Research Matters Blog

University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
February 14, 2018

There is no doubt that technology advances over the past 20 years have revolutionized our lives. This impact has sunk entire business sectors, and has given birth to sectors that were just science fiction to some growing up before personal computers. Strategic planning in corporate boardrooms nowadays are prefaced with statements akin to, “How do we become Amazon and avoid turning into Sears?”

Yet, for as much impact as technology is having in some aspects of our lives, we have been painfully slow to truly unleash its potential to solve our social challenges. Imagine the impact if we put a fraction of the effort being spent in innovation to create business intelligence tools to monitor sales or pipeline output into poverty, homelessness, violence, etc.

Big Data, augmented reality, and machine learning remain foreign concepts for our sector – yet these are poised to restructure the very nature of work and social relations. It is essential that we reimagine our work in light of these innovations.

Fig. 1: Do people experiencing homelessness have mobile phones? 

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So, what’s this got to do with preventing and ending homelessness?

Some of our most basic assumptions about reaching those in need must be rethought leveraging technology. Take for instance the use of smartphones amongst those living in poverty and homelessness. A recent study on homeless adults found that 94% currently owned a cellphone and 97% had owned one in the last 3 months, with over half (58%) being smartphones. In comparison, 95% of the general population use cellphones, and 59% of them are smartphones (Rhoades, Wenzel, Winetrobe & Henwood).

Similarly, InfoExchange reported that 95% percent of people who are homeless have mobile phones, and 80% of those have smartphones. Nearly every homeless person has a cellphone, therefore access to technology is no longer a barrier. We no longer live in the day and age of phonebooks, referral guides, and faxed forms; it’s time to move our sector into the 21st century. 

How many times have you heard from those with lived experience or those trying to help them of the difficulties of finding appropriate resources, supports, and services? Yet we can open up our smartphones and narrow down to the ‘highest rated Thai restaurant, averaging under $20 a meal, within 200m’ of our current location. Why can this same notion not be applied to those in need? The disparity of access amongst those in need of help is no longer acceptable given the technology we have at our fingertips. 

App-Based Solutions to Service Access

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An elegant solution to the challenge of navigating complex eligibility criteria, location, services provided, population targeted, etc. is offered by a simple app. I developed HelpSeeker as a web-based app to help anyone in search of services and programs, whether these are shelter, housing, education, counselling, health services, domestic abuse, bullying, recreation, etc. It’s operated by Turner Innovations, a social enterprise spinoff of Turner Strategies, to solve the most common challenge I encounter across Canadian communities I work in: helping people find the right help at the right time.

As a web-based app, it is compatible with all platforms (iPhone, Android, Desktop) and utilizes geo-locations and filters to best match users with relevant real-time services. The app is free for anyone to use anywhere on www.helpseeker.org. iPhone and Android versions are being launched in April 2018. 

Users are provided with all programs in an immediate radius of them, which they can filter to ensure relevant services and programs. Importantly, users have the opportunity to provide feedback to the service provider on the app, thus providing programs with real-time feedback from those with lived experience.

Fig.2 - Client view of available organizations and programs within an immediate radius 

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HelpSeeker engages programs to register their services, target populations, and locations, which are then made available in a user-friendly app format. Programs sign-up online to be part of app and pay a $10 annual fee to maintain the Canadian server and improve the app. Organizations are given the opportunity to update programs on the admin dashboard to ensure current relevant information is reaching their target clients. To manage and benchmark traffic, the analytics portion of the app gives program administrators data and trend visualization on client and program use. 

Fig. 3 - Admin Dashboard View

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Beta Testing in Medicine Hat, AB

The app was launched in Medicine Hat, AB on Jan. 24, 2018 and within 24 hours, there were more than 40 programs signed up, including programs delivered by municipal government, health services, school boards, affordable housing bodies, shelters, food bank, parenting, and prevention programs.

We have learned how important it is to promote uptake across platforms and levels; Medicine Hat leaders mobilized the whole community to adopt the app, including the Mayor & Council, funders, public and non-profit organizations, lived experience, media, and the public at large. 

