When you hear the word “homelessness,” what comes to mind? If you are like most people, you probably think of the men who sleep on the hot-air grates in downtown Toronto. That is the image that so often accompanies media stories about homelessness.

Several things about that image hide the reality of homelessness for many Canadians. The first part is the person’s gender and age. There are many homeless women and children too, although in their case it seldom takes the form of sleeping on the street. That is another problem with the image – it equates homelessness with street life. In reality, homelessness can take multiple forms, including moving from shelter to shelter or “couch-surfing” (that is, staying with friends when one loses one’s own home).

The image usually features a solitary figure, which obscures the fact that entire families may become homeless. Indeed, some of those who appear to be alone may simply be separated from their families by homelessness. Finally, the setting (downtown in a big city) is a cliché. Homelessness exists in towns and cities of all sizes, in the suburbs and in rural areas, and in all the provinces of Canada.

Last year, I helped edit an online book collecting the best Canadian research available on homelessness. The thirty chapters encompassed the experiences of women and their children, Aboriginal people, frail seniors, youth, immigrants (some of whom become homeless shortly after arriving in Canada). They included research on food insecurity, social stigma, moneymaking strategies, child custody, the physical and mental health problems of homeless people, and the intersection of homelessness and crime, as well as promising efforts to reduce homelessness or alleviate some of its effects.

Did we cover the full spectrum of the problem? Not even close. This week we added another ten chapters to fill the many gaps.

One important new chapter is about homelessness among women in Canada’s North, a particularly urgent issue. Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut share a high cost of living, limited employment opportunities, underdeveloped infrastructure, and a shortage of social services. Women who lose their housing have few places to turn. Yet we hear very little about their plight in the rest of Canada.

Another chapter deals with homelessness among Aboriginal peoples in the Prairie provinces. This group spends a lot of time on the move, and many go back and forth between urban centres that offer work, services, and a wider range of housing options, and their home communities, which offer a connection to family and traditions. Yet in neither place are these people completely at home.

A third chapter looks at homeless women in small cities and towns in Ontario, social isolation, low-quality social services, and weak public transit infrastructure create barriers to seeking help.

We also consider the ethics of research into homelessness. It is important to understand and communicate the experiences of people who often have no voice in society, but it is equally important not to appropriate their voices. Many of the chapters contain the words of homeless people, men and women, young and old, describing their stories and tryng to make sense of an arduous life in a hostile world.

In presenting these diverse perspectives on homelessness, we hope to remind Canadians that homeless has not disappeared, even though the recent economic downturn has meant that many people are too worried about their own futures to pay attention to the plight of those even less fortunate.

At the same time, we stress that although homelessness affects a diverse group of people, it is not a complex problem. Yes, you read that correctly: it is not a complex problem.

After all these years of research and policy analysis and documenting the lived experience of those affected and those who provide support services, we know what the causes of the problem are. That means we know what the solutions are.

When individuals or families run into serious difficulty in one or more of the three key areas that support a decent standard of living, they may find themselves unhoused and potentially on a downward spiral. The three areas are: housing, income, and support services. Groups already facing inequities, discrimination, and violence are often the first to face difficulties in these areas when the economic tide changes.

An adequate standard of living means not only that good-quality health care is available to everyone, but also access to adequate housing, employment at a living wage, and essential support services must also be available for everyone, not just those who can afford them – and that systemic inequities are addressed in social policy.

We know what we need. We need social protections that prevent people from becoming unhoused. We need programs that ensure that no one will be unhoused for more than a very brief period should a crisis of some sort arise. We need policies that correct historic and systemic inequities, and that provide adequate, affordable and secure housing, an adequate income or income support when needed, and adequate support services if these are required (for addictions, mental health, and so on). Only then will we begin to solve the problem of homelessness.

J. David Hulchanski is Associate Director, Research, for the Cities Centre and Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, and co-editor of an electronic book on homelessness, Finding Home, available on the Homeless Hub, www.homelesshub.ca/FindingHome.


Calgary Homeless Foundation
August 23, 2010

Just when I think I've got a debate resolved in my head, new research comes along and makes me think again. I'd like to put a question to blog readers... Last year, I wrote

Last year, I wrote a policy paper on the Housing First model of rapid rehousing of the homeless.

In the paper, I argue that the Housing First model, unlike the "treatment first" model, does not require homeless people to go through a transition to "housing readiness" (i.e. learning money-management skills, learning life skills, following the treatment plan of a psychiatrist, etc.).  Instead, the Housing First approach provides homeless persons with almost immediate access to permanent housing.

In the paper, I also argue that the academic literature on Housing First is very positive, demonstrating that Housing First appears to work very well for up to 90 percent of people it tries to house.

Moreover, I argue in the paper that in just a one-year span in the lead-up to the publication of my paper, staff from Toronto's Housing First program (known as "Streets to Homes," or S2H for short) had travelled to 23 different Canadian cities to discuss the program with local officials.

Furthermore, Regina, Ottawa, Grand Prairie, Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton had all sent contingents of staff to Toronto to learn from S2H officials.

