I'm in Yellowknife this week for the launch of a policy report on homelessness. It's the first of several publications coming out of a multi-year research project that looks at affordable housing and homelessness in the Northwest Territories. The research is being supervised by Dr. Frances Abele (Carleton University) and our community partner is Arlene Haché (Centre for Northern Families).
Here are the top 10 things I learned while preparing this report:
10. Local stakeholders should lead.
- This project started with Arlene Haché, Executive Director of the Centre for Northern Families and recent recipient of the Order of Canada. She wanted to see more research done on homelessness in Yellowknife.
9. Researchers work best when they work together.
- Arlene’s first step was to approach Chris Southcott, a Principal Investigator with the Social Economy Research Network of Northern Canada (SERRNoCa). They had a team of researchers in place who had already laid the groundwork for a multi-year, multidisciplinary research project in Canada’s North. They asked me to join the effort.
8. Learn your history!
- My supervisor on this project, Dr. Frances Abele, made it clear to me from the get-go that, in addition to the present-day analysis, I would also be involved in writing a historical article on government-assisted housing in the Northwest Territories. No ifs, ands or buts! You can’t understand the present if you don’t know how we got here. Stay tuned for news on the release of the historical article, likely next year.
7. In Canada’s North, get a research license!
- In any of Canada’s territories, even if a researcher has clearance from their university’s research ethics board, they are still required to obtain a “research license” from one of the three research licensing bodies. In the case of the NWT, this is done through the Aurora Research Institute. Part of the process involved in obtaining a license includes consultation with the local community, including Aboriginal groups, NGOs and municipalities.
6. Disseminate research in multiple formats.
- A full-length policy report isn’t for everyone. That’s why my supervisor instructed me to ask Mary McCreadie, formerly of the NWT Literacy Council, to write a plain-language summary of the report. The summary is longer than the report’s executive summary, shorter than the policy report, and a more straightforward read than either of them.
5. Work with local NGOs.
- The Yellowknife Homelessness Coalition has provided us with invaluable assistance in planning the public launch of this research, including the booking of Yellowknife City Hall Council Chambers. And all of the media work around the launch of this report has been coordinated by Alternatives North, a highly-respected social justice organization based in Yellowknife. Without the assistance of these NGOs, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about how to get the message out.
4. Engage with government.
- Well before the public launch of this report, Arlene and I requested a meeting with the NWT’s Minister Responsible for Homelessness, along with his Deputy Minister. That means that by the time this report reaches the media, the Minister will know everything he wants to about it. The report was also sent to relevant territorial departments for feedback; again, this means there will be no surprises when bureaucrats hear about the results through the media.
3. Defer to local stakeholders.
- Once the research findings have been presented, it’s time for local stakeholders to take over the debate. After Arlene and I present our findings, there will be a panel discussion involving the co-chair of the Yellowknife Homelessness Coalition, a member of the NWT Legislative Assembly, a local ER physician and a senior bureaucrat in the NWT government.
2. Use the Internet.
- The role of the folks at the Homeless Hub has been invaluable. You wouldn’t be reading about any of this if it weren’t for them! What’s more, the public launch of this report is being recorded by a member of the SERRNoCa research team; and everyone speaking on the panel will be asked to sign consent forms. The video recording will then be uploaded to the Internet.
And, the number 1 thing I’ve learned about research through this effort is…
Don’t compete with other researchers.
- It just so happens that another PhD student Julia Christensen (a Trudeau Scholar no less!) is actively engaged with homelessness research in the NWT. Rather than compete, Julia and I hope to one day collaborate together on a journal article that brings together two (non-competing) perspectives.
To access the full report, see: Homelessness in Yellowknife: An Emerging Social Challenge
Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration and teaches a course on affordable housing and homelessness in Carleton’s School of Social Work. His research interests include poverty, affordable housing, social assistance, homelessness and post-secondary education policy. Under the supervision of Dr. Frances Abele, he is currently involved in two SSHRC-funded research projects looking at poverty and affordable housing in Canada’s North. And his doctoral dissertation, under the supervision of Dr. Saul Schwartz, consists of three essays on social assistance. Nick is a frequent blogger and op-ed writer, a steering committee member of the Progressive Economics Forum (PEF) and the PEF Events Coordinator for the Annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association. Prior to his doctoral studies, Nick was a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa, and then worked for 10 years as a community social worker with homeless persons in Toronto. Contact him at email@example.com
So, what do you think of when you see a kid on the street? What crosses your mind? Is he or she a runaway? A dropout? A kid looking for kicks? Is it a young person fleeing abuse at home? Usually, when we think of teenagers, we also think of them in relation to family. They’re young, so they must have parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, right? But in that moment of contact when you see them sitting on the sidewalk often looking unkept, cold and hungry, family is nowhere to be seen. What comes to my mind when I encounter a homeless youth is that they must be running away from something; something that has clearly gone very wrong.
