Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
January 18, 2017

Identifying and prioritizing adults experiencing chronic and episodic homelessness are two core components of the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) and many local Housing First plans. In 2015, a task force convened by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Mental Health Commission of Canada analyzed 15 tools and found that DESC’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT) was the best one available. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has integrated the VAT into HIFIS, offering Canadian service providers free software for recording VAT results and generating reports. In February, BC Housing is launching a time-limited, at-cost train-the-trainer program to support communities across Canada.

Today, the COH is releasing a training manual to support organizations that are interested in using the VAT. The VAT Training Sub-Committee revised DESC’s manual to reflect the Canadian context. All changes were reviewed and approved by DESC prior to publication. 

Changes to the Vulnerability Assessment Tool

The VAT assesses a person’s level of vulnerability in ten domains: Survival Skills, Basic Needs, Indicated Mortality Risks, Medical Risks, Organization/Orientation, Mental Health, Substance Use, Communication, Social Behaviours and Homelessness.

In the Canadian version of the tool, only the three-point scale for Homelessness has been substantively revised:

  • 1: Newly homeless and 2: Moderate history of homelessness. The ‘1’ and ‘2’ scores have been revised to reflect the Canadian definition of homelessness. The ‘2’ score has been expanded to include transitional housing, couch-surfing, and other forms of provisional accommodation.  
  • 3: Chronically and episodically homeless. The ‘3’ score is the HPS definition of ‘chronic and episodic homelessness’. This will make it easy to identify individuals in this priority population outside of other vulnerability factors. It will also facilitate data comparisons with the national Point-in-Time counts and other national publications.

These changes will have a minimal impact on VAT assessments; an individual’s score may vary by no more than one point between the Canadian version and the U.S. version.

Changes to the Training Manual

The manual has been lightly revised to reflect Canadian spellings and terms, and case studies have been updated to include Canadian examples. Some new material has been added on best practices for planning and implementing coordinated assessment processes.

Access to the Full Manual

The document shared on the Homeless Hub includes the Canadian version of the Vulnerability Assessment Tool and a few excerpts from the manual:

  • Integrating the VAT into Canadian Housing First Approaches
  • Checklist for Implementing Coordinated Assessment: What You Should Have in Place before You Use the VAT
  • Background & Development of the VAT
  • Ethical Use of the VAT – Strategies for Minimizing Harms and Maximizing Benefits
  • Best Practices for Making Referrals and Following Up

Access to the full manual will only be available to individuals who participate in the training.

The full manual includes the interview script, procedures for conducting the interviews and instructions for scoring the results. It also includes a sample client consent form, VAT write-up template, trainee evaluation checklist, quality assurance forms and other tools for implementing the VAT.

Using the VAT

The VAT can provide a consistent and fair way to identify adults who would most benefit from intensive interventions, such as supportive housing and ongoing multi-disciplinary case management. It can help to coordinate services among agencies and prevent people from falling through the cracks in the system.

However, any assessment tool is only as effective and ethical as the people and the systems administering it. People with lived experience of homelessness need to be involved at every stage of the system design, implementation, administration and evaluation. Thoughtful consideration must be given to ways to minimize harms and maximize benefits to participants. Assessors must be trained to work from a strengths-based, person-centred and trauma-informed approach. All individuals who complete a VAT must receive some type of support to find housing and access other needed resources, even if they have not been prioritized for the primary resource being made available.

Any organization planning to implement the VAT must complete training by BC Housing or another certified VAT trainer.

Canada-Specific Training Opportunities

In February, BC Housing is launching a Canada-specific in-person training program. The three-day train-the-trainer program will be facilitated by certified trainers from Vancouver, BC, and delivered in local communities. No fees will be charged for the training sessions; however, host organizations or communities will be asked to cover expenses related to the trainers’ flights, accommodations, and meals. 

BC Housing is offering these at-cost train-the-trainer sessions only for a limited time. Their goal is to certify multiple service providers to increase the availability of local training opportunities across Canada. If you are interested, please send inquiries to Will Valenciano, Housing and Health Services Manager, BC Housing, at or 604-648-4278.  

A Way Home
January 11, 2017

I had the privilege of spending some time over the holidays in sunny California. It was a fantastic trip for so many reasons, but one conversation I had with a young hair stylist in San Francisco really stands out - it was about my work on youth homelessness and prevention. She asked me about the causes and conditions of youth homelessness and then looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and said, “I know this might sound naive, but I guess I just don’t understand why we wouldn’t stop young people from becoming homeless in the first place.” Exactly. Why don’t we stop young people from becoming homeless in the first place?

