunate, as many individuals experiencing homelessness would take advantage of an employment opportunity if it was made accessible to them.  

From this, and as their core philosophy, social enterprises can and do play a key role in the lives of those experiencing homelessness trying to re-enter the formal labour market, as they prioritize creating opportunities for marginalized populations that other industries do not. For example:

  • The Empowerment Plan in Detroit employs women from shelters who produce winter coats that double as sleeping bags and have been successful in transitioning employees into housing. 

  • Find Edmonton in Alberta provides furniture free of charge to those transitioning into housing by selling furniture to the public and reinvesting the proceeds into housing and support programs.

  • The Remix Project in Toronto, as well as Chicago, is a creative marketing agency providing career training and experience to marginalized youths who wish to enter into the creative industry or further their education. 

Benefits of Social Enterprises

So what makes the common elements of a social enterprise beneficial for those experiencing homelessness? One study interviewed 21 different social enterprises across Ontario on their strategies in creating opportunities for individuals with mental illness that were both accommodating as well as conducive to the operation of the business. A common theme among the employers interviewed was the desire to collaborate with those who traditionally face difficulties finding employment in the formal labour market. Employers interviewed also emphasized the positive outcomes of operating a social enterprise such as community participation and, for the employees particularly, the therapeutic benefits of employment, earning an income and networking opportunities to name a few. Similar benefits have been found across varying demographics.

Social enterprise intervention training programs for youth experiencing homelessness have demonstrated many positive results. Youth have reported an improvement in life satisfaction, family contact, peer social support and showed a decrease in depressive symptoms when compared to the control group who did not receive the training. Youth employed by private sector companies implementing a social enterprise framework were able to meet their basic needs (e.g., food, housing, work attire), 67% acquired new skills and knowledge, and for many others it inspired future career goals, bolstered self-esteem, provided networking opportunities, and resulted in a desire to further their education.  The Impact Construction program by Choices for Youth in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that trains and employs at-risk and homeless youth, found that of the 35 participants of their program, 70% completed the program, 9 obtained or were working towards their GED, 7 pursued post-secondary education and 6 gained full-time employment in construction.

When done right, social enterprises not only provide an inclusive workplace but also aim to provide supports beyond the workplace to meet the complex needs of employees. When asked about the importance of supports beyond the workplace, a common theme found among employers was the necessity in acknowledging the reality of maintaining a job when homeless and if facing mental illness or addiction, thereby responding with the appropriate supports. This facilitates the creation of a workplace that is tailored to the individual and their needs, not the other way around.

Choices for Youth is another good examples here, as it operates multiple social enterprises that work in tandem not only to remove employment barriers for youth but also provide services that work to create a social and environmental good. Through their programs tailored to at-risk and homeless youth, Choices for Youth provides programs spanning across crisis response, supportive housing, targeted supports and fostering independence.  

Therefore, in order for social enterprises to work, they need to be tailored to the populations they are employing. For instance, our Youth Employment Toolkit is a resource that outlines considerations when employing youths who have or are experiencing homelessness:

  • Connect employment training with housing stability. Youth should be supported to find or maintain housing, either independently, with the same agency or through a community partner. However, there should be no risk of eviction if the youth fails to complete the training program.

  • Provide start-up costs including transportation, work clothing and necessary supplies/equipment.

  • Provide life skills training to assist the youth with development of practical skills that will serve them after the program is complete. In particular, obtaining a bank account and developing a budget, creating a resume, interview skills etc. are key for a youth employment program.

  • Figure out a plan to address issues of lateness and attendance. These present particular challenges for street-involved youth who may not have the same ability to adhere to a structured routine as housed youth.

  • Build in access to education – especially a GED – if possible. This will help improve outcomes after the program for the young person. Support a young person’s goals for future educational attainment. This could include discussing educational programs, assisting with applications and applying for scholarships.

  • Create opportunities for job shadowing/mentorship so that youth can see what a program looks like in a real world application.

Limitations

Despite the benefits listed, social enterprises do not exist in a vacuum and of course are constantly subject and vulnerable to market pressures, which is commonly cited as a challenge of social enterprises in striking a balance between altruistic intentions and broader free market demands. For instance, research demonstrates that it is common among social enterprises to abandon social good for profit - leaving behind individuals with the most complex needs who perhaps do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ productive worker. On the other hand, for those who do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ worker, this is where the role of other supports and programs factor in to ensure that individuals who perhaps are not ‘job ready’ have the supports to transition into the private sector should they so wish.

