Research Matters Blog

Portions of this content originally appeared in Parity Magazine, a publication of the Council to Homeless Persons (Australia)

Over the last months we’ve discussed Collective Impact at length here on the Hub. A Way Home as a coalition and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (a founding coalition member) support communities to have the tools they need to develop and implement targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. We encourage communities to take a Collective Impact approach in this work, which requires working across the systems that drive young people into homelessness, but that can also be part of the solutions. Just a quick refresher – there are five conditions of Collective Impact: Common Agenda, Shared Measurement, Mutually Reinforcing Activities, Continuous Communication and Backbone Organization(s)/Functions. So where do communities get stuck? One of the main challenges is understanding the roles of various forms of data and how to get to shared measurement.

For a long time in Canada, there was little consensus about the role and use of research and data in responding to homelessness. In some quarters there was even deep resistance and hostility to the notion, commonly expressed by the statement: “We don’t need research – we know what the problems and the solutions are.” In recent years, the situation has improved significantly, as those in policy and practice now generally see the value of research and data and researchers have become much more adept at engaging communities in this work. 

All of this raises the question of what the role of quality research and data should be in the development and implementation of homelessness policies, programs and services?  What sort of collaborations are necessary to ensure quality and utility, and ultimately to contribute to more effective programs and services?

To support this process, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is working in collaboration with A Way Home Canada (AWHC) and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness (NLCYH) to design and implement a vision for a national youth homelessness “Data Dashboard” that will be a resource to support people in communities and all levels of government in their work to prevent and end youth homelessness. The goal of this work is to generate new and useful knowledge that impacts on policy and practice, standard tools and resources to support communities, programs and services in their efforts to get to a place of shared measurement. The values that guide our work include:

  1. We address the problem of youth homelessness from a human rights perspective
  2. All tools and resources must be consistent with a “positive youth development” orientation (focusing not just on risk and vulnerability but also assets)
  3. Young people with lived experience must be meaningfully engaged in the development of these resources
  4. Service providers and government staff have valuable knowledge to contribute to the development of these resources
  5. Data resources must embrace diversity, especially the needs and experiences of Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S youth
  6. Shared measurement is both effective and central to a Collective Impact approach for community/systems planning
  7. All tools and resources developed are free and open access to help ensure accessibility and wide adoption across the system

On a practical level, our work to support policy making, community planning and program delivery requires us to deepen our understanding of the needs that exist within the youth homelessness sector and government, and to make the case for the benefits of consistent and shared measurement and data collection. To get there, we need to review the strengths and weaknesses of existing tools and resources both within Canada and internationally. We also need to understand the barriers and opportunities for a more coordinated, consistent and shared approach to measurement, program outcomes and data collection, to make the case for why this is important and ensure this vision is communicated clearly. 

The Youth Homelessness Data Dashboard consists of four pillars, which work in an integrated way.

four pillars of the data dashboard
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1)    Understanding – Research on the causes, conditions and responses to youth homelessness

There is currently a growing knowledge base about the causes and conditions of youth homelessness in Canada and elsewhere in the world. This research can and should have an important contribution to make in terms of conceptual (re)framing of the underlying issues that produce and sustain homelessness, instrumental research that evaluates and assesses programs, policies and strategies, and through the production of solid evidence that frames public debates. If our goal is to engage in research that has an impact on policy and practice, we need to be mindful of the factors that enhance the social impact of research endeavours. What is clear from this scholarship is that research impact is both a process and an outcome of relationship building, collaboration and meaningful processes of interaction between researchers, policy makers, community partners and people facing homelessness. A key example of this kind of work is the recent (and first) national study on youth homelessness, a collaboration between the COH, AWHC and NLCYH. The final report, titled “Without a Home” produced results that have contributed to a national conversation on the role of, and need for homelessness prevention. It has also led to the development of several policy briefs focusing on mental health, child protection (in press) and Indigenous youth (forthcoming). A more ambitious collaborative project we’ve embarked on called the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab involves a series of demonstration projects on prevention interventions as well as the Housing First for Youth framework produced in Canada. Our efforts to develop “proof of concept” for key policy and program models will support taking this knowledge to scale. We will also continue to review the larger research landscape and shine the spotlight on those bodies of work that provide additional insights into the causes, conditions and responses to youth homelessness. 