Learnings in Systems Planning & Integration

In supporting the program sign-up campaigns, we have learned the level of complexity that needs to be sorted for programs to even come onto the app – getting programs onto HelpSeeker becomes an act of systems mapping and planning across public sectors and very diverse non-profits agencies. It shows how critical this work is if we’re going to have an integrated response to complex social challenges that are cross-cutting on the ground – i.e. homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, health and wellbeing, etc.

Connecting Informal and Private Sector Sources of Support

A surprise from implementation was the signing up of programs and services, like pro bono counselling or legal and financial advice from local professionals. We would have never thought of targeting such supports in the app, yet it proved to be an easy way to maintain real-time directories of a range of supports.

Supporting Diverse Communities Regionally

Our next steps are to roll the app out across southern Alberta, including the many medium and smaller rural communities that have very few resources to weave a coordinated network of supports.

If you have an interest in coming on to HelpSeeker, there is no fee or contract to sign up; just follow the links to sign up your program or cruise the site to see how it works in Medicine Hat to get an idea of functionality. If you want to start a sign-up campaign for your entire community to register programs, connect directly info@helpseeker.org.

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Dr. Alina Turner is the Principal of Turner Strategies, a consulting firm dedicated to accelerating social impact in Calgary, AB. She is also a Fellow with the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.

 

The Institute of Global Homelessness
February 09, 2018
Tags: IGH Hub

Roughly how many hours per week would you say you spend begging Google for information on housing programs? Looking for toolkits and policy briefs? Tracking down data from a homelessness count or finding voices of lived experience? 

When we asked this question to individuals and organizations in our network, the answers ranged from three hours in a single day to ten in a week. The Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH Hub), a new resource hub for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers working in homelessness, aims to address this problem, smoothing the way for good work to get done more quickly and easily. Launching on Feb. 1, 2018, the IGH Hub is a "one-stop shop" to connect thought leaders, advocates, academics, and on-the-ground experts to one another and to ideas and practice to ease and advance their work.

The IGH Hub was developed over the course of a year, in partnership with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, creators of the successful online library, Homeless Hub, and guided by interviews and user tests by individuals working in homelessness around the world. These sessions influenced everything from the design to proposed content and functionality based on the requests, feedback, and commentary of people working in the field. It is our hope that the IGH Hub will be a resource for and by the people who use it most.

People from every corner of the homelessness field face many of the same challenges when it comes to hunting down the resources they need: difficulty of finding information on websites in foreign languages; wide dispersal of information across hundreds of different websites and journals; research blocked by paywalls; inability to devote the necessary time to independently seeking out new research; and problems searching for region-specific content. 

We are constantly expanding what we know about what works in homelessness, and how to measure the success of local programs. Staying up-to-date on new learning and data can be an overwhelming task, particularly when new innovations and reports are coming from far-away areas of the world.

"The most difficult thing to find is translations of national papers," Anja Bohnsack, of the U.K.-based Depaul International, mused in an interview during the IGH Hub’s planning stage. "You have to get lucky and find local websites writing in your language. It’s difficult if you don’t speak the local language."

In light of this, many people wind up depending on their personal networks to find new information, which can limit their access to what is already widely circulating.

"If I don't know a specific website where I am confident that they will have the answer, I will write an email to my network to ask people directly," said Vit Lesak of the Platform for Social Housing based in Brno, Czech Republic.

But this can take time, and may not turn up anything. In these cases, it's often up to individuals to find resources wherever they can, be it online journals, newspapers, or blogs. This can be especially difficult in regions where research has been less widely published, and resources are scarce. 

Rayna Rusenko, whose research focuses on how social welfare, labor, housing, and homelessness policy shape homelessness globally, recalled finding during her work with homeless communities in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: "while so much information is readily available on homelessness and policy in the U.S., in Malaysia there was close to nothing. And people are really trying to find something.” 

