Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
May 20, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Kristina B. via our latest website survey: “Do you have any tips on how to educate landlords about human and tenant rights; as well as dealing with slumlords?”

Landlord engagement has been a popular topic lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote about some ways to work with landlords, and people have been sharing their strategies in the Community Workspace. Educating negligent, unwilling or altogether absent landlords, however, is an entirely different task.

Most landlords know what their responsibilities are and want to maintain the value of what they own. “Slumlord” is a derogatory term for absentee and/or negligent property owners, especially those who own multiple properties, ignore repairs and other tenant needs, and profiteer. These types of landlords are in the minority, but they do exist. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness, living in poverty, and who are new to Canada, are all especially at risk of ending up in housing that is overcrowded and/or otherwise unfit for living in. So it is important to ensure we do what we can to engage with landlords and make sure they know the rights that tenants have and how they can honour them. 

Share legal information

Rental housing is governed at both the provincial/territorial level and the municipal level, and there’s a great many different laws involved: building codes, human rights frameworks, tenancies acts, and so on. Presenting the information – perhaps in partnership with local community legal clinics – in an easy-to-understand format can help further landlords’ understanding of what they’re expected to do. 

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has plenty of plain language resources for landlords, including a guide for new landlords and fact sheets for every province and territory. Such information can be repurposed in simple formats and shared with landlords at local community meetings, on websites written for landlords, small-scale informative campaigns (ie. on social media), and so on. This information is equally important for tenants to have, and many local tenant organizations and community legal clinics specialize in creating easy-to-read resources. (The housing law section of the Community Legal Education Ontario website is an excellent example.)

Address discrimination

As one 2008 Ontario-based report highlighted, discrimination during the rental process is not uncommon. While most landlords know that they can’t list a preference for some tenants over others, this happens regularly. For example: The Ontario Human Rights Commission (ORC) has an information section for landlords that outlines human rights in housing. Though the ORC states that landlords cannot discriminate against potential renters for various reasons, rental listings (especially in tight rental markets) regularly describe the only kinds of tenants that the owner will consider (“quiet couples,” “students,” “working professionals,” etc.). 

Filing a claim is often simply too much work for most people looking for housing, so there is little action that is taken against such discrimination. In very tight rental markets where vacancy rates are low, landlords have a lot of control over who they rent to and some feel comfortable openly discriminating against some groups of people (ie. “No welfare” postings). A Regina study conducted in 2011 found that while many people on social assistance can be good tenants, a small minority have been disruptive, destructive and failed to pay rent – resulting in widespread discrimination against people on assistance, even though these problems often arise with people who aren’t on social assistance. Dispelling negative myths about potential tenants is a key issue that should be included in any communication strategy with landlords. 

Towards a New Bill of RightsHighlight the lived experience of poverty and homelessness

Legislated protections are important, but so are grassroots bills of rights developed by people with lived experience. Last year, The Dream Team created a bill of rights for people in permanent supportive housing to raise awareness to issues of secure tenancy and quality of housing/services, and more importantly, to ensure housing providers consider the voices of their tenants. The Homeless Charter of Rights, developed in 2013 through the Calgary Homeless Foundation, is another example of highlighting the needs and desires of people with lived experience of homelessness. 

Highlighting documents like these adds a social element to housing, often forgotten in situations where owners are simply trying to make a profit. It also ensures that people who are vulnerable are being represented beyond being painted as “difficult.” 

Include a focus on social housing organizations

Much of Canada’s existing social housing is owned by municipalities, and some of these buildings are among the most poorly maintained. In 2014, BC Housing tenants in Vancouver claimed they’d been living in mould-infested apartments for two years while waiting for repairs. Some participants in the At Home/Chez Soi study noted that they gave up on waiting for social housing due to the poor condition that many BC Housing units were in, and the time it took to get transferred/receive housing. As Chris Selley pointed out in the National Post, Toronto Community Housing is plagued by spending scandals and a $2.6 billion repair backlog. 

Engaging these types of landlords requires more political action – reaching out to local councillors, representatives for housing organizations, tenant boards, etc. - as well as advocacy around multi-level government commitment to improve existing social housing and ultimately, build more. 