2) Enumeration – Assessing the current situation (scale and scope of the problem)

To end youth homelessness, we must first understand the extent of the problem and then measure the efficacy of our response. Traditionally, youth have been underrepresented in efforts to enumerate homelessness, largely because these efforts are designed to measure unsheltered and sheltered populations. Fortunately, communities across Canada have started to make strides in developing strategies to better measure youth homelessness. Collectively, our next challenge is to continue to align our enumeration methods, regionally and nationally, to develop a baseline of youth homelessness, a point from which we can measure our progress. 

Integrated Point-in-Time Counts

In 2018, Canada will embark on a truly national Point-in-Time (PiT) count strategy, with a common methodology (and a youth specific strategy) that has been developed in a partnership between the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Government of Canada.  As mentioned, we are exploring the idea of combining a second round of the National Youth Homelessness Survey with the national PiT count. 

In previous PiT counts, there is reason to believe that we are undercounting youth (a comparison to shelter data studies suggests as much). This could be due to the methodological challenges of working with volunteers who may not recognize or prioritize youth in their efforts, concerns about approaching young people, and that youth experiencing homelessness may not frequent places traditionally associated with homelessness. We will use the updated Point-in-Time Count Toolkit to encourage communities to conduct integrated PiT/Youth Counts in 2018. Developing the integrated approach is a process of continuous learning; we expect the methodology to evolve as we learn with and from communities. The integrated methodology, detailed in the toolkit, contains youth count strategies including: magnet events, youth service counts, expanding the definition of homelessness and partnering with youth with lived experience to improve the representation of youth. These new resources can help Community Entities, Service Managers and service providers be more engaged and effective in the PiT Count. In each section of the toolkit, there's guidance on enumerating youth at the end. 

  • A Youth Count Readiness Assessment 
  • module about supporting youth to take leadership roles in the count and/or using the count to initiate youth leadership groups (such as a YLC)
  • module that details how to create a successful youth magnet event, based on the experience of the experience of End Homelessness St. John’s, Choices for Youth and the YLC. 

data tools for shared measurement
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Complementary Enumeration Methods

Additional enumeration methods such as Registry Weeks, Period Prevalence Counts (and other sanctioned count methodologies) can be used in combination with PiT Counts to provide more robust data. We will work with our partners and communities to determine the extent to which these methods accurately capture the experiences of youth and contribute to our understanding of the scope of the issue. We will also continue to examine the role of By-Name Lists and efforts to collect “real time” data in our efforts on youth homelessness.

Shelter Study Data

The shelter data remains one of the largest datasets on homelessness in Canada. We will continue to use the shelter data to monitor trends in shelter use among youth and contextualize the data with other sources such as PiT Counts and the National Youth Survey. 

Hidden Homelessness

Despite improvements, there are inevitable limitations to our current enumeration methods. PiT Counts, Registry Weeks and Period Prevalence counts cannot accurately enumerate youth who are staying temporarily with friends and family. Accurately measuring hidden homelessness requires a much broader data collection strategy; we will look internationally to identify promising strategies. 

3) Data Management Tools and Shared Measurement – Program level resources

Effective data management begins with clarity about organizational goals and objectives – what is the problem one is trying to solve and what are the outcomes we want to see?  As part of our work towards a data management dashboard system, we will be working with community agencies, policy makers and funders to identify and develop key data management tools to support communities to do their work, and to collect relevant data to measure progress and contribute to continuous improvement. No single tool can do all of the work, as there are a number of points of intervention from screening and assessment, to case management, to program and service level indicators.

Assessment Tools – These are key resources to help determine the needs of youth, program eligibility and priority setting. We will be recommending the Youth Assessment Protocol (which includes both a ‘screener’ and a more extensive assessment tool), which unlike others currently being used is strengths-based, evidence informed and relies on the knowledge of both the young person and the worker. This has been field tested in Canada and will be validated and released more broadly in the coming year.

Case Management Tools – Effective case management is best served by an approach to data that focuses on clear program objectives and outcomes which then drive the service delivery model. A positive youth development perspective (focusing on risks and assets) should likewise guide this approach. Strengths-based tools that incorporate a client-driven ‘stages of change’ approach will be supported. Good case management data tools support outcomes measurement at the individual, worker, program and organization level.