2017 - The Year of Prevention
Media Folder: 
January 2017 marks the beginning of the Year of Prevention. We are linking arms with A Way Home founding members the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness and Raising the Roof to shine the spotlight not only on the need to prevent all forms of homelessness, but examples of what that looks like at the levels of policy and practice. Though A Way Home’s efforts will hone in on youth homelessness prevention, there is so much to learn about homelessness prevention writ large and how some orders of government, communities and service providers are making headway on prevention. 

So what are we planning? The foundation of our campaign is the forthcoming prevention framework in development by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. It will provide language for understanding what is homelessness prevention, what is NOT homelessness prevention, and why. Informed by experts, it will give us clear examples to use so we can elevate the dialogue on prevention and work across systems to begin shifting our efforts to prevention. Along with the framework, we are planning a series of webinars, policy briefs, and a robust public engagement and social media strategy on prevention. To start, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness will launch an online survey in February. It will provide an opportunity for service providers, researchers, policy makers and individuals with lived experience to share their perspectives on the role of prevention in our efforts to end homelessness.

Shifting efforts to prevention is hard work and involves an incredible amount of change management, so a lot of our campaign will focus on case studies of service providers and communities that have made the shift. I have learned so much from folks working on the ground to make this happen. One of my favourite stories is from Mike Lethby, Executive Director of The Raft in the Niagara Region. I don’t want to reveal too much as he’ll be featured in a webinar (sorry Mike, more work for you), but when Mike and The Raft began working upstream in rural communities and schools to identify young people at risk of homelessness and provide supports to them and their families to ensure housing stability, they almost had to shut down the organization, as their shelter beds were no longer full. Through some brilliant change management, The Raft came out the other side with a refocused mission on prevention and much better outcomes for young people - and isn’t that what we’re here for?

To circle back to my conversation in San Francisco about prevention - yes, it should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious evades us. So let’s work together to make 2017 go down in history as the year we stopped kicking at the tires of prevention, but instead got behind the wheel and hit the open road.

This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman. 

University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
January 03, 2017

In this final blog post in the Haven’s Way series, I wanted to share some of the key factors that make the program work in practice. I hope these speak to those who may be interested in exploring the model in their local contexts. Some of these elements are just common sense, and should be present in any intervention - others are more specific to the Haven’s Way model. See full report on the program here.

Working with the youth, staff, founders and funders of the program, I tried to distill elements that were ‘essential’ to the success of the program in achieving stability and independence for vulnerable youth.  This goes beyond assessing the program’s effectiveness and areas for improvement usually found in program evaluations, to highlight considerations that would be important to reflect on for any funder, policy maker or service provider interested in replicating/adapting the model in other communities and/or for other popula­tions.

From a policy perspective, discerning effective and cost-efficient housing and support mod­els for youth that are replicable for other populations and communities is critical. Scaling the program has potential because of the replicability of the model in low density ar­eas, including rural communities.

Essential Elements of the Haven’s Way Program Model

To replicate the model, a number of features were seen as essential by youth, staff, the founders and other stakeholders, which are consistent with youth perspectives on program strengths across four interrelated domains. 

Media Folder: 

Domain 1: Program Operations

  • Agency philosophy aligns with the program approach.
  • Career advancement of previous program staff into agency leadership roles responsible for the program reaffirm approach within agency management and enhance support for program.
  • Agency management supports program staff autonomy and self-care, yet steps in as needed in operations.
  • Live-in staff are supported by a dedicated full-time Program Coordinator, who carries case management and program leadership roles, additional reporting and accreditation-related tasks.
  • There is continuity in program staffing, with low turn­over.
  • Staff self-care is strongly supported to ensure sustain­ability.
  • Program balances accreditation requirements with maintaining a home-like environment and natural ap­proach with youth.
  • Independent sources of sustainable and flexible funds present minor restrictions on operations, facilitating program responsiveness to youth versus funding re­quirements.

Domain 2: Program Model

  • A thorough screening and intake process for new youth and staff discerns fit with house dynamics and program model.
  • Staff live with youth, providing consistent onsite presence, positive role modeling and low turnover to mitigate attachment issues.
  • Program timelines are flexible based on participant needs and there is no length of stay prescribed.
  • Transition planning is intentional and tailored to each participant, with ongoing connection beyond program exit.
  • Financial assistance is in place to ensure youth’s basic needs are met, while life skills are built to pay rent, sav­ings for move-out, budgeting for food/clothes, shopping and cooking.
  • Access to flexible funds is in place to cover costs of recreation and community inclusion activities to build youth’s natural supports and life skills.
  • Program integrates natural supports and communi­ty-based service connections to build a base for inde­pendence after program exit.
  • Youth are supported and coached in how to access needed resources (therapy, school, jobs, recreation, community supports, etc.) according to their individual and changing needs.
  • Program graduates have access to transition planning and supports and considerable savings to support finan­cial needs at move-out.
  • Youth have access to post-secondary funding and educational/career planning support, reaffirming their potential as they transition to adulthood.

