Research Matters Blog
The field of behavioral economics offers a unique perspective into the phenomenon of homelessness – one that focuses on individual behavior and unites economic, social, and psychological factors in a way that previous models have not. This approach advocates a conception of homelessness as the result of a series of conscious choices, and recommends a focus on these choices as opportunities for intervention. It examines how and why individuals are forced to make choices that may result in homelessness and explores how upstream interventions in housing instability, and curated and critically timed choice sets can preserve housing and prevent the tipping point into homelessness, especially for high risk populations such as young adults with children.
Historically, homelessness prevention has focused on identifying the cause of homelessness, and attacking that cause. This has led to effective interventions, but not universally applicable. A theorist who believes homelessness is a purely economic problem might try to raise income for at-risk people through job training, benefits counseling, and direct financial assistance. Similarly, a researcher who feels that homelessness is a mental health issues, not an economic one, would focus on counseling and treatment. Either approach varies in efficacy, depending on the applicability of the intervention. In either circumstance, the individual or family must be in acute crisis for a number of months to allow time for the intervention, which is expensive and psychologically damaging.
Instead of focusing on a “root cause” model, let’s look closely at the mechanism by which people become homeless, and attempt a better approach for more tactical interventions. Rather than think of the reasons for homelessness, what if we study the moment when people within a certain cohort “choose” to be homeless and find commonalities among an array of individuals? It is then possible to leverage social psychology and behavioral economics to engineer choice sets and environments in which people are nudged toward decisions that will not result in homelessness.
This concept of “choice” in homelessness is often overlooked. We tend to think of homelessness as the inevitable result of broad social trends. Sometimes, this is the case. Large-scale economic depression does correlate strongly with increases in homelessness. But analysis at this level can only tell us so much. Homelessness at the micro-scale is the result of hundreds of choices, often between options that are equally unappealing. As economic challenges grow, so does the difficulty of the decision-making, and the consequences of each choice. For some families, it could mean choosing to purchase school supplies instead of paying rent. It could mean paying only half the rent in another month so holiday gifts can be purchased. These decisions are fraught with emotion, and can yield life-altering results. As economic conditions tighten, these seemingly small decision points and cash-flow constrictions move out of the realm of merely stressful, and quickly evolve into housing crises.
Many homeless or marginally housed (living doubled up with others) people could not afford housing based on 100% of their income, so the resulting homelessness is based on the lack of economic and social resources (O’Flaherty, 2006). For people living with extremely low incomes, choices related to housing may be between utilizing a high proportion of their income on poor quality housing, or increasing expenditures on other fixed costs while sacrificing housing altogether (Quigley, Raphael & Smolensky, 2001). As severely impoverished people face a scarcity of resources, opportunity costs, defined as, “those costs associated with foregoing the next most attractive course of action” (Friedman and Hetcher, 1988, p. 202), and homelessness may be the most attractive option. Alternative models of explanation have emerged, taking into consideration the paradox of choices homeless and at-risk people must make when presented with challenging economic and social realities (Lovell & Cohn, 1998).
Assuming that individuals are generally rational actors, it is nearly impossible to imagine a person choosing to become homeless. A rational actor would never subject herself, or family, to such a string of negative externalities if another option existed. As a result, much of the literature surrounding homelessness has focused on one of two things: the societal and structural forces that act upon individuals and force them into homelessness (the “root cause” theorists) or the individual psychological factors that would cause a person to be homeless.
But there is a third conception, one that treats homelessness as the result of a series of choices made by humans acting in what they believe to be their best interests. Often these choices are made under severe duress, with incomplete information, or without advance knowledge of potential consequences, but they are choices nonetheless. If we view homelessness through this lens, we can start to construct a conceptual framework for a different type of intervention – one based on influencing housing-unstable individuals at critical moments when they are making choices that result in homelessness. Using this framework, we can place control back into the hands of those individuals and employ relatively inexpensive intervention techniques to guide people away from homelessness.
