Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
July 23, 2013

The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference is happening this week in Washington and I’ve been following the hashtag #NAEH13 to see what’s new in research and homelessness. Iain de Jong (@OrgCode) posted the following: “New Orleans on track to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Huge high five! #NAEH13”

My first reaction, and my reply tweet to him, was “@OrgCode hmm. I'd be interested to see the research. lose 25% plus of your most at-risk pop'n & have hundreds of bldgs for squatters...”

But I decided to do a bit of research – I am after all a PhD student working at a pan-Canadian research network – before being too hasty. Turns out, there may be some truth to it – at least in terms of how it looks on paper. New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) has made some great strides in ending, or at least reducing, homelessness.

In a post on OneCPDResourceExchange last week entitled “SNAPS Weekly Focus Guest Blog: Working Together to End Homelessness”, Martha Kegel, Executive Director, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and Stacy Horn Koch, Director of Homeless Policy, City of New Orleans discuss the successes of the plan to end homelessness in New Orleans.

The stats about decreases in homelessness certainly present a clear picture of a dramatic increase (after Hurricane Katrina) and a dramatic decrease. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 2,051 homeless people in New Orleans; two years later that number had jumped to 11,619 people. This number has been steadily declining; in 2009 it dropped to 8,725 and then to 4,903 in 2012. Currently, the number stands at 2,337 – a 47% decrease from last year.

Homelessness in New Orleans 2005-Present

As the chart makes it very clear; homelessness is on the decrease and in a big way, in New Orleans. Kegel and Horn Koch state that the key problem was linked to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina “Just a few years ago, New Orleans had one of the nation’s highest rates of chronic homelessness. This distressing phenomenon was largely due to the lingering effects of the Hurricane Katrina levee failures in 2005, which wiped out the city’s stock of affordable housing, shattered the health and behavioral health systems and scattered the extended family and community networks on which so many vulnerable people once relied.”

Supportive Services

The success in reducing homelessness lies with the City of New Orleans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the 63 agencies who are part of the Continuum of Care. This partnership model is very much in line with what we are constantly promoting here at the Homeless Hub, the need for a “systems response” to ending homelessness. The network of agencies work together to help find solutions –systemic and individual—to homelessness in New Orleans.

This model has led to some incredible successes. Not only has total homelessness been reduced but there has also been a focus on chronic homelessness. This has decreased 85% since 2009 – from 4,579 to 633. Kegel and Horn Koch highlight this and say, “What was unimaginable only a few years ago is now within sight: New Orleans is on track to become one of the first cities to eliminate the long-term homelessness of people with disabilities, in line with the federal plan to end chronic homelessness by 2015.”

This has been noted elsewhere as well. In 2011, Community Solutions (formerly Common Ground) reported that “Despite overwhelming obstacles, New Orleans, a partner in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, now boasts the country’s highest housing placement rate for homeless adults.” This is a clear part of New Orleans’ 10 year plan to end homelessness.

In addition to using the systems approach, NOLA is also being very strategic. They recognize that with thousands of abandoned buildings it’s easy for people to stay hidden if they choose. Outreach teams for UNITY concentrate on abandoned buildings as a way of tracking where people might be living. As this article from explains the city also captured unspent grants for recovery given to developers and is using them to build housing for homeless people and to provide rent subsidies. It also explains another strategy where “The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is making 20 of its properties available for the program, offering each to developers for 10 percent of the appraised value or $1,345, whichever is higher.” This helps ensure that unused housing is being fixed up and that people who otherwise might remain homeless are getting housed.

The resources for people who are homeless, marginally housed, living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable in New Orleans is quite extensive. A great directory has been compiled by UNITY and can be found here.