Domain 3: Program Philosophy

  • A youth-led approach is in place, respective of their strengths, preferences, and pace; staff guide and men­tor, versus prescribe youth actions.
  • Supports are individually tailored to each youth, foster­ing independence and self-determination.
  • Youth feel respected, safe, and cared for in a home environment that provides an opportunity to experience and learn security and stability while making mistakes.
  • There is an explicit focus on education as youth are supported to move forward with lives; this includes access to post-secondary education scholarships.
  • Program staff effectively mitigate risks surrounding youth acuity (addiction, mental health, risk behaviours), while maintaining a relationship-focus and youth-led approach.
  • Staff strive to balance youth-led, harm-tolerant ap­proach with the need to maintain a safe, sober living environment for all youth and staff living in the home, without discharging youth into homelessness.
  • Peer support is encouraged among participants; yet, relationships are nurtured, not forced.
  • Alumnae roles are encouraged for former participants and staff to build community beyond program exit and provide opportunities to give back to the program, par­ticularly through peer mentoring.
  • Founders act as focal points supporting long-term engagement of alumnae by creating opportunities for connection, giving back, and mentoring.

Domain 4: Housing Environment

  • Physical space is designed with target population and program approach in mind, facilitating a home-like environment.
  • Attachment to place is facilitated: youth are able to decorate own rooms, have a say in house decorations, backyard landscaping, etc.
  • Youth have active roles in determining house rules and have a say in regulating their home environment.
  • The presence of a physical home-base (housing en­vironment) anchors current and past participants in a broader social network.

Implications for Public Systems Policy Response to Vulnerable Youth

I want to urge those working with youth experiencing complex challenges in a policy, program or funder capacity to consider these elements against current models as they read through this post. The approach can be used to revision the operations of housing and service models in public systems, including corrections, child intervention, and mental health – all who operated support­ive housing for youth.

This resonates with me in relation to child intervention group homes: in the words of a youth who was in group homes most of her life before Haven’s Way,

“I just don’t get why you couldn’t have this for status kids –

why would you put me through 20 foster homes and group homes..?”


The child intervention response could be adapt­ed to formally include options such as Havens’ Way, albeit modification may be needed to serve higher acuity youth and manage additional safety concerns

In closing ….

We hope this blog series was of use to all of you working to end homelessness. We also hope this will inspire more good work to emerge and inspire our collective movement.

I also wanted to acknowledge the vision and support this project has seen from David French (Government of Alberta), Kim Wirth (Boys and Girls Club of Calgary) and Karen and John Sherbut – the founders of Haven’s Way and their steadfast champions and most importantly, the youth and frontline staff who live Haven’s Way and contributed to this work.   

Safe Haven Foundation of Canada
December 30, 2016

This blog post was written by Karen Sherbut, who leads the Safe Haven Foundation of Canada with her husband John Sherbut. Together, they founded Haven’s Way as philanthropists in 1999, and remain steadfast champions and funders for the program to this day. 

This blog is the fourth in our series on Haven’s Way – please follow this link for our other submissions and click here for our evaluation report. 

Early Beginnings: 1976

She was just 16 when she ran away from home for the last time. For years, she had simply existed… living in terror of her father and stepmother’s rage. She had seen more than her fair share of how cold, frightening, and ugly the world could be. As she wandered the streets of her hometown that frigidly cold January eve, she had no idea where she was going to find shelter or warmth… yet she knew that even the streets and all of its unknowns, was safer than going back home.

The opening lines to a new television series? Hardly. This was my story, and I was just one example of the tragedies that countless children face every day.

Fast Forward: 1996

Photograph of Karen and John.
Media Folder: 
My passion drives from within myself, from knowing the difference that a safe home environment can make. Haven’s Way was made a reality thanks to my husband John, and his love for me, his commitment and desire to make this a better world, and his commitment to walk along-side me in this journey. John posed a very simple, yet profound question to me, over a casual lunch date that was the spark that ignited a fire that continues to burn deeply within our hearts and souls... “what would have made your journey easier?”