Inform landlords about Housing First and other programs

Some landlords will discriminate against certain people (ie. those who make lower incomes), but as the At Home/Chez Soi study showed, many are willing. Housing First programs can be particularly attractive to landlords because they offer guarantees on rent and evictions planning, as well as other crucial social services for the tenants who need them, therefore decreasing the amount of time and money they spend on what some call “problem tenants.” 

Having designated people to support both landlord and tenant and mediate potential problems is incredibly important. Landlords are primarily concerned with maintaining their property’s value and covering expenses, but they’re not necessarily immune to understanding individual circumstances. 

Help tenants organize

Unfortunately with some landlords, no matter how much engagement takes place, problems may continue. In these instances, it’s crucial to help affected tenants organize and take action through the development of tenant groups and in some cases, legal action. 

In 2014, tenants took Akelius, a Swedish company that has been aggressively buying up rental buildings in Toronto and beyond, to the Landlord and Tenant Board after the removal of onsite superintendents led to neglect. (The same company has been accused of forcing out low-income tenants by ignoring repairs until they leave, then renovating and renting to higher earners.) Parkdale Community Legal Services represented the tenants in the case, who were awarded a $50,000 collective settlement in 2015. Though the settlement doesn’t solve the issue that tenant concerns are not dealt with as quickly as they were before, tenants at least saw some reimbursement for their struggles – and Akelius was ultimately held responsible. 

Related posts

Why would a landlord rent to someone who is homeless?

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.

University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
May 18, 2016

So you’ve ended homelessness – but can you prove it?

The notion of ending homelessness has shaped public policy and community-based responses towards greater accountability and evidence-based decision making in recent years. While great success has been achieved, actually ending homelessness is another matter altogether. Policy makers, funders, system leaders, and practitioners alike have all come to understand that an end to homelessness means something other than an absolute end – rather, a “functional” end, or achievement of “Functional Zero”.

The notion of “Functional Zero”

A “Functional Zero” approach to defining an end to homelessness describes the situation in a community where homelessness has become a manageable problem. That is, the availability of services and resources match or exceed the demand for them from the target population. For example, a community may declare they have ended homelessness when they have enough supportive housing, shelter beds, service workers, and funds to assist the number of people accessing the services. In economic terms, we can simplify this concept to simply refer to reaching a balance in supply-demand.

More recently, communities have begun to declare they have in fact achieved the goal of Functional Zero with respect to ending homelessness. New Orleans, for example, has publicly announced they have ended veterans’ homelessness, while Medicine Hat is gaining attention as “the first community to end chronic homelessness in Canada”.

Despite these promising signs of progress, there is no internationally recognized definition of what an end of homelessness looks like, what the indicators and targets should be confirming such an achievement, nor process of verifying whether a community has indeed met their goal.

To this end, The School of Public Policy (SPP), the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness are supporting a collaborative process to develop a national definition of an end to homelessness. Through this process, we aim to also outline critical measures needed to confirm an end to homelessness and propose a set of indicators based on a review of targets internationally and the on-the-ground experience of communities working in this direction.

Why does a common definition matter?

A common definition with measurable indicators will help us articulate what local homeless systems aim to achieve in a consistent manner, allowing comparable analysis across jurisdictions and evidence-based assessment of policy implementation for government and funders. This will contribute to continuous quality improvement and enhanced performance towards common objectives, thereby informing investment decisions, system gap analysis, and policy change.

Importantly, a common definition can help us address concerns and skepticism about “what it really means to end homelessness” encountered across stakeholder groups, including the public, media, politicians, service providers and those with lived experience.

How do we define an end to homelessness currently?

In an international review of policy documents from 61 jurisdictions, we found little consistency in how an end to homelessness is defined. Most often, an implied definition following the Functional Zero approach was used in the application of targets, benchmarks or other performance measures that define progress.

Common metrics used included:

  • Number of program and housing units available against estimated demand.
  • Length of stay in shelter/street.
  • Time between identification or ‘registry’ and placement in housing.
  • Numbers of homeless persons (point-in-time count, annual shelter /transitional housing utilization).
  • Percent who successfully exit to permanent housing, etc.