People are generally risk-averse and conservative, and frequently act to prevent the loss of something that is highly valued such as a home. It follows that well-grounded and well-run homeless prevention activities should successfully prevent people from reaching a position where they must make the choice between literal homelessness and some other unstable or untenable housing situation. The positive outcomes from HELP USA’s past 13 years as a HomeBase homeless prevention provider clearly illustrate the impact and success of homeless prevention services. HELP USA’s HomeBase programs enrolled over 10,000 families in fiscal years 2014-2016. Messeri, O’Flaherty & Goodman’s (2011) research on HomeBase finds that for every 100 families enrolled, shelter entry falls 10 to 20%. HomeBase programs yield significant cost savings to the City of New York. It costs approximately $38,000 per year to house a family in a NYC shelter, and the average length of stay is 13 months, which equates to an average cost of $41,666 for each family in shelter. HELP’s homeless prevention programs have prevented thousands of families from homelessness. Net cost savings for the prevention of literal homelessness ranges from the very conservative $3.6 million to a liberal estimate of $31 million.
This research is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca.
When a citizen votes, much of the voting process depends on the home address. For example, voter cards are mailed to home addresses, and phone calls encouraging people to vote are made to the phone number associated with their addresses. Candidates also knock on people’s doors at times, and polling stations are assigned based on locations. What does this emphasis on a fixed place in our electoral system mean for citizens that may lack a permanent address at the time of an election?
Experiencing homelessness does not strip Canadians of their citizenship. Canadians experiencing homelessness, therefore, must have equal access to practicing their right to vote. On the other hand, citizens experiencing homelessness are not often considered when discussing voting and elections. While there are processes in place that ensure individuals experiencing homeless can vote, they are complex and include additional actors as well as greater individual effort. They also remain relatively unknown to those affected.
The research I conducted for my master’s thesis examined the barriers that individuals experiencing homelessness in Toronto face while voting. I spent eight weeks in the field, in the city of Toronto, conducting 45 interviews with service providers, individuals experiencing homelessness, politicians, and election agency representatives.
There are processes in place to allow citizens without a permanent address to vote. On the other hand, they are often too complex. There are also differences depending on the level of election, particularly around the need for identification. When it comes to the need for identification, the federal process is the most rigid; provincially, there have been amendments to the process that do not require identification; municipally, there are various ways that citizens without a permanent address can vote, with or without identification. What all three processes have in common is the involvement of service providers from institutions for individuals experiencing homelessness. Service providers often need to ensure that their institution is authorized by the election agency, and then are provided documentation that they can distribute to clients. Such documentation can act as proof of residence at all levels of elections, and in Ontario, even as identification.
What my research found is that there is a disconnect between the actors involved in the process of voting for citizens lacking addresses. Service providers rarely cited election agencies or the government as sources of information regarding voting or elections. The process involves service providers playing the role of mediators, but this begs the question of whether or not service providers are aware of the role they have been assigned. Service providers that I interviewed expressed a desire to encourage their clients to vote. They did, however, identify a lack of resources to do so. No additional resources are provided to assist in the dissemination of information and adding voting to institutional mandates. Furthermore, although information is sent from election agencies to institutions serving individuals experiencing homelessness, not all service providers recall receiving such information—which often included documentation needed to vote. If information regarding the process and the necessary documentation are not provided to citizens experiencing homelessness, how are they to know how to vote, let alone actually do so?
Knowledge on the Process
Over half of the participants experiencing homelessness were not aware that they could vote without a permanent address. This speaks to the common stereotypes—are citizens that experience homelessness not voting because they don’t want to, or because they are not aware of their right to do so?
Although there are stereotypes that assume citizens experiencing homelessness do not want to participate in elections, or that they are politically uninformed, my research found that this is not the case. Almost all of the participants experiencing homelessness were politically aware, eager to discuss politics and recent elections or campaign promises. Although participants were also disengaged from politics, and argued for politicians to pay closer attention to poverty in the city, they were still politically informed.
Almost three quarters of participants had voted in the past, although only a quarter did so using the process for those without a permanent address. Of the participants that did not vote, 80% were unaware of the processes. This speaks to the possibility that the lack of information regarding the process may impact the likelihood of voting. Many participants were particularly surprised that they could vote without identification at the provincial level. Others stated that they wished they knew about the processes, and that regardless of the complexities, they would have voted if they had known.