Importantly, homelessness cannot be eradicated solely by interventions focused on individuals who have experienced homelessness and their ability to re-enter the formal work force, but rather hold the structural failures accountable for exacerbating the conditions that lead to homelessness in the first place. The shrinking of Canada’s social safety net, the substitution of manufacturing jobs with service-sector, precarious, low-wage labour and the scant availability of affordable housing all need to be addressed. Social enterprises, along with other crucial initiatives like a living wage, Housing First and mental health and/or addictions supports that incorporate ongoing personalized supports and choice are all part of the puzzle. Thus, consistent, reliable funding for social enterprises, social services, mental health supports, health care and investment in non-precarious labour not contingent upon market failures but rather the social good are all integral to a preventative framework and cannot stand separately from each other in combating homelessness.

If interested in starting a social enterprise, take a look at these:

Canada Business Network - Start and Grow a Social Enterprise

Social Enterprise Council of Canada - Working together to advance and support social enterprise in Canada

This past summer, Stephen Gaetz and I received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for a new project, which extends some earlier work we did together when I was the COH’s post-doctoral fellow. In our early work, we were trying to identify social and structural conditions that support collaborations between communities and academic institutions. We studied the work that was happening at the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (now the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness), as well as a number of community-campus collaborations across Canada. In our new work together, we will draw on these prior research experiences as we work to better understand how engaged scholarship contributes to social change. What we mean when we say “engaged scholarship” is any strategy or activity that fosters collaboration between academic and non-academic settings. An important part of this is understanding how wider political-economic relations influence people’s collaborative efforts to move knowledge into action. We are working closely with the new COH post-doctoral fellow – Kaitlin Schwan – to carry out this work.

Impact Survey

In this new research, our goal is to get underneath popular concepts like social innovation, collective impact, knowledge mobilization, evidence-based practice and research impact in order to find out how people actually work together to influence positive social change. This includes investigating how people use knowledge and research as part of social and political change. Unless we understand how working together contributes to social innovation and change, we won’t be able to improve the work we do or the partnerships we form, or effectively extend our collective efforts into other spheres where our work might matter. We want to understand whether and how particular activities (e.g., me writing this blog) actually contribute to changes in how people think about and do their work. In fact, we are conducting a survey on the impact of the COH and the Homeless Hub this month and would love your help! The survey asks you to share if and how the COH or the Homeless Hub has impacted your work, and how we can do so more effectively.

This research project begins with the observation that while many people are mobilizing research and knowledge for positive change, this work requires extensive social, financial, and intellectual commitments. There is seldom enough time for participants in these complex initiatives to reflect on the successes and challenges of their work. As a result, we have limited knowledge of the precise ways that our collective efforts contribute to the changes we want to see (e.g., preventing and ending homelessness).

Through this study, we want to find out:

  1. What are the actual things people do as part of collective efforts to solve complex social problems?
  2. How do the things people do shape the social changes that they are trying to make?
  3. How do social, institutional, political, and economic relations shape this work and influence how processes of social transformation unfold?
  4. How do we bring these complex social and political processes into view so that we can all learn to do the work more effectively?

To address these research questions, we will talk to people who participate in collective social change initiatives about:

  1. The changes they are trying to make;
  2. How their initiatives developed historically – for example, the things people did to create a collaborative model – and the policy, funding and social contexts that influenced this development;
  3. What people actually do, day-to-day, as participants in these initiatives;
  4. How people organize their individual work and responsibilities to support the broader aims of a collaboration;
  5. How they know their work is making a difference (with concrete examples); and
  6. How they know where the work needs to go next.

To provide additional context, we’ll be looking at the organizational, economic, institutional, and policy effects that background and shape their ability to make change. We will also pay attention to the flow of ideas, diffusion of practices, and a variety of communication techniques.

To help us understand how research-to-action processes actually work, we’ll be experimenting with a few different mapping techniques such as those used to track the movement of disease in spatial epidemiology, diffusion analysis, network analysis, and drawing on developmental evaluation work being done in the non-profit sector.

Ultimately, this research will produce a series of case studies that will serve as a demonstration project or a real-time lab. In the pilot phase, we are beginning with two cases (Exeko in Montreal and the COH in Toronto). In a face-to-face knowledge exchange between the two projects, we will be working collaboratively to articulate how the demonstration model will look, feel and function, what it will seek to convey, and how we anticipate people will use it. My hope is that we can create web-based demonstration cases that can be continuously updated and evolved as the projects themselves evolve. As we advance this aspect of the work, we will also be building a collection of tools, which we’ve found useful to capture and convey the relationship between particular activities and the changes they’ve produced or influenced. To be honest, we are making this part up as we go along – that is, we will be learning about innovation by trying to do something differently, ourselves.

To learn more about this project, please contact me at naomi.nichols@mcgill.ca.

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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.