Underlying our approach to data management at the program and organization level is shared measurement, which is key to broader social change. Having agencies and services use common assessment, case management and outcomes measures requires not only agreement within the sector but cooperation from funders. All of this works most effectively if there is some form of data sharing agreement and platform. While respecting privacy, data sharing means that young people can be tracked as they move through the system, and that they don’t have to repeat an intensive (and potentially intrusive) intake every time they encounter a service. The benefits here are many. First, it can support the alignment of program philosophies, activities and outcomes across the sector. Second, it can contribute to enhanced collaboration, systems integration and a rethinking of how to collectively respond to the problem of youth homelessness through Collective Impact. Third, and most importantly, it can potentially lead to better outcomes for youth, as they get access to the services that are most appropriate, enables more effective flow through the system, and holds the sector accountable for better outcomes for youth. 

4)  Demonstrating Progress: Performance Management supporting the prevention and ending of Youth Homelessness

Preventing and ending youth homelessness requires an integrated systems approach. In order to measure progress and the effectiveness of these systems approaches, performance indicators and milestones at the community, provincial/territorial and national levels. It is important to note that integrated systems work necessarily requires a broad cross-sectoral approach and working with key stakeholders that are outside the traditional homelessness sector. Turner identifies that the goal of such a systems-focused performance management process is to help the local community or government:

• Evaluate system’s impact on priority populations;

• Articulate what the system aims to achieve;

• Illustrate the level of performance expected of all services;

• Facilitate client participation in quality assurance activities at program and system-levels; and

• Promote service integration across sector and with mainstream systems.

(Turner, 2015)

Developing and implementing efficient performance measurement processes begins with a collective understanding of performance measures and targets, and that systems and processes (including data management tools and shared measurement discussed above) be in place and supported. 

The key challenges for communities to engage in this important work comes down to resources, training and capacity to collect and manage data and to engage in data analysis and reporting that can contribute to a better understanding of their client base, service level performance, and can lead to continuous improvement. Here, higher levels of government need to fund and support communities to do this work if they want to see outcomes.

In conclusion, the development and implementation of the Canadian Youth Homelessness Data Dashboard will necessarily rely on deep and ongoing partnerships and collaboration between researchers and the users of research and will inform how we think about data for all populations impacted by homelessness. Collaboratively, we explore some bigger questions about the role of knowledge and data collection and the values of different methodologies and approaches to measurement and evaluation. We also need to be realistic about what data can and cannot do. While data is important, we cannot oversell it as a magical solution to the challenges of working to support youth experiencing homelessness. Our desire for evidence-based decision making should not preclude the consideration of innovation in policy and practice for which the current state of evidence for effectiveness may not yet be robust.

Upcoming webinars:

June 28, 1-2:30 p.m. Understanding and Enumerating our Efforts to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness

July 12, 2-3:30 p.m. Research for Data Management and Measuring our Progress at the Systems Level in Preventing and Ending Youth Homelessness

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
June 08, 2017

Having a valid piece of identification is a necessity that many of us take for granted.

In Canada, a parent or a legal guardian must go through the process of securing documentation and identification for their dependants at a very young age, including the birth certificate. For many adults, the responsibilities of renewing one’s health card, driver’s licence or filling out a SIN number for a job application are often overlooked as some of the many miniscule chores they must do as an integrated member of society.

On the other hand, the reality for someone who is experiencing homelessness may be much more complicated, when it comes to the issue of obtaining and keeping identification safe. A number of systemic barriers, including service costs and a lack of affordable housing,often prevent these individuals from having a valid ID. Their unique sets of circumstances such as not having stable housing or being unemployed also make the process of obtaining an ID extremely difficult.

Different provinces have different sets of requirements for the application process that add to these challenges.

In Ontario, the following is required:

To obtain a birth certificate you need:

  • Your first and last name
  • The legal information that will be placed on the birth certificate including: first name, middle name, last name, date of birth, city of birth
  • If applicable, the previous legal names that the applicant had
  • A guarantor (i.e. someone who can verify the validity of the information on the birth certificate. This person has to meet certain requirements, such as having known the person for a minimum of two years and being of a particular occupation.)

