Today I gave a presentation on Canadian housing policy at the annual conference of the European Network for Housing Research. Points raised in the presentation include the following:
- Fiscal context, more so than which party has been in government, appears to have shaped federal housing policy in Canada over the past two decades. Program expenses by the federal government (as a percentage of GDP) started decreasing steadily beginning in the mid-1990s and then increased steadily during the 2000s (up until the 2009-10 fiscal year). Federal spending initiatives on housing have generally followed this trend; they were relatively non-existent during the mid- to late-1990s, began again in 2001, and then picked up steam over the course of the ensuing decade.
- Looking back over the past several decades, it is rather clear that the role of the federal government has been crucial in the provision of housing for low-income households. When the federal government has led on that front, provinces and territories have followed (and housing has been built). During periods where the federal government has been inactive in funding housing for low-income households, very little housing has been built.
- Canada’s “rate of social renting” (i.e. percentage of households that live in social housing) is significantly lower than in most OECD countries. For example, the rate in both France and England is more than three times ours, and the rate in both Sweden and the Netherlands is more than six times ours.
- Though spending on housing has been higher under the Harper government than most observers would have ever predicted, it is important to be mindful of the looming issue of “expiring operating agreements.” Indeed, much of Canada’s social housing stock exists because of funding agreements that have been in place for several decades. Typically, these agreements were to last anywhere from 35 to 50 years, and have involved commitments from senior levels of government to fund operating costs (including the ongoing cost of hydro and maintenance). With much of Canada’s social housing having been built in the late 1960s, some of these agreements have already begun to expire; and many more agreements are set to expire over the next decade. The Harper government has been quite silent on what (if anything) it plans to do about this emerging problem.
- Expiring operating agreements will hit Canada’s northern territories especially hard, due largely to the fact that operating costs for housing in northern jurisdictions are higher than in other parts of Canada.
My slide deck for the presentation can be found here and the conference paper (whose first author is Steve Pomeroy) can be found here. The research is based on a chapter that will appear in the 2013-2014 edition of How Ottawa Spends, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Reprinted with permission from The Progressive Economics Forum
Our ground-breaking new report – The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 – highlights the current status of homelessness in Canada. And the picture isn’t pretty. Over 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year; 50,000 or more are part of the hidden homeless group and are couch-surfing, doubling or tripling up with friends and family, or living in unsafe and insecure housing. Many more Canadians are facing challenges in paying their rent and meeting other basic survival needs, including food.
Produced by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, this report card summarizes current research about how many people (and who) are homeless, trends that could lead to more homelessness if not reversed, how much homelessness is costing Canadians and promising signs of hope. It also provides several recommendations to help end homelessness.
I’ve been working in the homelessness sector for nearly 20 years, and I'm super excited to be part of this research. It's time that we were able to really quantify homelessness in a meaningful way. Yet, even this report is, in a few places, only our best guess. It’s an informed, well-researched best guess, but the lack of a common definition (CHRN released its definition in 2012) around homelessness, varying methodologies for counting homeless people and a lack of funding and support for research and evaluation means we are trying to take different sets of numbers and make them all match up. And those numbers show us that homelessness is affecting more Canadians than we might realize. In fact, approximately 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. This breaks down to:
- 2,880 unsheltered (outside in cars, parks, on the street)
- 14,400 staying in Emergency Homelessness Shelters
- 4,464 provisionally accommodated (homeless but in hospitals, prison or interim housing)
- 7,350 staying in Violence Against Women Shelters
The research also turned up some other interesting facts. We found that for most people, homelessness is a very short, one time experience. In fact, 29% of people spend only one night in a shelter and are able to resolve their homelessness crisis on their own or with minimal supports. At the other end of the spectrum though, 4,000 to 8,000 people are chronically homeless (long term homeless) and 6,000 to 22,000 are episodically homeless (experience repeated episodes of homelessness over a lifetime). While this is less than 15% of the total homeless population in Canada they use about 50% of the emergency shelter spaces and consume the most resources (including emergency services, hospitals etc.).