As a mother, my instinct is that they are vulnerable and need care, and I often wonder how they ended up on the street. I think about whether there is any possibility of reconciling with their families and going home. I also wonder how agencies that serve street youth support them, and what if any efforts are made to help young people reconnect with families? I say this fully cognizant of the fact that many young people are forced to leave very difficult home lives characterized by violence and abuse, and going back may not even be possible.
Our new report, Family Matters (co-authored by Stephen Gaetz and Tara Patton), looks at the experiences of homeless youth and the efforts of Family Reconnect, a unique program delivered through Eva’s Initiatives. Through assessment, counseling and help that allows young people to access appropriate services and supports, the Family Reconnect team work to help young people address underlying conflicts within their families, and hopefully improve relationships to the point that they are able to return home, or move into the community, ideally with family support. Family reconnection can mean making contact with a mom or dad, but also an uncle, aunt, sibling or grandparent. If contact is not possible or desired by a young person, Family Reconnect counselors can help youth come to terms with this reality and move forward with their lives in a healthy and productive way.
Our research demonstrates that for many homeless youth and those at risk of homelessness, family does matter. We have found that not only do youth express the desire to improve relations with family, but that often the problems that forced these kids to leave home have more to do with family member’s struggles with mental health, abuse, poverty and/or addictions, rather than with the problems of the youth themselves. We also found that in many cases, family members couldn’t cope with the challenges of undiagnosed learning or mental health issues of youth, and this can often lead to youth homelessness.
Providing youth and their families with needed support and counseling can lead to the early identification of underlying issues and challenges. From there, the necessary supports can lay the foundation for potential reconciliation with family or community, or allow the young person to move towards independent living in a safe and planned way.
The report also highlights the importance of prevention as a key strategy to addressing youth homelessness. In countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, their response to youth homelessness stresses preventive strategies, including programs in schools to help identify and support young people at risk, early intervention programs that include family mediation, counseling and support, and respite housing to give young people and their families a ‘time out’ period in the midst of a heated conflict. This preventive orientation makes a lot of sense and appears to be very effective in providing young people and their families with the supports they need.
Unfortunately in Canada, preventive programs like Family Reconnect are the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, our response to youth homelessness is characterized by the provision of emergency services such as shelters and day programs. As good as many of these programs are, they tend to focus on helping young people become self-sufficient instead of considering the benefits of helping young people reconnect with family. That is, from this perspective, the family is seen only as part of a young person’s past, not as part of their future. In this report, we propose a radical rethinking of the way we respond to youth homelessness in Canada; one that places prevention and family reconnection at the centre of our response. This is not a cynical appeal to ‘family values’. Rather, it is a call to consider the role that family reconnection can play in helping young people avoid homelessness, and support those who are homeless in moving off the streets as quickly as possible. Have a look at the report. Now what will come to mind the next you cross paths with a homeless youth? Don’t you agree that this kind of reform is necessary?
To access the full report, see: Family Matters: Homeless Youth & Eva's Initiative's Family Reconnect Program
Daphne Winland is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director for the Department of Anthropology at York University.
Many jurisdictions in Canada have begun to recognize the value of harm reduction and have developed innovative and effective programs to deal with the harms of substance use and addiction. For example, there are over 30 studies that support the effectiveness of Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site, as reducing the harm associated with injection drug use. Harm reduction works because it gives people choice, counters stigma associated with drug use, acknowledges that drug use is part of our history as a society, and that reducing harms instead of eliminating use can make people and communities safer and healthier. Recognizing the value of harm reduction can be seen in the inclusion of harm reduction in strategies related to mental health promotion and addictions care as well as public health programs and services oriented to preventing the harms of substance use. However, there has not been much discussion of the role harm reduction plays in ending homelessness.