The IGH Hub offers several features to address these kinds of issues:

  • Translation of all IGH Hub webpage content, including introductions and descriptions of resources, into more than 100 languages through Google translation services
  • Functionality that allows users to sort results by topic, by type, and by geographic region
  • Privileging of open access content over paid content, wherever possible
  • Curation and consolidation of research, toolkits, and practice from around the web into one easily-searchable database
  • Easy-to-find links to regional hubs, data, and reports
  • Bi-monthly newsletters featuring new research and highlighting common challenges

There is a gap between what we know globally about good systems to end homelessness, and what information is accessible locally. Opportunities to leverage connections between countries to improve systems get lost. The IGH Hub is designed to take the guesswork out of the finding new research and tools for practice and streamline the process. By finding existing positive practice and brigading evidence to support decision-makers and practitioners, we believe the IGH Hub can be a tool to help make deep systemic change.

 During its initial launch period, the IGH Hub will be adding new content daily, building a comprehensive library of research, practice, and expertise from lived experience around the world. To submit your work, write us at info[at]ighomelessness.org. To find information about the IGH Hub on Twitter, follow @ighomelessness and the hashtag #IGHhub. 

 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University
February 08, 2018

Today we launch the results of a national consultation on youth homelessness prevention, What Would it Take? Youth Across Canada Speak Out on Youth Homelessness Prevention. Over the last six months, A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness worked with agencies across the country to ask young people with lived experience of homelessness:

  • What would have prevented your homelessness?
  • What programs, policies, services, and supports are needed to prevent youth homelessness?
  • What do you want to tell the Canadian government about preventing youth homelessness?
  • How do you want to be involved in making change on this issue? 

Most importantly, we asked youth: what would it take to prevent youth homelessness in Canada, and how do we get there?

Youth had a lot to say. In fact, they had so much to say that we had to create a document over 100 pages in length (rather than the 20-page document we planned for!). What youth had to say is innovative. It is inspiring. It is heartbreaking. It takes your breath away. And it makes one thing crystal clear: we have to change our approach to youth homelessness, and we have to change it now.

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Here are 5 things we learned from youth across Canada:

1. We must adopt a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to youth homelessness.

In communities across Canada, we continue to respond to youth homelessness only after a young person is on the streets. In fact, in many cases, we often don’t even respond then. Young people across Canada told us that even after they became homeless, they couldn’t get help due to lack of available services and housing, long waitlists, not qualifying for services, discrimination, or simply because they were told they weren’t “in need enough” to receive help. Two Edmonton youth posed crucial questions about this approach, questions we didn’t have an answer for. They ask:

“If you are sleeping outside, in the middle of – like, why does it have to get THAT BAD before you qualify for help that you could have used like a year ago?”  

“Maybe you should help them when they are on the verge of becoming homeless, or they’re well on the way, and they’re seeking the help beforehand. Instead of, like, when their bank account is zero and they’re on the street, and THEN you help them. Why didn’t you do it when they had a few dollars and a couple of days left? Why couldn’t you do it then?” 

Youth were clear – we are waiting too long to intervene when a young person is at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness. Youth showed us that, by building a response that is primarily reactive, we not only condemn youth to hardship and trauma, we actually ensure it. In order to end youth homelessness, we need to adopt a proactive approach. A proactive approach means we intervene earlier, faster, and more effectively when a young person is at risk of homelessness, and we support youth to transition quickly out of homelessness.

Youth explained that in order to make this shift, we need:

(1) Effective prevention and early intervention programs and interventions within public systems like education, child welfare, and criminal justice;

(2) A reconfiguration of the youth homelessness sector in order to adopt a preventative approach to supporting youth at risk of homelessness and experiencing homelessness;

(3) Dramatic increases in investments to the social welfare state (e.g., investments in affordable housing, rent subsidies, social assistance, disability support programs) in order to ensure all young people and their families can thrive in their communities;

(4) The removal of barriers to accessing services, supports, benefits, and housing for youth and their families; and

(5) The dismantling of inequitable, discriminatory, and colonial practices, policies, and value systems in all parts of Canadian society.