Two participants cited the lack of knowledge of polling staff. One participant in particular was asked to wait and pulled aside until someone who knew the process could be called. Having more actors, particularly those that are necessary to the process, knowledgeable and trained on the processes was often emphasized as necessary. Other vital actors in ensuring the information gets passed down to citizens experiencing homelessness were politicians. The politicians I interviewed were aware of processes existing, but were not always sure of the details of the voting processes. Furthermore, not many included citizens experiencing homelessness in their campaign efforts; as one politician argued, it is often assumed that citizens experiencing homelessness do not vote, so efforts are focused on populations and areas where there are citizens that do vote, presumably.
What needs to be done?
My participants were eager to offer steps to move forward. These included:
- More information, not just for individuals experiencing homelessness, but also the pertinent actors (service providers)
- More training, particularly for polling clerks and election staff on the process
- Making the processes easier by harmonizing process across the different levels of government, which was often cited by service providers
- Coordination between election agencies, politicians and service providers
- Ensuring politicians are part of the solution, and have them reconsider their assumptions on which citizens are voters
The political citizenship of citizens experiencing homelessness needs to be considered but currently, there is a lack of data surrounding homelessness and voting, as well as a lack of research regarding the political citizenship of a vital group of Canadians. I am very interested in expanding this research to determine all of the actors involved in ensuring that citizens experiencing homelessness are aware of, and able to express, their political right to vote. What are the actors involved and what are their responsibilities, if any? Are they aware of their responsibilities? How do they interact with one another and citizens experiencing homelessness?
Furthermore, the processes in place often assume that citizens experiencing homelessness are accessing services. With many of the processes requiring service providers, and many individuals being unaware of the process, what does this mean for individuals not accessing services?
Ensuring that citizens experiencing homelessness are able to politically participate in our society and have a voice in the democratic process is vital, and an important step forward to policies aimed at reducing rates of homelessness.
Neglected Citizenry: Homelessness and Voting in Toronto is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca.
Today’s topic is Housing First for Youth (spoiler alert: it’s not the same as Housing First)
Innovation isn’t a word that typically comes to mind when thinking about youth homelessness solutions. We usually reserve innovation for things that change the world as we once knew it – you know, like the printing press or space travel. And yet, there are lots of reasons why Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) is innovative – it builds on the examples set in communities and countries around the world, it favours preventing youth homelessness over responding to it afterwards, it doesn’t require abstinence or sobriety from participants, and its focus is on the rights and dignity of young people who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing homelessness. These are reason enough to label HF4Y as a departure from the norm, but by far the most innovative aspect of HF4Y is its overall goal of supporting wellness and successful growth into adulthood, rather than simply meeting basic needs.
This is the crux of the Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) concept – that it is not enough to house youth experiencing homelessness, but it is necessary to provide them with ongoing supports to ensure they have a successful transition to adulthood. We have to realize that many youth who have been, or who are currently homeless lack experience and the necessary life skills to live independently, which means that they need solutions that are built to last. That’s where HF4Y comes in.
With the release of the THIS is Housing First for Youth program model guide, we are reminded that although there are programs in place around the world, not everyone is familiar with HF4Y. So, let’s take a closer look at what it is and is not:
What is HF4Y?
HF4Y can be seen as an intervention model, or a program, or even a guiding philosophy. It is a rights-based approach that immediately provides young people (aged 13-24) who are homeless or at-risk of becoming so with housing and personalized supports based on their individual needs. HF4Y can also be taken a step further and adapted into a homelessness prevention model, or a way to support young people leaving corrections, care, or mental health facilities.
HF4Y was developed from the original Pathways model for adults which, as the At Home/Chez Soi project research found, was inadequate at addressing the needs of developing young people. Youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness and demands distinct solutions. Thus, the HF4Y model was developed in partnership with researchers, service providers, policy makers, and youth with lived experience of homelessness, who all agreed that simply applying the adult Housing First model to young people would not achieve their goals. A new model was needed, with new principles that were concerned entirely with youth.
To that end, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada led an extensive consultation process on HF4Y in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The feedback received led to the resulting core principles that are at the heart of the new program model guide:
A right to housing with no preconditions
Youth choice, youth voice, and self-determination
Positive youth development and wellness orientation
Individualized, client-driven supports with no time limits
Social inclusion and community integration
When it comes to providing housing, it is so important that young people have options available to them; of course, there are limits to these choices, as there would be for anyone looking a home, but the basic idea is that youth must have a hand in deciding where they want to live, whether or not they want a roommate, and other housing-related concerns. This can be tricky in tight housing markets, but one of the pillars of the HF4Y approach is choice.
