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Stephanie Szakall is the Homeless Hub Coordinator. She's been working in the social justice field for over 5 years as a multimedia/web and graphic designer. She has an HonBA from McMaster University. Upon graduation, she spent 2 years working in the Communications department for a human rights NGO in Geneva, Switzerland.
By Stephen Hwang & Emily Holton
For the first time in Canada, we have the numbers to show that people who are vulnerably housed face the same severe health problems - and danger of assault - as people who are homeless. This means that the number of people experiencing the devastating health outcomes associated with inadequate housing could be staggering. There are about 17,000 shelter beds available across Canada every night, but almost 400,000 Canadians are vulnerably housed. This means that for each person who is homeless in Canada, there are more than 20 other low-income individuals who are vulnerably housed - paying more than half of their monthly income for rent, and living with substantial risk of becoming homeless. We’ve shed light on a hidden emergency.
For the Health and Housing in Transition (HHiT) study, we interviewed 1200 vulnerably housed and homeless single adults in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa. The results were disturbing. People who don’t have a healthy place to live - regardless of whether they’re vulnerably housed or homeless - are at high risk of serious physical and mental health problems and major problems accessing the health care they need. Many end up hospitalized or in the emergency department. Almost half (40%) of people who don’t have a healthy place to live have been assaulted at least once in the past year, and 1 in 3 (33%) have trouble getting enough to eat.
Check out the report on our early findings here: Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency. We’re presenting it today at National Housing Day in Ottawa. Over the next two years, the HHiT study will continue to track the health and housing status of our participants. The results will help us better understand how changes in housing status can affect health. They will also help us to identify factors that help people achieve stable, healthy housing.
Having a roof over one’s head is not enough. The HHiT results showed us that the real gulf in health outcomes doesn’t lie between people who are homeless and people who aren’t homeless. It’s between those who have continued access to healthy housing, and those who don’t. To support health, housing must be decent (i.e. good quality), stable (i.e. affordable), and appropriate to its residents’ needs. We’re calling for the federal government to respond by setting national housing standards that ensure universal, timely access to healthyhousing. The need is overwhelming.
Stephen Hwang's primary appointment is in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, with cross-appointments in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Health Policy, Management and Evaluation. His research focuses on deepening our understanding of the relationship between homelessness, housing, and health through epidemiologic studies, health services research, and longitudinal cohort studies. His current research projects include a study of predictors of health care utilization in a representative sample of 1,200 homeless men, women, and families in Toronto, a study of the barriers to the management of chronic pain among homeless people, and an evaluation of the effects of a supportive housing program on health and health care utilization among homeless and hard-to-house individuals.
Emily Holton is a research writer and knowledge transfer specialist at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health, St. Michael's Hospital.
When we talk about the Canadian response to homelessness, we usually refer to things like emergency shelters, charitable food programs, drop ins and other supports. One of the things we don’t talk about enough is the relationship between homelessness and criminal justice. That is, one of the central features of our response is the use of policing, courts and jails as a way of dealing with homelessness.
A recently released report by the John Howard society presents a powerful indictment (if I can use court language) of this situation. In their study, Homeless and Jailed, Jailed and Homeless, the JHS research team interviewed 363 sentenced prisoners, and they uncovered some disturbing findings. For instance, I think that many Canadians would be surprised to learn that roughly one in every five prisoners was homeless immediately prior to winding up in jail.
What about when they are to be released? What these reseachers found was that 85.5% of those who were formerly homeless anticipated being homeless upon release. Worse still, 16.4% of those who were housed before serving jail time anticipated being homeless upon release. In other words, incarceration is likely producing homelessness.
The writers argue: "Homeless prisoners are a vulnerable group – they tend to be older, 22.3 percent are 50 years of age or older. A high proportion of them, 43.3 percent, have severe health impairments. Most of them rely on income support programs, whose benefits they lose while in jail; in many cases, they must re-apply for these benefits after they are discharged."