2. We must reconfigure public systems (e.g., education, child welfare, healthcare) to help prevent youth from experiencing homelessness. This must involve addressing systems failures that trap youth and their families in poverty and homelessness.

Consultations with youth revealed the crucial importance that other systems play in their paths into, and out of, homelessness. Most youth traced the origins of their homelessness back to systems failures - inadequate policy and service delivery within public systems. These failures took various forms in youth’s lives, including:

  • Youth being transitioned out of the child welfare system with little income or supports, and no plan to support the transition to independent living
  • Youth under 16 being barred from accessing mental health or addiction services without parental signatures 
  • Youth being removed from housing, supports, or services when they couldn’t meet the requirement that they participate in education or employment in order access help
  • Youth being barred from accessing services or housing because they were not “homeless enough” to qualify for help (e.g., had not been homeless for more than 3 months)
  • Youth struggling to navigate complex and confusing bureaucratic requirements to access services, including difficulties obtaining necessary documents (e.g., reference letters, ID, citizenship documents)

Youth described these system failures as trapping them and their families in cycles of poverty and homelessness. Two youth commented:

“If you don’t have ID, you can’t sometimes get work, and you can’t make money to buy an ID, to get work, and to get a home.”- Edmonton Youth

Education is hard to get because housing is hard to get. What’s easy is being a prostitute and selling drugs.” – Calgary Youth

Our conversations with youth indicate that many of the personal and interpersonal challenges we identify as risk factors – such as family conflict or health challenges – often become pathways into homelessness when systems failures occur. Youth explained that if they had been provided with access to the right supports and services, they would not have experienced homelessness. Given this, it’s not surprising that many youth felt that system change is where youth homelessness prevention efforts could be most effective. 

If we are serious about youth homelessness prevention, we need to get serious about tackling the ways that public systems contribute to homelessness for young people. Youth across Canada are pleading that we act now to address system failures, and to more effectively coordinate systems in order to increase the speed and efficacy of service delivery.  

3. Professionals in all public systems must ensure their conduct and behaviours do not contribute to homelessness for young people. This means that all system workers need the supports, resources, infrastructure, and training to actively participate in youth homelessness prevention.  

Many youth could look back on their lives and pinpoint the key moment that the right supports or interventions could have changed their path into homelessness. And in fact, many reached out for help during those moments – asking a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a caseworker, or a doctor for help. For too many, however, these interactions failed them. A crucial finding of this study was the frequency with which youth’s experiences of violence, discrimination, homelessness, abuse, and neglect were ignored or discounted by the very people they thought would help them. In many cases youth felt further marginalized, traumatized, and isolated because of these interactions. Some felt they became homeless as a direct result of professionals’ behaviours. In focus groups across the country, we heard:

Youth were mocked for calling the police when they experienced family violence.

Youth were silenced when they reported abuse in their foster homes.

Youth were stigmatized by teachers for their mental health issues.

Youth were kicked out of services because of their sexuality or gender expression.

Youth were ignored when they said their home or building was unsafe.

We believe youth. We believe we can do better. And we believe that professionals want the resources and tools to do so. These findings remind us that young people primarily engage with systems through the professionals that work within them. This means that while system change it crucial to youth homelessness prevention, it must be accompanied by changes in approach and practice at the frontlines as well. We need to better understand the factors that contribute to professionals’ behaviours in these instances. These dynamics may be driven by inadequate funding, unmanageable caseloads, poor training and supervision, or policies over which they have little control.

As we move towards youth homelessness prevention, it is essential that we scale up, scale out, and scale deep (as Melanie Redman of A Way Home Canada often says). This means that we must simultaneously make changes at broad policy levels, foster change across all systems and communities, and ensure frontline workers have the tools, training, supports, and workload to engage in this shift. It is essential that, at a societal level, we are able to provide professionals with resources they need to really make a difference youth’s lives: free family counselling and mediation, safe youth housing, liveable social assistance rates for families, or foster homes within a young person’s community and culture.