In a similar sense, youth with lived experiences must be directly involved in developing and implementing housing solutions. After all, who knows more about what youth experiencing homelessness need from a system than young people who have experienced it firsthand?
Youth will require supports for various lengths of time, based on the seemingly obvious fact that everyone progresses to adulthood at their own pace. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some youth will need little to no support once they have been housed, while others may need support for many years to come. HF4Y recognizes the problems with assigning arbitrary dates to recovery, which is why it has no time limits. It should be noted, however, that participation in any HF4Y program is based on participants adhering to two conditions: a youth must agree to weekly visits or contact with a caseworker, and if a youth has a source of income, they are expected to contribute up to 30% to the cost of rent.
What Housing First for Youth is NOT!
Aligning your program model with the core principles outlined above is crucial if you want to call it Housing First for Youth. The reason we emphasize THIS is HF4Y is to clearly distinguish it from other program models that provide housing and supports for youth. For instance, mainstream approaches to HF that simply accept clients under the age of 25 and nod towards the needs of young adults (hiring a youth worker as a case manager), but which otherwise does not follow the core principles outlined in our framework is NOT HF4Y. It is Housing First with young clients. Evidence from At Home / Chez Soi shows this approach does not lead to compelling results.
Likewise, programs that offer housing and supports, but have in place conditions (housing and supports are not separated; time limits and graduation, etc.) or which simply house youth and then hand off supports to another organization, are not HF4Y programs. Housing models with high case loads (20 or more) are offering light supports, and also don’t fit the program model. So, while there is room for adaptation of course, but the name Housing First for Youth can only be applied where there is a high degree of alignment with the program model, core principles, and models of accommodation and support we identify.
Almost 20% of all individuals experiencing homelessness in Canada are young people – obviously, our existing systems are failing to adequately address their needs. If we are to improve and prevent youth homelessness, we need effective and achievable solutions; the HF4Y model described in “THIS is HF4Y” is effective, as it has been specifically designed for the needs of youth, and achievable if we collaborate across sectors and communities to bring the best practices forward.
It’s time for us to make the shift to a system that respects a young person’s right to a home, to make choices in their own lives, and to progress to adulthood at their own pace. It’s time for Housing First for Youth.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the second installment of the series; to read the first installment, click here.
We believe we can prevent and end youth homelessness. To support this goal, the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MTS) was launched in April 2017 to build an evidence base on effective practices for Canada. Our aim is to learn from and support communities and policy-makers in shifting our national response to youth homelessness, from one that is over-reliant on shelters and emergency services, to one favouring prevention and Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) measures. MTS is a multi-year, collaborative effort that is funded by the Government of Canada’s Skills Link program (Employment and Social Development Canada).
Our overall, long-term goal, is for young people to thrive – for each to be able to make healthy transitions to adulthood, strengthened by stable housing and desired supports (including family and/or other natural supports).
With the completion of the At Home/Chez Soi study, recently conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, research has already demonstrated the positive effects of the Pathways Housing First model for adults; however, those findings are inconclusive for youth. So, while international experience and limited community practice present some emerging evidence on the effectiveness of HF4Y, we need to know more – specifically about why and how this approach leads to better youth-specific outcomes. The same can be said for prevention program models. We need a strong evidence base, situated within the Canadian context, on specific, proven approaches to support young people to avert homelessness. This is where MTS comes in.
Effective decision making requires a solid evidence base, which is why a long-term goal of MTS is to establish a strong evidence base for HF4Y and models of prevention in Canada. This base can then be used to inform public policy and investment. Working with community partners, MTS is launching demonstration projects in communities across Ontario and Alberta, while supporting each site with rigorous research and evaluation efforts. Demonstration projects enable us to determine whether or not a proposed policy or intervention works, by asking questions like: Does each project address the needs of those being served? What adaptations may be needed? What can other communities learn from these interventions? In these demonstration projects, each community site will have a specific focus, with a dedicated research and evaluation team to track the data and learning from program participants and community partners implementing the programs.