We were also able to calculate an updated sense of the cost of homelessness. It’s a whopping $7.05 billion per year. When we think about how much cheaper it is to provide rent supplements, supportive and social housing – not to mention the moral issues of warehousing people in shelters – it’s really time that we started focusing on the solutions.
And there is progress on this front. Cities across the country are making strides towards reducing, and ending, homelessness. The province of Alberta is leading the way with a provincial 10 year plan to end homelessness that is showing some very promising results. A focus on Housing First – getting people off the streets and out of shelters into housing before focusing on other issues – is helping to reduce the numbers of people who are homeless.
- Vancouver has had a 66% reduction in street homelessness since 2008
- Edmonton saw a 30% reduction in overall homelessness since 2008
- Toronto reports a 51% decrease in street homelessness since 2006
- Alberta’s provincial plan has led to a 16% province-wide reduction since 2008
For the full report, including full tables, charts and our recommendations for change download the report.
Tanya Gulliver is the Project Coordinator for the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (The Homeless Hub) based at York University. She is also a PhD student at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies looking at community resiliency and recovery after catastrophic disasters. From 2003-2010, Tanya taught the Homelessness in Canadian Society course at Ryerson University. Tanya was on the management team and staff of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She is co-founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial.
Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that we need to take a different approach to youth homelessness. While many communities struggle with the problem (and it is important to note that homeless youth come from every kind of community), we continue, for the most part, to rely on emergency services, such as shelters and day programs, to meet their needs. In many communities, we also rely on law enforcement, driven by the misguided belief that by virtue of being young and homeless, these youth must also be delinquent.
It is unacceptable for us to continue down this road. We need to think more strategically about the problem, and shift from a narrow emphasis on emergency service provision (which does have an important role to play) to a model that also incorporates effective prevention strategies and housing and support options. In doing this, we need to design strategies and interventions that are tailored to the needs of adolescents and young adults.
Youth homelessness is different from adult homelessness in many important ways. Firstly, homeless youth rarely have independent living experience, as they typically leave situations in which they were dependent upon parents and caregivers. Finding an apartment, dealing with landlords, paying bills, etc., then, are things they will likely have never done before. Independent living therefore becomes a big challenge.
The second distinction – and one that really matters - is that young people who become homeless are in the throes of many important developmental tasks (some physical, cognitive and/or social). In contemporary society, the process of growing into adulthood is something that takes time. Taking on new responsibilities, learning to have adult relationships, developing skills and confidence, taking risks – the tasks of growing into adulthood - are for many part of a slow and arduous process that takes many years and includes trial and error, as well as successes. Changes to our economy also mean that many young people continue to live at home for longer periods in order to obtain more education. In any event, it has become harder and harder to afford housing when the only work one can get is part-time and pays minimum wage.
When young people become homeless, they experience what I like to call ‘adolescence interrupted’. That is, the time granted to move into adulthood is dramatically shortened. The irony being that these young people may need extra time because of potential trauma suffered while growing up. For young people, their experience of homelessness is very different from that experienced by adults. For this reason, we cannot simply take our response to adult homelessness and create a ‘homelessness junior’ system of shelters and day programs. We need to think differently.
So, what role can research play in addressing this important issue? The role of research is essential to identifying the underlying features of the problem, assessing the effectiveness of interventions, and pointing the way towards conceptual shifts that are necessary in the identification of effective solutions. The recently released book, Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice does just this. The book aims to fill a gap in the information available on this important issue by providing an easily accessible collection of the best Canadian research and policy analysis in the field.
If we are going to solve youth homelessness in a meaningful way, we need solutions that are informed by the best research. This book has been written with this in mind. In this volume, leading scholars present key findings from their research on youth homelessness. In an effort to make this research accessible and relevant, contributing authors have been asked to address the ‘so whatness’ of their research; to make clear the policy and practice implications of their research so as to better inform the efforts of those working to address youth homelessness.
One final point: the ePub and PDF versions of this book are available for free from the Homeless Hub! We do this because we are committed to the development of more effective solutions to youth homelessness and getting the best information out to the widest audience. Not only can we do things differently, we must do things differently. And research on youth homelessness can help make a difference.