An important implied assumption across these definitions and their complementing measures is that the focus of our efforts is on effectively managing the supply-demand dynamic of the local homeless-serving system itself. In other words, an end to homelessness is coterminous with the effective performance of local services, balancing client needs with quality and efficient responses. The measures proposed track the flow into the homeless system and its capacity to respond to shifting demand with diverse interventions (prevention, emergency shelter, outreach, Housing First, etc.). They further focus on the workings of the homeless-serving system itself and how quickly it is able to assess clients for appropriate intervention, move them into housing with supports, and to what effect longer term.

While there is nothing wrong per se with this implied focus, making it the sole foundation behind a national definition of Functional Zero would fall short on several fronts, particularly evident when we look to the perspectives of those with lived experience.

The lived experience perspective

In an albeit small sample (n=6) of preliminary interviews with individuals with lived experience with homelessness, participants highlighted that access to safe, accessible, and affordable housing was essential to ending homelessness at a personal and broader social level. Secondly, they stressed that ending homelessness is more than housing as efforts are needed to reduce social exclusion and ensure those with lived experience are part of inclusive communities.

Q: What are your thoughts on typical performance indicators and targets such as the swiftness of re-housing?

Alice: … if it is just about getting people into a place where there are walls than… it’s not going to make a lot of difference. [People] are going to keep going back out [into homelessness] because there has to be community building.

What is evident from these interviews, is that those with lived experience do not define an end to homelessness in terms of targets and performance measures. In some ways, this is obvious; they look to their experience and that of their social networks to develop an understanding of what an end to homelessness would mean to them personally. Yet, to date, our approaches to defining Functional Zero have excluded such perspectives.

What use is building an effective homeless-serving system with lengths of stay in shelter of less than 30 or 21 or seven days, if those we serve report we have not ended their homelessness? There has to be congruence between the indicators we measure and the lived experience perspective. 

Moving Forward

Building on this research, we have developed a discussion paper that proposes a draft framework for the definition for further discussion across Canada. Over the course of the coming months, the COH and SPP will expand consultations on the proposed definition to a broad range of stakeholders including service providers, policy makers, funders, researchers and those with lived experience.

This blog post originally appeared on the University of Calgary School of Public Policy's blog, and has been republished with permission. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
May 13, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Jonathan S. via our latest website survey: “It’s been suggested that PTSD is common among people who have been homeless for a long time. What research has been conducted to show this and what avenues have been put into place to ease them back into community living?”

The relationship between trauma and homelessness is complex and has been the subject of many studies – simply search “trauma” on our site and you’ll see what I mean. Trauma has been shown to be a significant factor in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. It can lead to a variety of mental and physical health issues, and a reason some people cope with substance use

Many people experience trauma before they become homeless. A 2008 study in Sydney found that 98% of the male participants had experienced a traumatic event, compared to and of that percentage, 79% showed a lifetime prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For 59% of those participants, PTSD symptoms began before their first time being homeless. Another study from Australia, conducted in 2006 with youth, found that half of all participants had experienced trauma before homelessness.

Events that occur during childhood are particularly powerful. In the At Home/Chez Soi study, 46% of participants reported having adverse childhood experiences (physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse). In 2015, Bender et al. discovered that 79% of homeless youth participants has experienced two or more types of child abuse, and each instance more than doubled the likelihood that youth met criteria for PTSD.

Further, Intergenerational trauma – dealing with generations of violence and oppression from colonial projects like residential schools - is a primary issue for Aboriginal Peoples, who continue to be disproportionately represented in the homeless population.

Trauma can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. The experience of homelessness itself can also be traumatic and cause PTSD, as it makes people more vulnerable to discrimination, adversity, social exclusion and violence. Many of the stories shared in Homelessness is One Piece of My Puzzle showed that trauma is a powerful cause and result of homelessness. In a 2015 U.S. study, 23-30% of the participants (homeless men) screened positive for PTSD. There were other important findings, including that:

Those with positive PTSD screens had been homeless longer and were more likely to have met time criteria for chronic homelessness. They were significantly more likely to be veterans and to report violent attacks, abuse histories, and mental health problems. Importantly, only 69% of those with positive PTSD screens acknowledged current mental health problems. These individuals were much less likely to report mental health counseling in the prior year.