MTS is a collaborative project. Here are the partners that make it happen, together:
A Way Home Canada (AWH) is a national coalition dedicated to preventing, reducing, and ending youth homelessness in Canada.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is a non-profit and non-partisan research institute that is committed to finding solutions to homelessness.
MaRS Centre for Impact Investing is a leader of the growing impact investing market in Canada.
Provinces of Alberta and Ontario are provincial leaders in youth homelessness: Alberta has a 10-year plan to combat homelessness and is the first province to have a plan to prevent and reduce youth homelessness specifically; Ontario, meanwhile, has identified youth homelessness as a priority area for its multi-year homelessness strategy.
Community partners across Alberta and Ontario where youth-serving agencies have signed on to implement the demonstration projects. These and other community partners have also contributed to the ‘THIS is Housing First for Youth’ model program guide and the Family and Natural Supports Program Model Framework.
Phase One: Demonstration Projects
Due to its size and scale, MTS has been divided into phases. In Phase One (2017-2019), community demonstration projects implementing HF4Y, Family and Natural Supports Program models, and Youth Reconnect are starting up in 10 communities: Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie, and Fort McMurray. Each community has youth-serving organizations that are committed to pilot testing these program models. Overall, more than 1,300 youth and their families will participate in the demonstration projects.
Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa will pilot test the HF4Y model with different areas of focus: in Hamilton, the project will focus on Indigenous-led care for Indigenous youth; in Toronto, the focus will be on youth exiting care; and in Ottawa, the project will work with youth currently experiencing homelessness.
The Family and Natural Supports Program projects will take place in several communities across Alberta and Ontario and will strive to show that early interventions have a positive impact on the lives of young people at-risk of, or experiencing homelessness. In addition, Hamilton will host a demonstration project on Youth Reconnect, another early intervention model supporting young people who, though not at home, are able to remain within their communities, supported by numerous other community connections.
The Making The Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab is taking a fresh approach to preventing and ending youth homelessness. Through working collaboratively, bringing practice, research and evaluation together, we are seeking to create an evidence base to inform future policies and programs. Simultaneously, we will develop resources and mobilize knowledge so that community partners across the country can access needed information to deliver effective support. We believe that if we work together, we can dramatically shift the way we address youth homelessness at the community, provincial, and national level.
Keep an eye out for more information on MTS’s next steps and the next installment of this blog series.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. We will be adding new blogs to the series every month.
Some might think it a bit extreme to push a shopping cart across the entire country through every kind of season and weather, but Joe Roberts believes that we have to do “whatever it takes” to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada.
Joe started his campaign a number of years ago with a trial run, where he walked from Calgary to Vancouver. After that, he knew it was possible to actualize his vision to push a modified shopping cart, often a symbol of homelessness, across Canada. Joe and his campaign team set out from Newfoundland on May 1, 2016 and concluded this epic journey in British Columbia just last week on Friday, September 29. A Way Home Canada’s team was there to celebrate this feat, along with team members from Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Raising the Roof (our partners in delivering The Upstream Project, supported in part by The Push for Change).
When I first met Joe and his wife Marie, who is also the campaign director for The Push, I knew that they understood something fundamental about youth homelessness. They could see that as a complex, fusion policy issue, the only effective response is to build a movement that works across the systems that drive young people into homelessness, and that by necessity, must be part of the solutions. Back then, A Way Home was only in its formative stage, but we could easily see that The Push for Change would be an important coalition member in our efforts to elevate this issue and begin to invest in prevention. With every kilometer walked, with every community or school engagement along the way, Joe and the campaign team did just that—helped us build this growing movement for change.
The Push for Change campaign covered over 9,100 kilometers and participated in more than 400 community and school events since May, 2016. After such an incredible journey, you might think Joe is ready to take a break, but Joe and Marie are working with us to plan the future of The Push for Change, and have already invested heavily in a legacy of youth homelessness prevention. One of the most effective engagement strategies has involved both trade unions and police. The support from these entities across the country has set the stage for future partnership on the issue.
The Push for Change shows us that anything is possible and confirms what Dr. Stephen Gaetz always says: we can end youth homelessness in Canada, if we want to.
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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.