Twenty years ago, Randy Kuhn and Dennis Culhane published the results of a groundbreaking study in the American Journal of Community Psychology showing that over 80% of people who use emergency shelters in large American cities experienced homelessness for short periods of time and most frequently as a one-time event in their lives. In contrast, a relatively small minority demonstrated a cyclical use of shelters with multiple episodes for short periods of time or a small number of stays but for long periods of time. Although these latter two groups were relatively small making up 10% each of the shelter population, they were shown to occupy over 60% of the shelter beds.
Recently, I collaborated with a group of colleagues (Susan Farrell, Stephen Hwang, and Melissa Calhoun) from the University of Ottawa and St. Michaels Hospital on a study that evaluated four years of shelter data from three Canadian cities of different sizes, namely Toronto, Ottawa, and Guelph (this study replicated the analyses of the influential Kuhn and Culhane study). In line with the results of the American study, our research identified three distinct and similar patterns of shelter stays in the three Ontario cities.
The largest group of shelter users, characterized as “temporary”, experienced a small number of homeless episodes for relatively short periods of time. This group comprised 88% of shelter users in both Toronto and Ottawa. We also found a smaller group of users that we defined as having “episodic” shelter use, who experienced multiple homeless episodes for short periods of time. This group represented 11% and 9% of shelter users in Toronto and Ottawa respectively. Finally, the smallest group of shelter users, representing 4% of shelter users in Toronto and 2% in Ottawa, had a relatively small number of homeless episodes but for long periods of time.
The two smaller groups of shelter users occupied over one half of the shelter beds in both Toronto and Ottawa. Similar to the American research, our findings suggest that housing and support services targeting the episodic and long stay users are likely to be the most efficient strategy for reducing the shelter population in Canadian cities. A paper on the findings of our research has been published in Housing Studies. The paper is available online here.
Tim Aubry is a Full Professor in the School of Psychology and Director and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa. He is currently holder of the Faculty of Social Sciences Research Chair in Community Mental Health and Homelessness. Over the course of his career, Dr. Aubry has collaborated on research projects with community organizations and government at all levels, contributing to the development of effective social programs and policies.
Calgary has a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. And the Calgary Homeless Foundation has set very aggressive targets and benchmarks to reframe how our city thinks about and responds to homelessness. As a community, we have decided that it is completely inappropriate for a city of opportunity, like Calgary, to ignore the fact that we have 3,500 homeless men, women and children on our streets and in emergency shelters.
We have created 40 new programs in the last five years to move people from homelessness into housing with supports. Finding housing in our city is a key challenge – but just as critical is ensuring people have supports around them whenever they need them to keep that housing. The support piece is called case management. When working with homeless people, case management has to meet the needs of people with very complex lives and difficult histories. Case management should be person-centred, and delivered by a team of people from varying backgrounds. Open, honest communication and a non-judgemental approach are the keys to success as is ensuring people have an equal role in making decisions.
When case management is done well and people are engaged in the process, it changes lives. So far we have housed and supported 4,500 people in our housing and case management programs. Eighty to ninety percent remain in housing. These individuals are using jails and emergency rooms 54-85% less than when they were homeless and most importantly they are safe, secure and supported. We see dramatic results that cost taxpayers significantly less than ignoring the issue. We know that it can cost upwards of $100,000 per person per year to use emergency shelters, and public systems when they are homeless. Our most expensive case management program is $36,000 per person, per year. Most are around $20,000. Each person in a case management program plays an active part in paying rent and accessing supports and many move into volunteer roles, education or employment.
Case management along with safe, affordable housing is a critical part of the success of our 10 Year Plan. We are well on our way to creating a diverse and adaptable system of care that can meet and respond to this complex issue. Our ending homelessness work in Calgary is helping to build a strong community where all Calgarians can take advantage of the great things our city of opportunity has to offer.
Katrina Milaney is the Acting Vice President of Strategy for 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 including poverty and homelessness. She has a Master’s degree in Community Health Sciences and is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies.
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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.