Harm reduction is a key principle of Housing First programs. Housing First separates the right to housing from conditions such as acceptance of treatment or sobriety. Recently, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness contracted Scientists at Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia to develop a paper that outlines the role of harm reduction as part of a strategic plan to end homelessness. The cornerstones of this policy framework are social inclusion and the provision of permanent affordable housing. Permanent housing is essential to reducing the harms of homelessness and substance use. For example, lack of housing increases the harms of substance use including the risk of blood borne diseases and premature death. The need for permanent affordable housing and policies of client inclusion in the development of policies and programs are complemented by a series of six other strategic directions that outline the necessary elements of a housing and harm reduction strategy.
This framework recognizes that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that a variety of approaches are needed in the provision of housing and supports. A housing and harm reduction policy framework includes a range of housing options that place client choice at the center. The proposed policy framework widens the range of housing options to include low barrier housing where drugs and alcohol are tolerated to living in buildings where alcohol and drug use is prohibited. Low-barrier housing has the same requirements of tenants in any other rental situation: pay the rent, don’t destroy property and don’t behave in ways that will harm or disturb other tenants. The framework recommends a number of options for integrating housing and harm reduction. For example: the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver has integrated harm reduction philosophy and services such as supervised injection into the provision of housing and supports for people with HIV/AIDS and injecting drug use. Community harm reduction services are important for those living in market housing.
The strategies recommended in the frame work are consistent with current evidence and have been shown in other cities to reduce the harms of drug use as well as health and social costs. For example, the provision of low barrier housing to people with long term chronic homelessness and alcohol problems significantly reduced, health, policing, social service and justice costs in Seattle. A policy framework is an initial first step and it plays a role in bringing people together around new understandings of what we ought to do. The next step is doing the right things for citizens and communities.
To access the full policy framework, see: Housing and Harm Reduction: A Policy Framework for Greater Victoria
Bernie Pauly RN, Ph.D is an Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and a Scientist in the Centre for Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria.
In recent years, "housing first" has emerged as a key response to homelessness in North America. With its growing popularity in Canada comes increasing interest in understanding how the approach works, different program models and its effectiveness for specific populations. One key factor that undoubtedly shapes the success of any housing first program is the nature and supply of affordable housing.
The basic underlying principle of housing first, pioneered by Sam Tsembaris at the Pathways to Housing project in New York in the 1990s, is that people do better moving forward with their lives if they are first housed. This is as true for homeless people and those with mental health and addiction issues as it is for anyone. According to Pathways to Housing, "The Housing First model is simple: provide housing first, and then combine that housing with supportive treatment services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment." This approach differs from what has been (and arguably still is) the orthodoxy of our Canadian response to homelessness; in that "treatment first" approach, people who are homeless should be placed in emergency services until they are "ready" for housing (having received access to health care or treatment) or until housing is available.
Research quite convincingly demonstrates the general effectiveness of housing first over treatment first. In a 2000 study, Tsembaris and Eisenberg demonstrated that 90 per cent of people in the Pathways program remained housed five years later. A growing body of research shows that people with mental health and addiction issues do very well with a housing first approach, spend fewer days in hospital and are cheaper to support. (To see the research, visit www.homelesshub.ca/housingfirst.)
Housing first is most effective when, first, people are rehoused rapidly, minimizing time spent on emergency services. Because resources are scarce, priority should be given to high-needs clients, including families and those with mental health and addiction challenges. Second, ongoing and appropriate support must be provided for those who need them (and many don't). Those with addiction issues should have access to harm reduction-based housing, if that is what they prefer. Finally, where possible, clients should have input into the kind and location of their housing. While providing shelter and supports is central to housing first, the approach works best when it helps people nurture supportive relationships and become meaningfully engaged in their communities.
As housing first grows in popularity, it is applied in new ways and in different contexts. One challenge of implementing the approach is the ability to deliver appropriate housing support in the context of a housing shortage. I have often wondered what would have happened if the City of Toronto had attempted to implement its Streets to Homes program in the late 1990s, when rental vacancy rates were routinely below one per cent, compared to the last five years, when vacancy rates have hovered between three and four per cent.
In a tight rental market, one of the first things to go is the notion of consumer choice. One criticism of housing first is that people are often given housing in remote areas of town, far removed from services, poorly served by transit, and where people struggle to connect. Women fleeing violence may be placed in neighbourhoods that are not safe. The outcome is often isolation, continued marginalization and a compromised ability to accesses necessary services and supports. In the long run, this can undermine stability and security of tenure.