In other words, the longer someone experiences homelessness, the more likely they are to exhibit symptoms of PTSD. And due to the unpredictable, rough nature of chronic homelessness, many don’t receive counselling or other services that they may need. 

Deficit perspective vs trauma informed perspective2 ways to help: Housing First and trauma-informed care approaches

People experiencing chronic homelessness are not just at a higher risk of exhibiting PTSD, they also tend to have more severe issues with physical health and substance use, higher incidents of involvement with the criminal justice system, and face more discrimination. Even though it is estimated that people experiencing chronic homelessness are a minority – about 2-4% - they use more than half of all available homelessness services because they have the greatest needs.

This is why many researchers have advocated for prioritizing people who are chronically homeless in Housing First programs, which remove many of the barriers to housing and goes beyond housing services to provide clinical (counselling, therapies, medication) and complementary services (employment services, case management, etc.) as well.

Given the prevalence of trauma and PTSD amongst this population, helping them adjust to long-term housing also requires trauma-informed care (TIC) at all personal, practice and organizational levels. It is rarely possible for someone to thrive in a new apartment or community without addressing symptoms of PTSD or their trauma in general. After reviewing literature, Hopper, Bassuk and Olivet (2010) came up with the following definition of TIC:

…a strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

In TIC, workers are aware of and sensitive to the experiences that others may have had, and bring that knowledge forward in language and practice. The table pictured right (from the British Columbia TIC practice guide), shows how “problem” approach differs from a strengths-based TIC approach. (The guide overall is a great resource for anyone curious about the specifics of developing TIC practices.)

Supportive housing, when implemented well, can also work very well for people who have experienced trauma. A 2015 study of two supportive housing programs for women experiencing homelessness in Toronto found that participants reported increased housing stability, improved family life, and an increased sense of safety and wellbeing. This was attributed largely to the TIC approach, but also the harm reduction framework that both programs worked within.

Drop-in programs can also be an effective option. Workers at Phoenix Rising ran a program in 2005 for youth experiencing homelessness that was trauma-informed and focused on helping youth understand their trauma, triggers and learn different methods of coping. After the program, participants’ symptoms of PTSD were greatly reduced.

Helping people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness and/or PTSD adjust to stable housing isn’t an easy task and it requires many people working together. If you’re interested in more resources on trauma, PTSD and trauma-informed care, read:

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.

A Way Home
May 11, 2016

As I look out my office window at the trees and flowers in bloom, I’m reminded that it has only been six months since we launched A Way Home with the support of a range of organizations and partners in Canada, but also international partners such as FEANTSA, the UN and the U.S. federal government. A Way Home is a cross-sectoral national coalition whose members are aligning strategies and resources to affect real change on the issue of youth homelessness.  The goal is to shift the focus from simply ‘managing’ the problem through emergency services, to actually preventing and ending youth homelessness. Our efforts are spawning an international movement for change on the issue, as well as inspiring leaders from other complex social issues to apply our approach and learning.

I think it’s important to highlight that before we formalized as a coalition, the national partners were engaged in wonderful, collaborative work. We are now poised and active as a coalition to take the work to scale in a strategic, coordinated way using the Collective Impact framework. We all know what collaboration looks like, but Collective Impact is actually a little different.  It involves a group of relevant actors from different sectors working together to address a major challenge by developing and working toward a common goal that fundamentally changes outcomes for a population. As we progress in our work, Dr. Stephen Gaetz and I will be writing a series of posts about Collective Impact and our blending of this framework with the Constellation Model. For now, let’s just say it is incredibly difficult work, but if we are asking communities to think and work differently concerning youth homelessness, then we must also if we truly want to have better outcomes for youth. In addition, I’ll release a series of blog posts that ‘deep dive’ on some of the work we are either leading or supporting as a coalition.