But a few counter points:

  • A study of geographic origin of homeless people in Houston found that nearly 2% were from Louisiana. While the study has some methodological challenges, this is nearly double the percentage from California, the next highest state of origin.
  • An article in The Stranger from Seattle, points out that New Orleans’ rate of homelessness as a percentage of the population remains high compared to elsewhere.
  • The extended family living situation common in New Orleans means that there could be a large number of “hidden homeless” people: those who are doubling up with family and friends.
  • The New York Times Katrina diaspora map reminds us that people were flung far and wide post hurricane. Many of those who faced challenges returning were those with low incomes and other marginalization issues.
  • There were many challenges for people who owned their homes in proving home ownership and right to title because of a casual inheritance system common in New Orleans. While that legislation was modified in 2009, prior to that it resulted in many people being homeless or facing challenges in being re-housed. Post 2009, many people who were homeless because of this policy were able to return home.
  • There are still about 35,000 blighted properties in New Orleans. Even the best outreach teams can’t check every home, every night to make sure no one is sleeping there.

None of this discounts the successes that New Orleans has had. The progress it has made is nothing short of remarkable. But the broad, systemic problem of homelessness persists and it is going to need concentrated effort from many sectors to end it.

This article also appears in Tanya's Toronto2NOLA's blog. You can follow Tanya on twitter @TanyaMGulliver.

Working at the Homeless Hub means becoming privy to a seemingly never-ending stream of data and research from experts in homelessness. Our staff are constantly working to update our resources, translate research papers into two-page research summaries and to highlight some of this information in social media through our Twitter feed and Facebook account.

Here are some highlights (good and bad) from the past week:

The Bringing Lethbridge Home Progress Report 2013 was released with some impressive findings to report. “The data collected from the 2012 Homeless Census indicated a 27% decrease in the total homeless population over the past year, the sheltered homeless population decreased by 25% in the last year while those living in absolute homeless decreased by 50%. A total of 99 people were identified as homeless in 2012 census, which is a 27 % decrease from 2011 (136). Since the Homeless Census was conducted in 2008, there has been a 93% decrease in absolute (street) homeless in Lethbridge to 2012.”

Right now we live paycheque to paycheque. I know waht it is like to have $10 left in the bank with pay day a week away... and the rent is due and nothing to pack in my son's lunch...It is a scary feeling.Nelson Daily reports that unfortunately, statistics for Nelson, BC aren’t as positive as Lethbridge. The Nelson Cares Society released its 5th Annual Report Card on Homelessness and reported that: the number of emergency stays only decreased 4% between 2011 and 2012 (from 414 to 396) but the average stay increase by 3 days (from 9 days in 2011 to 12 days in 2012) for a 26% increase. Nutritional vulnerability and poverty meant that meals served at Our Daily Bread increased by 5% from 11,700 in 2011 to 12, 268 in 2012.

Waterloo’s STEP Home (Support to End Persistent Homelessness) Program reports that, “For every dollar spent in the housing stability sector, $9.45 comes back to the community in social return.” They also share that managing and ending homelessness have two different price points: “Further, local research demonstrates that managing homelessness by providing emergency services is 10 times more expensive than ending homelessness by providing adequate housing and support.”

In an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press, Jino Distasio, the director of the Institute of Urban Studies and co-principal investigator for the Winnipeg site of the At Home/Chez Soi Project writes about the rooming house paradox. His article examines the horrible conditions of many of Canada’s rooming houses and the co-existing need for safe, affordable housing. He says, “Herein lies a paradox. While we know it is critical to have all Canadians live in safe, affordable housing, closing hundreds, if not thousands of rooms would put a massive burden on an already strained system.”

Our latest research summary examines education access for young women experiencing homelessness. The goal of the research by Jaskiran Dhillon was to document how young women who are homeless or living on the street describe their experiences within education. Read the full research summary here.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
July 16, 2013

It’s hot out there! Most of Canada is expected to experience a heat wave, or near heat wave conditions for much of this week. Already this year we’ve seen deaths of children in Ontario and Alberta after they were forgotten in a vehicle for a short time. According to San Francisco State University, 20 children in the US have died in cars already this year; 33 died last year.