4. We cannot prevent and end youth homelessness without reckoning with colonialism.

Indigenous youth viewed their experiences of homelessness as part of the long legacy of colonial violence and marginalization experienced by their families, communities, and Peoples. Rather than an abstract or secondary contributor to homelessness, many Indigenous youth described colonization as the direct cause of their homelessness. One youth from Vancouver commented:

“Colonization, like, if that didn’t happen, I feel like I would be so good.” 

To tackle youth homelessness in Canada, we must reckon with colonialism. This must involve a significant redistribution of resources and power in Canadian society. Youth described how severely underfunded housing, education, and social services are within many Indigenous communities and reserves, with many even lacking access to clean drinking water. Youth described racism towards Indigenous Peoples as extremely common, contributing to poverty and homelessness by blocking access to the benefits, supports, services, and rights that many other young people are able to access. This racism was viewed as happening at all levels of society, taking such forms as landlord discrimination, staff or worker racism in the child welfare system, and police practices that target and criminalize Indigenous Peoples. Importantly, youth framed these inequities as human rights violations. We must be bold in our efforts to rectify these injustices. Youth explained that youth homelessness prevention must be grounded in a respect for the autonomy, self-governance, and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples. 

Youth also discussed the importance of providing opportunities for Indigenous youth to reconnect to their history, culture, ancestry, and traditions. This finding echoes the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, which articulates that Indigenous homelessness often involves isolation from “relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages, and identities” (Thistle, 2017, p.6). Young people felt that a unique homelessness prevention strategy is needed for Indigenous youth, and that all levels of government must be responsible for ensuring that no Indigenous youth experience homelessness.

5. We must provide youth with the power, supports, compensation, and opportunities to lead a shift towards youth homelessness prevention in Canada.

Let’s be honest – we have made insufficient progress on youth homelessness in Canada over the last several decades. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps a key reason is that we haven’t been listening to the real experts – young people who have lived it. Our consultations across the country suggest that few youth had been given opportunities to engage in policy change or share their experiences and insights with decision makers. What Would it Take? aims to amplify the voices of these young people, centering these youth as the experts that should drive policy and practice change. It is our responsibility to find ways to center youth in this shift to prevention and compensate them for their contributions. Youth not only know what supports are necessary and how systems have failed them, they have concrete and innovative solutions to offer.

Read more in What Would it Take? Youth Across Canada Speak Out on Youth Homelessness Prevention

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the young people with lived experience of homelessness for taking part and lending their voices to this study. We hope that youth’s insights, wisdom, and passion for change will guide policy and practice reform across the country. 

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We would like to acknowledge that this research was made possible through financial support provided by The Home Depot Canada Foundation (THDCF). This research would not have been possible without the dedicated work of many youth-serving agencies across the country, all of whom actively engaged young people to conduct the focus groups. We would like to thank SKETCH Working Arts (Toronto, ON), Dans la Rue (Montreal, QC), SideDoor (Yellowknife, NT), Broadway Youth Resource Centre (Vancouver, BC), Hamilton Indian Regional Centre (HIRC), Choices for Youth (NL), Homeward Trust (Edmonton, AB), Calgary Homeless Foundation (Calgary, AB), United Way Kamloops (Kamloops, BC), Boys and Girls Club of Kamloops (Kamloops, BC), Wyndham House (Guelph, ON), and Cornerstone Landing Youth Services (Lanark County, ON).

February 01, 2018

PART ONE: Pre-Amble

Part One of this article was written by Stephen Gaetz, President & CEO, Canadian Observatory on Homelessnes; Melanie Redman, President & CEO, A Way Home Canada; Alina Turner, Principal, Turner Strategies.

In our efforts to understand the complexities involved in homelessness, we turn to ‘evidence’: data, frameworks, plans, best practices, strategies, etc. While critical inputs into ways of knowing, there are other equally valid modalities of making sense and expressing insights.
In our continued efforts to expand national understanding of Lived Experiences, we are proud to introduce the following arts-based representation of home/homeless by Dene artist Michael Fatt. 
Please have a look and support Michael and his work here.