So what can we learn from all this? Here are some key things to think about:
First, our reliance on using "emergency services" as our key response to homelessness in Canada (as opposed to preventing people from becoming homeless, or rapidly rehousing them) puts homeless people in harms way, and leads to a cycle of homelessness / prison / homelessness.
Second, we need to acknowledge that a central feature of our response to homelessness is the criminalization of the homeless. Whether through ticketing, special laws like the Safe Streets Act, or local efforts to ‘clean up the streets’, we use the justice system as a central strategy to deal with homelessness and extreme poverty. We need to ask, ‘why are we putting so many homeless people in jail?” This is a pretty expensive way to deal with the problem.
Finally, we need to some serious reforms in corrections if we want to address the problem of homelessness. One of the outcomes of the ‘get tough on crime’ movement has been a set of reforms that reduce in-prison rehabilitation programs, and undermine effective discharge planning. Discharge planning helps prepare prisoners for release from prision (and the vast majority do get released!) and should include ensuring people have a safe place to stay.
We know from other research (here, here and here) that inadequate discharge planning often leads to homelessness, and that ex-prisoners who become homeless do less well than those who are able to secure housing. In a sense, the lack of effective discharge planning becomes a ‘crime production’ policy and practice.
The cycle between prison and jail is one that we must address, and can stop.
For additional reading, see the Homeless Hub's Legal and Justice Issues topic:
Also see the Safe Streets Act, 1999, of Ontario.
In the year 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released a report calling for communities across the U.S. to develop and implement 10 year plans to end homelessness. The shift from managing homelessness to ending it became a priority and by 2010, over 300 communities in the U.S. have developed 10 year plans to end homelessness.
The question is do they work? Are cities with plans to end homelessness actually ending homelessness? While specifics vary across communities, the following are three examples:
The Denver plan was implemented in 2005. In the first two years, they had reduced over all homelessness by 11% and chronic homelessness by 36%. They further assisted over 3,600 homeless people to find employment and developed over 1,500 new housing units for homeless people. 1
Despite the downturn in the economy, in a two year period from 2007 to 2009, chronic homelessness was reduced by 35%. This was largely because 320 people were housed and 298 supportive housing units were created. Core strategies within the Sacramento plan include adopting the ‘housing first’ approach and creating permanent supportive housing for individuals with disabilities. 2
Within four and half years, over 2,000 people received housing. In 2009, 757 people received discharge planning upon release from health, psychiatric and correctional facilities to prevent homelessness. Since 2005, more than 3,643 households received rental assistance and avoided eviction into homelessness. Of those who were contacted 12 months later, 81% were still in housing 3 .
Currently, ending homelessness efforts are happening internationally and in 2008 Calgary became the first Canadian city to implement its own 10 year plan. Challenges were many. Any successful plan would need to build on international successes but be locally relevant. A paradigm shift was necessary, that is, shifting the thinking of politicians, policy makers, service providers and people experiencing homelessness that ending homelessness was not only necessary, but possible. As well, success required building multi-sector support for the plan, ensuring the plan was community led and sustainably funded.
Despite these challenges, in the first two years of Calgary’s plan there have been numerous successes
- more than 3,000 affordable housing units have been funded through partnerships with all three levels of government
- more than 1,500 people have received housing with support
- the number of people accessing Housing & Urban Affairs shelters has stabilized on a monthly basis after years of continuous growth
- the allocation of more than $70 million dollars in funding towards best practices for ending homelessness including priority to ‘housing first’ programs
- development of a policy agenda for municipal, provincial and federal governments to increase the stock of affordable housing, to reduce barriers to access supports and to expand homelessness prevention efforts
- implementation of Calgary’s Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS) in 25 agencies by December 2010, with a total of 80 participating agencies will be online by 2012.