Typically, concerns for homeless people and other vulnerable populations rise when temperatures are cold, but heat is actually the number one weather-related killer in North America. In fact, heat kills more people annually than all other weather conditions combined including tornados, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes. In Toronto, for example, it is estimated that 105 people die from cold each year and 120 from the heat. Numbers are similar in other North American cities.

Man under the sun

It is critical that municipal planning for emergencies includes addressing how homeless people will be protected during heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Toronto has one of the best developed hot weather response plans in North America. It includes a partnership roundtable involving community and city services who mobilize different levels of activity during heat or extreme heat alerts. The city calls a heat alert “when forecast weather conditions suggest that the likelihood of a high level of mortality is between 25 and 50 percent greater than what would be expected on a typical day” and an extreme heat alert when the mortality is 50% or greater.

For my Master in Environmental Studies at York I worked with the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, Sistering Drop-In and the City of Toronto to develop a risk-based heat registry to protect low-income, homeless and marginally housed individuals during extreme hot weather. The city has created a Heat Registry Manual that is available for community agencies to modify and adopt to create their own registries. Examining several different factors we determined what would make someone at increased risk during heat waves including physical and mental health, housing situation (or lack thereof), social isolation and addictions.

Highest risk of heat stroke

This is echoed by Health Canada who says that the joint factors of chronic illness, certain medications and living alone can combine to make someone extremely vulnerable. Homeless people, who are often socially isolated, would also fall into this category.

In, Beating the Heat on the Street, from Partners for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH), Steven Samra shares some tips for outreach workers assisting homeless populations including carrying extra water, providing transit tickets and allowing people access to air conditioning.



Some other heat-related resources:

Health Canada - Communicating the Health Risks of Extreme Heat Events: Toolkit for Public Health and Emergency Management Officials

Health Canada – Community Care During Extreme Heat – Heat Illness: Prevention and Preliminary Care

The City of Toronto’s Beat the Heat pamphlet is available in 20 different languages including Russian, Urdu, Spanish and Tamil.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Prevention Guide to Promote Personal Health and Safety: Extreme Heat

Calgary Homeless Foundation
June 22, 2013

Today I gave a presentation on Canadian housing policy at the annual conference of the European Network for Housing Research. Points raised in the presentation include the following:

- Fiscal context, more so than which party has been in government, appears to have shaped federal housing policy in Canada over the past two decades. Program expenses by the federal government (as a percentage of GDP) started decreasing steadily beginning in the mid-1990s and then increased steadily during the 2000s (up until the 2009-10 fiscal year). Federal spending initiatives on housing have generally followed this trend; they were relatively non-existent during the mid- to late-1990s, began again in 2001, and then picked up steam over the course of the ensuing decade.

- Looking back over the past several decades, it is rather clear that the role of the federal government has been crucial in the provision of housing for low-income households. When the federal government has led on that front, provinces and territories have followed (and housing has been built). During periods where the federal government has been inactive in funding housing for low-income households, very little housing has been built.

- Canada’s “rate of social renting” (i.e. percentage of households that live in social housing) is significantly lower than in most OECD countries. For example, the rate in both France and England is more than three times ours, and the rate in both Sweden and the Netherlands is more than six times ours.

- Though spending on housing has been higher under the Harper government than most observers would have ever predicted, it is important to be mindful of the looming issue of “expiring operating agreements.” Indeed, much of Canada’s social housing stock exists because of funding agreements that have been in place for several decades. Typically, these agreements were to last anywhere from 35 to 50 years, and have involved commitments from senior levels of government to fund operating costs (including the ongoing cost of hydro and maintenance). With much of Canada’s social housing having been built in the late 1960s, some of these agreements have already begun to expire; and many more agreements are set to expire over the next decade. The Harper government has been quite silent on what (if anything) it plans to do about this emerging problem.