There, over a very long lunch, and on a coffee stained napkin, we began building the framework for our business plan and went through the necessary steps to receive our nonprofit and charitable status. Our first fundraiser was later that fall at our wedding, where we asked guests for donations instead of wedding gifts.

While our vision was built on personal passion, the program was developed as a direct result of a need identified through our in-depth study on homelessness and street youth in Calgary. We met with 20 youth serving agencies, and multiple youth with lived experience to get feedback on what was working, and what was not in Calgary’s youth sector. The results confirmed that there was a major gap in the continuum of residential services for street involved youth. One of the most eye-opening discoveries was that the very supports that I needed 23 years before remained unchanged. The only difference was that the potential to succumb to the nightmares of street life was faster, more intense … and that has only continued to increase as the years go on.

Opening Doors: 2000

Armed with this invaluable insight, we completed our research, developed our plans, received our charitable status and in November of 1999, we publicly launched Safe Haven Foundation of Canada. We asked Calgarians to Help Give a Calgary Girl Her Future Back. Our mandate was clear – to provide long term homes with stable family environments for teenage girls at risk of or experiencing homelessness, and to provide them with the necessary supports so they could work through their issues, complete their education and become self-reliant contributing citizens to our community. In one short year we went from concept to reality. We purchased the land, built the homes, fine-tuned the program, raised $700,000, hired and trained the programing staff.

Success came quickly, but not without its challenges. The philosophies and beliefs on which the program was founded were put to the test. While minor modifications have been made, the vision and philosophy to this day remain intact.

The biggest challenge for John and I was the risk of ‘founder burnout’. We have always volunteered our time, and for me, it was becoming a full-time commitment just managing the program, let alone raising the ongoing operational dollars. We knew a stronger outreach component was needed, as well as additional program support for girls that were graduating from the program who still wanted and needed transitional support.

A Turning Point: 2004

We asked ourselves two hard questions that became the next defining moments in the program: 1. Is there a better way to do things, and 2. Are we really making the most impact? Working with The Centre for Non-profit Management, we did a Needs Assessment in the fall of 2003 to determine if the program was delivering the services needed to the young women served, in the most effective and efficient manner possible. While Haven’s Way, and the need for it, was widely supported, survey respondents confirmed that for the Safe Haven Foundation of Canada, the greatest opportunity lay in adding more components which would enrich the girls lives… to build more homes, to grow and expand, and to increase public awareness.

Safe Haven Foundation knew it needed to find a cohesive fit with an organization that shared their beliefs and values, who would share the same passion and assist in growing Haven’s Way in the ways it justly deserved. That fit was found with Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary.

In November 2004, in concert with Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, new ground was broken in creating a strategic alliance designed to enhance and grow the support and delivery of Haven’s Way. This alliance has been key to the success of the development and growth of the program, allowing Safe Haven Foundation to increase its focus on creating new initiatives while allowing Boys and Girls Clubs to focus on program delivery. This partnership ensured that the young women served had access to a multitude of support mechanisms and resources. Haven’s Way has remained that same, safe home, only stronger and more capable of fulfilling more dreams and opportunities.

Looking Back at Two Decades: 2016

We take great pride in our relationship with the programing team of Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary. It is a unique and innovative partnership built on mutual trust and respect. I can’t speak highly enough of their programing team who breathes life into this program daily. By working so closely together, we are able to recognize and establish additional program components that meet the ever-changing needs of a young women’s journey back into mainstream society.

As I reflect back on our last 20 years, we know that we have the easy job… It is the young women that Haven’s Way serves, that dig deep into their souls, look fear in the face, and take their lives back.

Calgary Homeless Foundation
December 29, 2016

On November 17, I delivered a webinar presentation for the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association titled “The Missing Piece: How Housing Policy Benefits from a Socioeconomic Perspective.”

The presentation focused on both macroeconomic factors and factors pertaining to Canada’s social welfare system in general; I argued that leaders in Canada’s non-profit housing sector should be mindful of such issues (and not just focus on housing and homelessness).  My PowerPoint presentation can be downloaded here; the entire webinar can be viewed here.