PART TWO: Michael's Story

Sometimes words are not enough. And when we’re trying to convey our experiences of homelessness, a picture – as they say – is worth a thousand words.

For me, art has been refuge from a young age. It was my calm even in the darkest of times- of which I have had many.

When asked whether I would contribute to the conversation on homelessness by adding my voice to a national chorus of peers calling for authentic Reconciliation, I find my voice comes through better through a paintbrush than a pen.

About the Paintings

I painted these two standalone pieces, which fit together into a larger whole, to represent one the one hand “homel-essness” and on the other, “home-fullness.” Hence, the title of the work is Transformations.

You will see in the first painting that the colours are dark, muted, lost. The person on the street is holding a sign calling for change, not cash. The ravens are observing inactivity and lifelessness; they are still. In the second image, vibrant colours from the sun spill over to evoke light, life, and hope. The drummer belongs, and is free. The lights are on in the home and the raven is in flight. 

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If you’re ever at the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s office, the originals can be found at the main reception as a gift from me to the community of Calgary, where I started my recovery journey and still reside today.

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About Me

In many ways, my story is one you’ve likely encountered at many shelter or street corner. I was born in 1966 in Edmonton, Alberta and am a Chipewyan Dene, Treaty 8, and a member of the Lutselk’e Dene First Nations band. Lutselk’e, a fly-in community near Yellowknife, NWT, located on upper east arm of the Great Slave Lake. I still have strong connections with the community of Yellowknife, where I lived for many years. The North is an embedded influence on my artistic style to this day.

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My path hasn't been an easy one; I am part of the 60s Scoop, and was moved from foster house to foster house throughout my childhood. I experienced first-hand the systemic marginalization Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle against: incarceration, child welfare, street homelessness, addiction though my travails through Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Lutselk’e, Calgary, and Yellowknife. 

From the start, I had a tumultuous upbringing. Negative influences and difficult circumstances left me feeling lost and alone. I was filled with a sense of having no identity, culture or heritage. No friends or family. No direction or hope.

Yet, my story and my art are about healing, resilience, cultural revitalization and the promise of Indigenous-led Reconciliation.  

Despite the many physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced, I continue to find solace in art and a way of bringing imagination to life. My paintings capture the Indigenous spiritual aspects and beauty of the land, sky and people of the North. It’s these aspects of home that I want to share with the world.

If you’d like to know more about me and my art, please visit www.michaelfatt.com

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
January 31, 2018

A common misconception about people experiencing homelessness is their weight, or lack thereof. While many people experiencing homelessness are on the lower end of the body mass index (BMI) scale (a measure of body fat based on height and weight), a considerable amount of them are overweight or obese. This means many of them have a BMI score between  25-29.9 (overweight) or a score of 30 or higher (obese).

In Carla D'Andreamatteo and Joyce Slater’s study, more than half of their 40 participants—men experiencing homelessness in Canada—were overweight or obese. A study on youth homelessness based in the U.S. showed that over half of its female participants were obese and 41% of its male participants were either overweight or obese. Among a study’s sample of 5632 adults in the U.S, 32.3% were obese, while only 1.6% were underweight.

Nutrition Deficiency

Despite their size, overweight and obese people experiencing homelessness are still at risk for malnutrition, just like their normal-weight and underweight counterparts. Overweight or not, numerous studies have shown nutrition deficiency among those experiencing homelessness. One study found  over 90% of its male participants were deficient in vitamin A and D3, along with calcium and magnesium. On the other hand, 100% of females were deficient in vitamin A, D3 and C, with over 90% of them lacking vitamin E and calcium. A study on youth homelessness based in Toronto found over half of its participants lacked folate, vitamin A and C, zinc and magnesium, and over half of the women surveyed lacked iron and vitamin B-12. Other studies have also shown deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, but overconsumption of sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Constrained by Living Conditions and Income