Different approaches to housing first take on the challenge of affordable housing supply in distinct ways. In Montreal, all levels of government working with the non-profit sector have sought to address the supply problem with an ongoing investment in social housing, with pathways to that housing for people who are homeless. The Streets to Homes program in Toronto relies almost exclusively on the private market, and rather than use rent subsidies, it has developed a system to fast track people so they can access other government benefits and supports. With a waiting list of more than 75,000 for social housing and with modest targets for expanding its affordable housing supply (up to 1,000 new units annually--though these targets are not being met), Toronto relies on the private rental market, making its housing first program vulnerable if the affordable housing supply shrinks.
In Calgary, the affordable housing supply has shrunk drastically over the past 10 years, while rents have skyrocketed. In rolling out its housing first model, the Calgary Homeless Foundation takes a systems approach, coupling its adaption of housing first with an investment in affordable housing (3,000 units built over the past three years) and with rent supports for people living -- or choosing to live -- in the private rental market.
The best approach to housing first, then, is to treat it not as a program or service tied to an agency, but rather, as part of a broader and more strategic response to homelessness; one that focuses on prevention by ensuring an investment in an affordable housing supply, and by requiring other sectors (mental health and corrections come to mind) to play their part in diverting people from homelessness through more effective discharge planning strategies. It is only by ensuring a sufficient supply of affordable housing that one of the central tenets of housing first -- consumer choice -- is protected.
Reprinted with permission from CAMH.
In an age of self publishing – including blogs, videos, and other Web-based media – why do we still seek to publish in traditional academic peer-reviewed journals? Vanity.
ResearchImpact-York published two academic papers in 2009. In 2010 we had one in press, two submitted, and one just rejected for a second time, from the same journal. Since our first post on May 30, 2008, ResearchImpact has published 206 blogs on Mobilize This!, an average of 6 or 7 each month.
Here’s a comparison of blogging and peer-reviewed publishing:
TIME: I started drafting our paper on ResearchSnapshot clear language summaries in July 2009. I submitted with revisions in September. It just got rejected. I can write a blog in about one hour and get it posted in 20 minutes.
ACCESS: We published our first paper on York’s KMb Unit in Evidence & Policy [Phipps, D.J. and Shapson, S. 2009. Knowledge mobilisation builds local research collaboration for social innovation. Evidence & Policy. 5(3): 211-227]. I have no idea who, apart from my mother, has read this paper. Mobilize This! has received 55,171 page views as of December 28, 2010 and has a subscriber list of over 1200. Blogs are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Except for Open Access journals, most journals limit access to those who can afford a subscription.
RESPONSIVENESS: Blogging also has the added feature of allowing readers to respond by leaving comments. Try the comment feature below to leave your thoughts and let everyone know what you’re thinking. Now, try to do the same with a peer-reviewed paper you’ve printed out.
PAYBACK: I am not an academic. Unlike scholars seeing tenure and promotion based on their publications, my publications do not have an impact on how my performance is measured.
If it takes less time to reach more people in a two-way fashion, why do I take the trouble to publish in peer-reviewed journals if it doesn’t benefit me in any way?
Peer review provides a level of quality control; however, so does blogging. If you don’t find our writing valuable you won’t return to this blog or you’ll tell us so. And even though I believe peer-reviewed publishing and blogging are complementary, both take time. So why do we continue to take the time to pursue both forms of dissemination when blogging seems to meet our needs?
In practical terms, publishing in peer-reviewed journals gives us credibility in the eyes of one of our key constituents: faculty. Faculty’s currency is peer review. We gain credibility when faculty peers approve our work and find it worthy of publication. But the real truth is, publishing in peer-reviewed journals provides a sense of personal satisfaction that boarders on vanity. I enjoy the sense of satisfaction when faculty peers (finally) approve our publications. At the end of the day my ego is stroked when our work is accepted for peer-reviewed publication as well as when I receive comments on Mobilize This! Together, these two forms allow you, the KMb stakeholder, to know that our work is not only immediate, accessible and engaging (thank you, blogging!) but it also has the peer reviewed seal of approval (even if the seal is delayed by 12-18 months).
As Web 2.0 and open access move into the academy I predict we will increasingly see a blend of peer-reviewed and online media. To get to there from here all we need to do is change tenure and promotion, peer review, and the academic publishing industry. I’ll get right on that….after my next blog…
ResearchImpact is a service-oriented program designed to connect university research with research users across Canada to ensure that research helps to inform decision-making. This article was originally published in ResearchImpact's blog, Mobilize This!.
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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.