To obtain your SIN card, you need one of:

  • A birth certificate (the original document and NOT a photocopy)
  • (If you are a citizen): a certificate of Canadian Citizenship
  • Certificate of Registration of Birth Abroad

More documentation is needed to acquire a health card (OHIP)—you must have three pieces of identification proving citizenship or residency. This means you need a permanent address and an additional piece of ID with both your name and signature to support your identity, as well as another mailing item that proves your residency at the given address.

An illustration of John Doe's ID
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This highlights a common dilemma that Canadians without IDs face, as the process of obtaining ID requires possession of ID. In fact, many cases require multiple pieces of ID.

Without a stable place to call “home,” someone who is experiencing homelessness may not have the means to complete forms such as birth certificates for several reasons, such as not having the necessary parental information or difficulties with reading and writing. Even if such resources are available to them, they also may not have the transportation necessary to travel to a Service Ontario location to apply for their ID.

And for those frequently moving from one location to the next, there may not be the social connections to obtain a guarantor necessary to vouch for their identity. Some may also have their identification lost or stolen. Moreover, even if they do get through this process, there is the additional issue of not having a permanent address where their identification can be mailed to them.

These factors may discourage persons experiencing homelessness from even trying to begin the application process, leaving them unable to verify who they are, thus forcing them to live in a state of systemic invisibility. The invisibility that results from not being able to verify one’s identity can lead to barriers in accessing crucial services, such as the health care system.

What Can Be Done?

While there are “ID clinics” across Canada, other efforts can resolve some of the identification challenges the homeless population face.

To remove some of the service accessibility barriers that homeless individuals deal with, one of the solutions is to offer financial assistance or waive ID fees for individuals who do not meet the low-income cut off. And for those who are leaving the correctional system, it may be helpful to provide them with at least a single piece of ID.

A lack of identification is a symptom rather than a cause of homelessness. In other words, conditions of homelessness such as lacking secure housing, and not having a job and dealing with the everyday realities of extreme poverty, make it difficult to keep and obtain pieces of identification.

There are projects that take this into account. For example, Partners for Access and Identification (PAID) is a program that recognizes the barriers a lack of identification presents for those who are not permanently housed. There are more than 40 locations across the Greater Toronto Area, which provide assistance to individuals without permanent addresses to obtaining identification.

Who Can Help?

Supports are available to assist with the application process and storage of ID:

Ontario:

Partners for Access and Identification Program (PAID): a program that includes over 40 locations across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), dedicated to helping individuals acquire identification.

The ID Project” at Ottawa Mission: Individuals who are a part of the homeless population and have had their IDs lost or stolen can access the help of lawyers and law students through this clinic.  Services are free-of-charge and assistance is provided with health cards, birth certificates, SIN cards and photo ID cards.

Street Health:  Offers I.D replacement clinics and I.D storage in the Dundas and Sherbourne Toronto area.

I.D Safe: Program that operates on weekdays, providing ID storage. To access, you must call 416-921-8668 ext. 234.

Service Canada Centres: (Various locations across provinces and cities). Provides general information regarding how to replace identification, such as passports and SIN cards.


St. John’s Kitchen: offers free ID clinics provided by the Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre on Tuesdays, between 10 AM - 1PM.  Located at 97 Victoria St. S, in Kitchener, Ontario.

Alberta:

Personal Identification Certified Agency List: List includes four sites in Alberta for ID assistance, including: the Sheldon M Chumir Health Centre in Calgary, CSC Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat Regional Hospital in Medicine Hat.

AHS ID Program: Includes the four above mentioned Alberta ID assistance locations, with the additional Grande Prairie Aberdeen Centre.

British Columbia:

BC Housing Homeless Outreach Program: Provides those who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness with a variety of services. An outreach worker meets the person who requires assistance where they are. One of the services offered is assistance with obtaining identification.

Saskatchewan:

Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC) Project ID:
Program set up to address community need for getting and replacing ID, in locations across Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Know any other resources in Canada? Leave them in the comments below.

 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
May 25, 2017

Screening and assessment tools can help programs coordinate the level of services needed to assist individuals in their exit from homelessness.

In 2015, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Mental Health Commission of Canada convened a task force to review screening and assessment tools that were currently available to Canadian communities. The search resulted in 15 tools -- each tool was vetted against criteria developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the United States. The taskforce concluded that the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT), created by Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Centre, was the best screening tool currently available to communities for the purpose of conducting coordinated assessments.