- Expiring operating agreements will hit Canada’s northern territories especially hard, due largely to the fact that operating costs for housing in northern jurisdictions are higher than in other parts of Canada.

My slide deck for the presentation can be found here and the conference paper (whose first author is Steve Pomeroy) can be found here. The research is based on a chapter that will appear in the 2013-2014 edition of How Ottawa Spends, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Reprinted with permission from The Progressive Economics Forum

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
June 19, 2013

Our ground-breaking new report – The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 – highlights the current status of homelessness in Canada. And the picture isn’t pretty. Over 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year; 50,000 or more are part of the hidden homeless group and are couch-surfing, doubling or tripling up with friends and family, or living in unsafe and insecure housing. Many more Canadians are facing challenges in paying their rent and meeting other basic survival needs, including food.

Produced by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, this report card summarizes current research about how many people (and who) are homeless, trends that could lead to more homelessness if not reversed, how much homelessness is costing Canadians and promising signs of hope. It also provides several recommendations to help end homelessness.

I’ve been working in the homelessness sector for nearly 20 years, and I'm super excited to be part of this research. It's time that we were able to really quantify homelessness in a meaningful way. Yet, even this report is, in a few places, only our best guess. It’s an informed, well-researched best guess, but the lack of a common definition (CHRN released its definition in 2012) around homelessness, varying methodologies for counting homeless people and a lack of funding and support for research and evaluation means we are trying to take different sets of numbers and make them all match up. And those numbers show us that homelessness is affecting more Canadians than we might realize. In fact, approximately 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. This breaks down to:

  • 2,880 unsheltered (outside in cars, parks, on the street)
  • 14,400 staying in Emergency Homelessness Shelters
  • 4,464 provisionally accommodated (homeless but in hospitals, prison or interim housing)
  • 7,350 staying in Violence Against Women Shelters

30000 people are homeless on any given night
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The research also turned up some other interesting facts. We found that for most people, homelessness is a very short, one time experience. In fact, 29% of people spend only one night in a shelter and are able to resolve their homelessness crisis on their own or with minimal supports. At the other end of the spectrum though, 4,000 to 8,000 people are chronically homeless (long term homeless) and 6,000 to 22,000 are episodically homeless (experience repeated episodes of homelessness over a lifetime). While this is less than 15% of the total homeless population in Canada they use about 50% of the emergency shelter spaces and consume the most resources (including emergency services, hospitals etc.).

We were also able to calculate an updated sense of the cost of homelessness. It’s a whopping $7.05 billion per year. When we think about how much cheaper it is to provide rent supplements, supportive and social housing – not to mention the moral issues of warehousing people in shelters – it’s really time that we started focusing on the solutions.

Homelessness cost Canadian 7 billion annually
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And there is progress on this front. Cities across the country are making strides towards reducing, and ending, homelessness. The province of Alberta is leading the way with a provincial 10 year plan to end homelessness that is showing some very promising results. A focus on Housing First – getting people off the streets and out of shelters into housing before focusing on other issues – is helping to reduce the numbers of people who are homeless.

For example:

  • Vancouver has had a 66% reduction in street homelessness since 2008
  • Edmonton saw a 30% reduction in overall homelessness since 2008
  • Toronto reports a 51% decrease in street homelessness since 2006
  • Alberta’s provincial plan has led to a 16% province-wide reduction since 2008

For the full report, including full tables, charts and our recommendations for change download the report.

State of homelessness in Canada cover page
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 Download the Executive Summary. Aussi disponible en français

 Download the Complete Report


Tanya Gulliver is the Project Coordinator for the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (The Homeless Hub) based at York University. She is also a PhD student at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies looking at community resiliency and recovery after catastrophic disasters. From 2003-2010, Tanya taught the Homelessness in Canadian Society course at Ryerson University. Tanya was on the management team and staff of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She is co-founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial.


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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.