In addition, a considerable amount of rigorous collaborative research has been done in Calgary and across Canada leading to a clearer understanding of people’s experiences, pathways and patterns of homelessness and the economic and social costs associated with managing instead of ending homelessness. Examples include development of a toolkit for use with the Re-housing Triage Assessment Tool for prioritizing interventions for those most at risk, the Risks and Assets for Homelessness Prevention developed to prevent homelessness, dimensions of promising practice for case management in housing first, an ethnographic account of panhandling and informal labour amongst homeless Calgarians, exploratory GIS analysis of vulnerability, and housing challenges for newcomers. Development of best practices for the ‘support’ in ‘housing first’ and local, national and international networks have also been established.
Most important, momentum is building. All seven cities in Alberta have their own plans and Alberta remains the first and only province committed to ending homelessness. All of this progress is evidence that government, academics, researchers, service providers and our homeless neighbours are committed to ending homelessness and that comprehensive, collaborative 10 year plans do work.
Several years of learning from around the world and almost three years in Calgary show that ending homelessness is a process that is constantly evolving. We must continue to learn, adapt, and fine tune, to ensure that interventions are appropriate, reflective and relevant and have one definitive goal, ending homelessness.
1. Denver: Beyond Planning. Here
2. Sacramento City and County: 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness http://sacramentostepsforward.com/
3. Home Again: a 10 year plan to End Homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County. 2009 Annual Report: Here
Tim Richter is the President and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation. He was drawn into a new career in the non-profit sector by the opportunity to lead the development of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness as project manager for the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness. Prior to joining the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Tim was Director of Government Relations at TransAlta Corporation, one of Canada’s largest private power generation and wholesale marketing companies with operations in Canada, the United States and Australia. In addition to his work in the private sector, Tim has a long history of public service including work as a political staffer in Ottawa and seven years service in the Canadian Forces Army Reserve.
Katrina Milaney is the Manager of Community Based Research and Knowledge Mobilization with the Calgary Homeless Foundation. Katrina has been a researcher for several years engaged in numerous collaborative projects that uncover the root causes of social issues and how solutions to those social issues can advance social change. Katrina has a Masters degree in Community Health Sciences and is currently pursing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. She is a regular guest lecturer at the University of Calgary has been with the Calgary Homeless Foundation since June 2009.
Would you be outraged if your child was exposed to violence? Would your community consider this unacceptable?
That’s what I thought.
Then why do we, as a society, tolerate this when it comes to homeless youth?
In 2009, Bill O’Grady and I interviewed 244 homeless youth in Toronto. We asked them about their life on the streets and if they’d ever been a victim of crime. What we found was astounding and we’ve documented it in our report: Surviving Crime and Violence: Street Youth Victimization in Toronto (2010).
People tend to think of homeless youth as trouble makers and delinquents; as perpetrators of crime rather than victims. But that’s not what we found. In reality, street youth are often the victims of violent crime. This is mainly because of the vulnerability they face by not having a home. To make matters worse, we found that this victimization isn’t really being addressed by the police or the courts.
Here are some of the Key findings fromour research:
- When young people become homeless, they are much more likely than youth with homes to be victims of crime and violence.
- Young women in particular are much more likely to be victimized, and report high levels of sexual assault and partner abuse.
- The younger you are, and the earlier you leave home, the more vulnerable you are to criminal victimization.
- The solution to this problem lies in changing the way we address youth homelessness.
If the levels of violence and crime found in our study were experienced by any other group in Canada, there would be immediate public outrage and pressure for the government to take action. Street youth deserve that same level of outrage directed toward their personal safety. They deserve the same response that any other group in Canada is entitled to.
I have written about this subject before, and with this new research, I am even more convinced that our current response to youth homelessness is not working. There is no doubt that being homeless puts young people at a high risk for violence and crime, and that we should be doing anything and everything we can to give young people the safety and support they need to get off the streets.
For street youth to have an opportunity to move forward in life, they need to be safe and protected from all forms of crime. Having a roof over ones head should not be a factor here and we need to press our government to make changes so that young people who become homeless have real options.
Surviving Crime and Violence: Street Youth Victimization in Toronto was created for Justice for Children and Youthand was written by Stephen Gaetz, Bill O’Grady and Kristy Buccieri.
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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.