Here are 10 things to know:

  1. In the past several decades, Canada’s economy—as well as its social welfare system—has gone through profound changes. For example, since the 1980s, spending on social welfare by Canada’s federal government has decreased substantially. Likewise, since the mid-1990s, taxation in Canada (by all orders of government combined) has decreased substantially. Canada’s official unemployment rate has been considerably higher in the past several decades than it was in the first two decades after World War II, and a much smaller percentage of unemployed workers are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits today than was the case in the 1970s and 1980s.   Federal spending on housing has also seen a general decrease in the past two decades, and federal spending on homelessness is considerably lower today than it was 15 years ago.  Some social scientists refer to this broad trend as neoliberalism.
  2. Most of these changes have not been good for Canada’s non-profit housing sector. Less public spending typically means less protection for vulnerable households. What’s more, higher unemployment is usually ‘bad news’ for poverty and homelessness.
  3. It’s very difficult for researchers to know the precise impact of all these factors on homelessness. Early attempts to understand the main determinants of homelessness in the United States can be found hereherehere and here. A recent Australian attempt can be found hereRon Kneebone and Margarita Wilkins have done some research on this in Canada.  Their recent policy report—along with some policy prescriptions—can be found here.  A nice, succinct PowerPoint presentation they put together about their report can be found here. (For a general consideration of some of the challenges involved in establishing causation, however, see point #1 in this blog post.)
  4. Just because there are unanswered questions about ‘cause and effect,’ doesn’t mean it’s not reasonable to suggest many of these changes likely left a lot of people without affordable housing. In light of the challenges involved in establishing causation, researchers have little choice but to make well-researched arguments. With that in mind, I’d argue it’s reasonable to suggest that higher unemployment and cuts to social welfare programs (including cuts to affordable housing) have almost certainly led many Canadian cities to have more homelessness in the post-neoliberal era than in the pre-neoliberal era.  For example, between 1980 and 2000, the average number of persons sleeping in an emergency shelter in Toronto on a nightly basis increased by 300%. (For a consideration of pre-neoliberal vs. post-neoliberal homelessness in Toronto, see this 2010 book chapter.)
  5. The trends discussed in point #1 above are likely reversible. Indeed, other countries have gone in the other direction as Canada in the past several decades. Between 1980 and 2016, public social spending as a percentage of GDP nearly doubled in Australia, Finland and Italy. (You can see these figures for yourself at the OECD web site here.)  It’s also useful to consider the case of Japan, which currently has an official unemployment rate of just 3%.  Bill Mitchell (Chair in Economics at the University of Newcastle) attributes Japan’s low unemployment in part to increased public spending; he writes about this here.
  6. Non-profit housing leaders should pay attention to macroeconomic and social trends, and not simply think about what’s directly in front of them (namely, housing). To do this, I recommend they do the following: read every column Thomas Walkom ever writes; subscribe to the Canadian Social Research Newsletter; read the blog of the Progressive Economics Forum; read reports and blog posts of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and the Institute for Research on Public Policy.  On Twitter, I suggest people follow: Miles CorakAndrew CoyneRob GillezeauSeth KleinDavid MacdonaldAngella MacEwenAndré PicardTrevor Tombe and Armine Yalnizyan.
  7. When advocating with elected officials and government staff, non-profit housing leaders should discuss macroeconomic factors as well as the broader social welfare system. Several organizations already do this. One example can be seen in CHRA’s recent submission to Canada’s National Housing strategy (NHS) consultations; another is the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s recent submission to the NHS consultations.
  8. Non-profit housing leaders should partner with researchers who are knowledgeable of macroeconomic factors and the broader social welfare system. An important example of this is the Alternative Federal Budgetexercise, which brings together a large array of advocacy organizations and researchers; together, they put forth an alternative to each year’s federal budget.
  9. Non-profit housing leaders—and researchers with whom they partner—should be honest about what they don’t know. There are at least two reasons for this. First, it’s the honest thing to do.  The late John Kenneth Galbraith reminded us of this when he said the following about economic forecasters: “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.”  Second, exaggerating your point may hurt you in the end.  To see how, read this blog post I wrote in August 2016.
  10. When graduate students do placements at non-profit organizations, their supervisors should have them write annotated bibliographies of existing research. They should then learn from those annotated bibliographies and become more informed on the research topic in question than any elected official, any senior staff or any academic researcher. (Here’s a little secret: one reason I know about all the homelessness studies I discuss in point #3 above is that, last summer, a graduate student wrote an annotated bibliography for the Calgary Homeless Foundation; in preparing the present blog post, I was able to quickly review the document he prepared in a matter of minutes.)  For more on annotated bibliographies, see this link.

The author wishes to thank the following individuals for assistance in the preparation of this blog post: Ron Kneebone, Tamara Krawchenko, Louise Gallagher, Brian MacLean, Marc-André Pigeon and Mario Seccareccia.  Any errors lie with the author. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Calgary Homeless Foundation. Any errors lie with the author.

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


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