Previous Research on the VAT

Researchers from the Washington Institute for Mental Health Research and Training affiliated with the University of Washington rigorously tested the VAT to examine its psychometric properties, or in other words, if the VAT provides measurements that can be trusted (see page 6 of the report). The researchers found that the VAT was both reliable and valid, which means that the VAT provides consistent results and is sensitive to assessing the level of vulnerability among people who are homeless. The results highlight that the VAT is a trusted tool for communities to use. What has yet to be examined is the use of the VAT in Canada and if scores on the VAT are related to housing outcomes.

BC Housing VAT Evaluation

BC Housing and non-profit housing societies in Vancouver have been using the VAT since 2014 to assist in the placement of individuals into single-site supportive housing units operated by non-profit providers. In 2016, BC Housing initiated an evaluation to determine if the VAT was meeting its objective of contributing to the facilitation of suitable housing placements, to identify lessons learned from staff who have implemented the VAT and from individuals who have been assessed on the VAT, and to inform whether stakeholders should continue to use the VAT.

apartment units
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Pathways PtH Housing First, Inc. (Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Dr. Eric Macnaughton, and Whitney Howard, M.S.W.) and the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa (Dr. John Ecker and Dr. Tim Aubry) were commissioned by BC Housing to conduct the evaluation. The evaluation team used a mixed methods approach, which included both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was collected from administrative records provided by BC Housing for seven housing sites and analyzed in order to demonstrate trends. Qualitative data was collected from building managers of the seven buildings, assistant managers, tenants and VAT assessors.

The key findings from the evaluation were:

1)   Clients were generally scoring on the low-to-mid-range of the VAT, which indicated that clients were assessed as having low to medium vulnerability although a wide range of score was represented.

2)   The VAT was effective in achieving BC Housing’s objective of facilitating a suitable tenant mix in supportive housing settings.

3)   The VAT has some ability to predict who will be successful in housing, as tenants with higher VAT scores had shorter tenancies perhaps requiring a higher service intensity or different type of housing.

4)   The VAT was perceived by BC Housing and not-for-profit societies’ staff as having significantly improved the fairness and transparency of the tenant placement process.

5)   The VAT interview was viewed as a positive experience by most of the tenants, and was experienced as being sensitive and understandable, though there were some concerns about the consequences of providing forthright answers, and about certain questions eliciting some discomfort.

6)   Within the context of supportive housing buildings, it can be challenging to house individuals who have higher VAT scores and more complex support needs.

Based upon these results, the evaluation team recommended the continued use of the VAT in BC Housing funded supportive housing. The full report can be found on the Homeless Hub’s website.

Canadian Version of the VAT

The results from this evaluation provide further evidence of the utility of the VAT as an effective screening and assessment tool for Canadian communities. In recognition of this utility, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness recently released a Canadian version of the VAT. The manual has been lightly revised to reflect the Canadian context and some new material has been added on best practices for planning and implementing coordinated assessment processes.

Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? Throughout our careers, we’ve been asked these questions by LGBTQ2S young people experiencing homelessness a countless number of times. We’ve been asked versions of the same questions by service providers working with youth experiencing homelessness, advocates for LGBTQ2S youth, and policy makers -- Where do we go from here? What are we going to do?

The problem of LGBTQ2S youth homelessness can overwhelm us if we let it. It is a big problem, involving other big problems, like poverty, racism, cissexism, transphobia, heterosexism, homophobia, and colonialism. We see the impact of these, and

 LGBTQ2S young people experiencing homelessness live the impact of these, every day. For example, some of us live in cities or provinces that are unwelcoming to LGBTQ2S people. This, in turn, may make the available services for LGBTQ2S young people equally as unwelcoming.

"Almost all LGBTQ people going into shelters have a fear of them, because it isn’t a matter of if it’s dangerous, but just how dangerous it will be."

Many of us live in cities or provinces that are hostile towards Indigenous youth and Black youth, often resulting in violence towards youth of colour, stigma, and social isolation. Systems are often not designed to meet the specific needs of youth who have experienced multiple stigmas related to racism, homophobia, and transphobia. As such, providers working within these systems may not always understand how to meet the needs of youth with intersecting identities, leaving LGBTQ2S youth of colour experiencing homelessness with few places to turn to for support.