Nutrition deficiency and obesity among those experiencing homelessness exist because of the nutritiously poor, yet calorie-dense food they often eat, whether it’s food they’ve purchased or food from charitable services. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often expensive, so they turn to cheaper processed alternatives. One of the youth in the Toronto study relied heavily on Kraft Dinner, a brand of packaged macaroni and cheese dinner, because of its low price. Lack of access to an oven, stove and refrigerator also forces people experiencing homelessness to purchase unhealthy take-out or ready-made, packaged foods found in convenience stores. When making food choices, nutrition is rarely a priority for people experiencing homelessness. They eat just to survive and to satisfy a basic human need. Although many would like to eat healthier, their living conditions and little to no income limit their options and make it extremely difficult.

Soup Kitchens’ Reliance on Food Donations

Many of those experiencing homelessness or poverty rely on meals offered by charitable services, but these meals are also constrained by cost and are not healthier. A study on three American soup kitchens revealed that although eating two meals provided two thirds of the required daily amount of most nutrients, they lacked fibre and were extremely high in calories, saturated fat and sodium. D'Andreamatteo and Slater’s study showed how the participants’ reliance on charitable meal programs in Canada led to low consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and milk and alternatives, but high consumption of sugary, salty, and fatty foods.

Also, an analysis charitable meal programs in Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City, and Halifax revealed that many of them had limited government funding for food and were highly dependent on food donations, fundraising, and volunteer labour. Most of the programs provided meals made from both purchased and donated foods, but usually more than half of their supply came from donations. These donations included unsellable “leftover” foods from local businesses, and because of the foods’ nearing expiration, errors during manufacturing, or damage from shipping and handling,  programs sometimes received foods that weren’t edible. Although a majority of programs wanted or tried to follow nutrition recommendations, their small budget and reliance on donations determined the quantity and quality of their meals, which were highly variable. 

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Hunger

The obese and overweight population makes the issue of hunger and food deprivation among people experiencing homelessness no less severe. Accessing any food, nutritious or not, is an immense struggle many face. Some have to go to great lengths, such as survival sex, to satisfy their hunger. The analysis of charitable meal programs in Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City, and Halifax also found the number of meals the programs provided wasn’t enough to meet the demand. A quarter of them sometimes had to turn people away or shorten serving times when they ran out of food, and some cut portions in order to feed more people. 

Service times is another barrier people face when accessing meals. Some programs are only open once or twice a week and during certain times of the year; less than half of the programs surveyed in the Canadian cities study served meals five or more times a week and only 35% of them served meals on weekends. Moreover, only 64% were open all year round. The study based on youth homelessness in Toronto showed the unreliability and unpredictability of serving schedules, with certain programs closing on some days, even entire weeks, without warning. Because of the scant and unreliable serving times of charitable meal programs, people who rely on them are prone to hunger, or even worse, chronic food deprivation. In the Toronto youth study, 43% of females and 28% of males reduced their food intake for 10 or more days in one month, sometimes not eating for entire days. In the same study, some males showed muscle atrophy—also known as muscle wasting—a sign of severe food deprivation. 

Multiple Health Risks

Nutrition deficiency, hunger, and growing BMI scores coupled with the stress and hardships of homelessness, put those experiencing it at greater risk for physical and mental illnesses, and worsen existing ones like depression, substance abuse, and various sexually transmitted diseases. Nutrition deficiency can damage health in the long run, such as bone fractures later in life due to calcium deficiency. Obesity comes with its own problems: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Dietary fibre, which was low for many participants in the studies discussed, is linked to decreased chances of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.

Conclusion

The charitable meal programs’ poor funding and dependence on donated, sometimes inedible, foods highlights something very problematic in our society: the “beggars can’t be choosers” belief, that people experiencing poverty and homelessness may be fed with “leftover” foods—even if these foods are nutritionally inadequate. After all, anything is better than nothing. However, as these studies have shown, not only are these foods harming their health, but there’s not enough of these foods to meet the high demand. There needs to be better strategies and policies to address the diets and nutrition of those experiencing homelessness.

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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.