A Way Home, in collaboration with a range of partners, will launch a number of resources and supports in the coming months designed to help communities and governments make the conceptual and practical shift to prevention. This includes a comprehensive Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit developed with the support of the Province of Ontario based on best practices in planning as well as the on-the-ground trial and error in youth homelessness planning and implementation from communities, provinces and states across Canada and the U.S.  We’re also gearing up to launch a series of resources and webinars focused on youth homelessness prevention and change management. This fall we will release the results of the largest national study on youth homelessness ever done in Canada, led by A Way Home founding member the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

In closing I would like to highlight that one of our coalition members, The Push for Change, launched a major national campaign last week. I’m reminded that we can all play a role in this movement to prevent and end youth homelessness. Joe Roberts, a formerly homeless youth, is pushing a shopping cart across the country to not only raise awareness about youth homelessness, but to leave a legacy of prevention. A Way Home has partnered with Joe and The Push for Change, Raising the Roof, and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to launch The Upstream Project, which is a school-based, early-intervention model adapted from Australia. The Upstream Project is but one of many prevention-based interventions we will be promoting and/or piloting in the coming months. Stay tuned for updates as we seed and support communities and governments to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada.

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.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
May 06, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Celidh W. via our latest website survey: “With the extremely long waitlist for social housing, it seems almost impossible for individuals facing homelessness to gain access to affordable housing. What policies/procedures/changes could be implemented to help ensure more people can actually obtain housing when they need it most?”

As Celidh pointed out, the waitlists for social housing in most Canadian cities are extraordinarily long, leaving many people waiting for years. As the following graphic illustrates, demand exceeds supply in almost every major urban area:

 Affordable housing waitlists across Canada

Waiting isn’t a luxury that many people experiencing homelessness have, so what can we do to make sure they can find affordable housing when they need it? 

Engage the private market

One way to help rapidly re-house people is to form partnerships with other non-profit organizations, private landlords and/or property management companies. In tight rental markets, focusing on social housing alone will yield only more waitlists, so it’s crucial to add privately owned housing to the list of potential shelter for folks. (For more information, check out my post on ways some organizations have engaged with private landlords.)

Reduce barriers 

Using a Housing First approach – which doesn’t place any restrictions about housing “readiness” – is a key component in reducing barriers faced by people who have mental health, substance or other issues. For example, many (although not all) people at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness use substances and are often asked to be abstinent before they can apply for housing. This is simply not a realistic goal for everyone, and most people who use substances are able to retain housing.

There are other more systematic barriers that many people face as well. A 2011 study of housing services in Edmonton found that documentation (such as photo ID) and eligibility restrictions (criminal records, age, etc.) present significant challenges to securing social housing for many people. Changing policies at this level to make it easier for people to access housing – or employing more people to help applicants with the process – could help reduce these barriers.

Connect with other services

On our website, we often write about the systems approach, which is a “strengths-based, culturally relevant, participatory framework for working with individuals with complex needs.” Most services related to homelessness are fragmented – existing in different areas with different mandates, and they don’t always work well together. People are left to navigate a sea of bureaucratic organizations that they may not understand. Streamlining services and making them easy to access – like offering onsite identification clinics, counselling, or help with social assistance applications – can make a big difference to someone looking for housing. Furthermore, connecting with organizations that do master leasing, help with damage/security deposits, or run Housing First programs could present more options for people in need.

Supporting preventative funding and measures

Rent supplements and other forms of financial assistance are often crucial to helping people avoid homelessness in the first place. Knowing how to help people access these funds and advocating for more of them can not only help people secure new housing, but it can prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.

Social assistance rates are woefully behind costs of living and do not provide most people with enough money to pay rent and cover other basic expenses. Supporting changes proposed in poverty reduction strategies is an important part of ending homelessness altogether.

Advocating for more affordable housing

This is the most difficult to achieve, but also the most important in terms of looking at homelessness on a grand scale: we simply need more housing (emergency, transitional, supportive and permanent) that is decent, appropriate and affordable. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report recommended that 88,000 new units be built over the next ten years.

In order to meet that number or one near it, all levels of government (as well as housing developers) must be held accountable for housing strategies and promises. Many of these declarations and budgets contain policies that can help increase the affordable housing stock. For example, Ontario has recently proposed inclusionary zoning, which would mandate that developments over a certain size include a certain percentage of affordable units. If we are committed to ending homelessness, we need to ensure that people have appropriate and affordable places to go. 

Photo credit: Affordable Housing in Canada - Citizens for Public Justice

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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.