"As a queer person I can find a few resources which may help, but as a black trans woman, the margins are even more narrow."

Most of us live in places that criminalize the experience of homelessness. The notion that youth experiencing homelessness make the streets unsafe is still a widely held belief. Public discourse on crime and homelessness tends to revolve around youth experiencing homelessness as the perpetrators of crime, rather than the victims, which has been a key factor leading to the criminalization of homelessness. However, a major part of the problem is that there is not nearly enough housing for youth experiencing homelessness, leaving young people with no choice, but to fend for themselves. Youth are then criminalized for figuring out how to survive without any support or assistance; they are ticketed for sleeping outside, trespassing, and loitering. And when they engage in street economies to buy the things that they need, they are arrested.  

"That’s when I started getting in trouble, like, with the police and everything."

So, where do we go from here? What are we doing to do? We hope this book will provide some direction. It includes some of the latest research related to LGBTQ2S youth homelessness, as well as case studies of innovative program models that are working alongside LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness in Canada and the U.S. It also includes wisdom from several young people who have experienced homelessness. We believe that those most impacted by LGBTQ2S youth homelessness - LGBTQ2S youth themselves - must be at the center of conceptualizing and creating the solutions that will help us end LGBTQ2S youth homelessness.

As queer researchers with a profound understanding of family rejection and the complexities of coming out, as well as the relationship between coming out and homelessness, we are deeply connected to this work. Our relationship to this work has taught us about reflexivity and the importance of being reflective researchers.

We approached the creation of this book, much like we approach our everyday work, committed with a full heart. This is a project of love and hope. We put this book out into the world with the hope that it may help create a necessary shift, so that all young people have a safe place to call home, and that together we may work to end LGBTQ2S youth homelessness.

Download the e-book for free at homelesshub.ca/whereamigoingtogo or purchase the paperback for $25 CND.

Calgary Homeless Foundation
May 12, 2017

The present blog post is the first in a two-part series on social assistance. The series is inspired by recent data captured in Alberta’s 2016 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness suggesting that just a small percentage of persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary receive social assistance (see point #7 of this previous post).

 —

Ron Kneebone (Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary) and Katherine White (Yukon’s Deputy Finance Minister) have referred to social assistance as “the final layer of the public social safety net — designed to catch those people in need of support but unable to find it from family, friends or non-government agencies…”

(I’d argue that, in larger urban centres, social assistance is in fact the second-last layer before the homeless-serving sector…)

Here are 10 things to know:

  1. Every Canadian province and territory has its own social assistance system—that is, its own legislation, its own regulations and its own policies. First Nations with self-government agreements have their own “income assistance” programs. And for First Nations without self-government agreements, income assistance is funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (but “aligned with the rates and eligibility criteria for off-reserve residents of the reference province or territory”).[1] In the words of Martin Papillon (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa): “First Nations administer income assistance on behalf of federal authorities, yet they follow rules and objectives established by provinces.”[2]
  1. There aren’t enough jobs to go around,[3] and it’s well-known that Employment Insurance benefits provide only temporary coverage (and only cover a small percentage of jobless persons). [4] Without social assistance, people without jobs would be destitute. This places elected officials and public servants in a conundrum—while wanting to provide some basic income assistance for those without work, they don’t want to ‘make life so comfortable’ for those persons so as to discourage them from actively looking for work. They also don’t want workers to quit their jobs in the belief that social assistance provides a ‘good living.’ In other words, by design, social assistance has two contradictory objectives: 1) to give people enough money to live on; and 2) to not give people enough money to live on.
  1. In Canada, social assistance coverage expanded in the post-World War II era; it then contracted in the 1980s and 1990s. In the years following World War II, Canada experienced low unemployment, high levels of tax revenue and a strong feeling of collective solidarity. During this time, senior orders of government designed and funded a social assistance system with benefit levels and rules that were generous relative to today.[5] From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, this expansion was especially fast.[6] (For more on the political and economic factors that led to the post-1970s contraction, see this 2014 article by Jim Stanford.)
  1. Most people agree that social assistance benefit levels are insufficient to live on. Across Canada, 70% of households on social assistance are “food insecure.” In fact, it’s rare to see an elected official or senior public servant even attempt to make a case that social assistance benefit levels are sufficient. In 1995, an Ontario provincial cabinet minister attempted to do this; he was roundly ridiculed. In Alberta, a “single employable adult” on social assistance receives approximately $8,000 annually to live on. (To see social assistance benefit levels for yourself, check out the most recent Welfare in Canada)
  1. Very few immigrants (relative to Canada’s general population) receive social assistance.That’s a finding of research done by Tracy Smith-Carrier and Jennifer Mitchell (and that research is presented in Chapter 17 of this 2015 book on social assistance in Canada). However, a very large percentage of members of First Nations receive “income assistance” (this issue is discussed in detail by Martin Papillon in Chapter 18 of the aforementioned book).
  1. In recent years, there’s been a substantial increase in persons with disabilities receiving social assistance. At a national level, John Stapleton and Anne Tweddle have written about this here. They find this increase to be especially apparent in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia (and they find it to be most pronounced in Alberta). For a recent review of what this trend looks like in Alberta, see this recent report.
  1. The inadequacy of social assistance puts a strain on other parts of Canada’s social welfare system. Three specific points are worth making here. First, if social assistance benefit levels were higher, there would be less demand for emergency shelter beds (that’s one of the findings of this recent report). Second, most of the government funding required for social housing in Canada is for the “rent supplement” component of the assistance (i.e. financial assistance to cover the gap between what it costs the operator to pay for the housing, on the one hand, and what a low-income household can afford, on the other). There’d be less need for social housing funding if social assistance benefit levels were higher. Third, low income is associated with poor health outcomes,[7] which in turn lead to higher health care costs. It’s therefore likely higher social assistance benefit levels would reduce health care costs in Canada.
  1. Many landlords discriminate against tenants who report social assistance as a source of income. This is commonly known by both social assistance recipients and their advocates. And in 2008, this theory was put to the test in a study where ‘mock phone calls’ were made to Toronto landlords; during the study, researchers found solid empirical support for the claim that landlords do indeed discriminate against social assistance recipients.
  1. Social assistance administrators do not track what happens to people who are denied coverage. In other words, when a person’s application for social assistance is rejected, there’s no systematic effort made to track what happens to them. However, researchers do sometimes look at what happens after people stop receiving social assistance; one such Canadian study is available here.
  1. A modest increase in social assistance benefit levels would likely reduce homelessness. A recent report estimates that modest increases in social assistance benefit levels would likely result in less need for emergency shelter beds for homeless persons. Specifically, the report suggests that a 15-20% increase in benefit levels for ‘single employables’ would likely result in a 15-20% decrease in demand for shelter beds.

In Sum. Across Canada, social assistance plays an important, but insufficient, role in poverty alleviation. Higher social assistance benefit levels would likely result in tangible outcomes, including less food insecurity, improved health outcomes and less homelessness. Part 2 of the present blog series will focus on the Alberta context.

The author wishes to thank Daniel Béland, Gerry Boychuk, Pierre-Marc Daigneault, Louise Gallagher, Seth Klein, Jennefer Laidley, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Michael Mendelson, Dionne Miazdyck-Shield, Munir Sheikh, Anne Tweddle and Donna Wood for invaluable assistance with this blog post. Any errors lie with the author.


[1] An important exception is Ontario, where the provincial government is responsible for on-reserve income assistance. Martin Papillon briefly discusses this in Chapter 18 of this book.

[2] I’ve taken this quote from p. 334 of this book.

[3] For more on the relationship between the labour market and social assistance receipt, see Gerard Boychuk’s chapter in this 2015 book. Figure 2.2 in the chapter consists of a line graph suggestive of a strong correlation (R2 = – 0.88) between the percentage of Canada’s adult population receiving social assistance, and the employment rate, over time.

[4] For more on the inadequacy of Employment Insurance benefits, see the Employment Insurance chapter in the 2017 Alternative Federal Budget.

[5] This happened as part of an expansion of Canada’s entire social welfare system. For more on this, see this book by Dennis Guest.

[6] To learn more about this history, check out my PhD thesis, which can be downloaded here.

[7] This 2009 report, focusing on the Ontario context, looks specifically at health outcomes of social assistance recipients.


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

Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale.

Contact him at nick@calgaryhomeless.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nicholas_falvo

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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.