Finally, Lethbridge, Sudbury, Ottawa and London already have Housing First programs in place, and Edmonton and Victoria expected to have Housing Fierst programs in place in the very near future.

In short, while homelessness policy wonks had spent decades debating whether homeless persons could in fact be housed, the debate now appears to be over.  Indeed, it now seems rather clear to most that, provided there's a suitable affordable housing unit for the person to go to (and that is not always the case in Housing First programs, as I argue in Section 5.2 of my paper), we now accept that the problem of homelessness can best be solved by providing housing to the homeless as quickly as possible.

No more policy conundrum, right?

Enter a new report that I recently discovered while perusing the Homeless Hub.  In said report, four researchers (Adam Fair, Hollis Moore, Jennifer Robson and Barb Gosse) report on results from the Independent Living Account (ILA) project of Social Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI).  According to the report, ILA assists "residents of Toronto shelter system to save, build life skills and subsequently move into their own place."

According to the new report

"The ILA model was designed to test the effectiveness of matched saving incentives in supporting individuals living in the shelter system to save for expenses related to moving out on their own. Participants enrolled in the ILA are provided with assistance to open a bank account and start saving. To incentivize this saving, SEDI offered a virtual $3 in match credits for each $1 saved, up to a maximum personal savings of $400. Participants are also required to work with a case manager on a savings plan and attend a financial literacy workshop which lasts approximately 12 hours. If a participant meets all of the program requirements they are eligible to use their credits, combined with their own savings, to pay for first and last month’s rent, utility hook up, moving expenses as well as supports to employment."

The report goes on to say

"The results suggest a conservative estimate of a $2.19 return for each $1 of project costs within the first year following project graduation. It is also worth noting that the analysis of the base case (existing environment) estimates a negative return of nearly -$0.74 for each $1 invested in the current system of support for those moving through the housing continuum to exit homelessness. This result clearly illustrates the investment potential created by the ILA model."

While I don't see a direct contradiction between Housing First and the ILA approach, I do see an inconsistency.

I believe it was Confucius who said "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

Housing First says:

  1. give homeless persons keys to housing unit ASAP; and
  2. have Housing First staff work with the person's income support office to cut out the bureaucratic red tape so that the person can move right into housing ASAP.  In other words: give the man the fish and, no disrespect intended to Confucius, but he'll keep fishin'.

The ILA approach says:

  1. teach the homeless person financial literacy skills with some matching funds/incentives; and 
  2. when they put aside sufficient money, they can move into a new unit.  In other words, teach the man to fish.

So, my question for blog readers is: how do we reconcile the successes of Housing First with the successes of the ILA project?


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 falvo.nicholas@gmail.com

University of Toronto/ St.Michael's Hospital
August 17, 2010

Are Canadians who are experiencing homelessness getting the health care that they need?  The average person might assume that the answer to this question must be “yes,” because Canada has a system of universal health insurance.  In fact, almost all previous studies of unmet needs for health care among homeless people have been done in the US, where more than half of people who are homeless do not have any health insurance. These studies have (not surprisingly) found that lack of health insurance greatly increases the risk of unmet needs for care.  Amazingly, almost no studies have looked at this issue in countries that ensure that its citizens and residents have universal health insurance.

We recently published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at unmet needs for health care among homeless people in Toronto, Canada.  We surveyed a representative sample of 1169 homeless individuals at shelters and meal programs and asked them if within the last year they had needed health care but been unable to get it.  Fully 17% of homeless individuals -- about one in six – reported unmet needs for care.  Mothers with children who were living in family shelters were more than twice as likely to have unmet needs for care than the average mother with children living in Toronto.  Among the homeless people that we interviewed, those who were younger and those who had been a victim of physical assault in the past year were more likely to have unmet needs.

These findings show us that homeless people still have substantial unmet health care needs within Canada’s system of universal health insurance.  However, it’s important to realize two things.  First, this finding should not be misinterpreted to mean that our system of universal health insurance is “broken” or “doesn’t work.”  In fact, another recent study asked almost the same question that we did of homeless people across the US and found that 32% had been unable to obtain needed medical or surgical care in the past year.  So, the rate of unmet needs among homeless people in the Canadian system is about half that of homeless people in the US.  Universal health insurance works! 

Second, our study underscores the importance of understanding the difference between a health insurance system and a health care delivery system.  When people are disadvantaged and marginalized, it’s not enough to say that that their health care will be paid for, so there’s nothing to worry about.  We need to realize that there can be many other barriers to obtaining needed care, such as not having a family physician, not having transportation to the clinic or doctor’s office, not understanding when it’s important to seek health care, or being reluctant to seek care because of previous bad experiences with health care providers.  All of these factors, and more, come into play when a person is homeless.

We need to continue to design health care delivery systems that meet the needs of people who are homeless.  Some of the most promising strategies include having teams of health care providers work in outreach settings such as shelters, drop-in centres, and mobile health units; enhancing the capacity of our many outstanding community health centres to provide comprehensive care for homeless patients; integrating the delivery of care for physical health, mental health, and addictions; and educating and empowering individuals who are homeless to help improve their own health.


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.

York University
July 22, 2010

The Government of Alberta has announced its intention to put forward a plan that encourages people to refrain from giving money to panhandlers, and instead to give those resources to agencies serving people who are homeless. While many people may be annoyed at the sight of panhandlers, we need to dig a little deeper to understand what is driving this initiative. At the root of many people’s negative responses to panhandling are prejudices about homeless people, and why they panhandle in the first place. Is this same prejudice driving government policy? The Alberta Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Jonathan Denis says: “Most people think if they are giving to panhandlers they are helping the problem, but they are hurting the problem. Almost 80% of money going to panhandlers goes to negative habits — drugs, alcohol, gambling — anything that can be destructive.”

I would argue that this kind of thinking represents policy making at its worst – driven by ideology rather than evidence. People panhandle for many reasons, most notably to put cash in their hands on a day to day basis, so they can purchase what they want and need (not all needs are supplied by shelters and drop ins, such as hygiene products, adequate food, etc.). Just like you and me, people who are homeless want to be independent and make their own choices. The notion that they should not have money because they are irresponsible speaks to a paternalistic viewpoint that we wouldn’t apply to anyone else.

Check the research out on the Homeless Hub if you want to know the facts.


A key piece of research on this topic is Making Money, by Bill O’Grady and me (1999, 2002). This research shows that most people who panhandle would much rather make money through regular jobs, but because of their poverty, they face incredible barriers in obtaining – and maintaining – employment. People panhandle so that they can earn money to meet their immediate needs, and to pay for food, clothing and yes, sometimes cigarettes or alcohol. They make choices about what they spend their money on. We might not always agree with these choices, but then, you might not agree with how I spend my money.

The views expressed by the minister above, reflect longstanding prejudices that portray people who are homeless as addicts. While there is no doubt that some people who are homeless have addictions issues (and some of them panhandle) the vast majority do not. If one is concerned about the behaviours of homeless addicts, one should really ask oneself, if you take away panhandling as a source of income, exactly where will people with addictions get their money to feed their addictions? Take away panhandling, and will people do worse and more destructive things to meet needs they can’t control – things like the sex trade, drug dealing, crime and theft?

The good news in Alberta is that there is an emerging public debate on this issue that will hopefully inform the decisions that get made by politicians and average citizens. An excellent discussion took place on the news affairs program “Alberta Prime Time”.

Both University of Calgary professor Dave Este (Social Work) and Calgary Chief Bylaw Officer Bill Bruce (Calgary Police Service) presented reasoned views supported by research. Both oppose the proposed move by the Alberta government.

The other good news is that the Calgary Homeless Foundation is conducting a new study on the money making practices of people who are homeless – this will shed light on why people who live in extreme poverty panhandle.

Good policy is supported by good evidence. Research can contribute to solutions to homelessness.

York University
June 30, 2010

Last week the CHRN launched our Leadership Academy in Program Evaluation. We brought together service providers and administrators from more than 15 homeless-serving agencies from across Canada. The idea was to begin a year long process of building capacity within the homelessness sector to conduct program evaluation that is meaningful to agencies and their clients, rather than an activity that simply responds to the demands from funders.        

This Leadership Academy began with a two and a half day conference / workshop held at York University in Toronto.  We had a great panel of presenters, including Michaela Hynie of York University, Stephanie Baker-Collins of McMaster, Jennie Vengris from Hamilton SPRC, Marylin Dyck from the Doorway in Calgary, Diane Dyson from Woodgreen in Toronto, and Audrey Cole and Ashley Lacome-Duncan from the Paloma Foundation.  I also presented a few sessions.

Our goals for the event included:

  1. Providing people with an understanding of basic concepts in program evaluation, tailored to concerns and issues found in the homelessness sector.  We introduced participants to some key examples, including the Outcomes Star from the UK, and the Paloma -Wellesley Guide to Participatory Program Evaluation;

  2. Having each agency leave with an action plan to help them move forward with program evaluation;

  3. Finally, we wanted to establish a learning community to carry this work forward in the coming year.  Establish is probably not the right word.  We are building on the amazing work of Eva's Initiatives, which has already nurtured the development of a vibrant learning community amongst agencies working with street youth across Canada.  The majority of attendees at our Leadership Academy were from Eva's Learning Community, with a few other additions.

We’re calling this a Learning Academy, because the 2.5 day event was only the beginning. Over the coming year, the agencies, will continue their work supported by the learning community, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN), and York University. We feel this is a much better way to support learning and the application of this new knowledge.

Through the CHRN, and in partnership with York University, the Faculty of Education and the York Institute for Health Research, we are beginning to develop a fully fledged certificate course in program evaluation, that will have a strong web-based component, so stay tuned for developments on this.

My final comments have to do with the success of the event: It was incredible to have in one room such amazing talent, knowledge and experience.  The conversations that took place were the major highlight for me.  This is an amazing group of people who through their work demonstrate their commitment to ending homelessness in Canada. We hope that the Leadership Academy in Program Evaluation will help people working in this field to not only improve upon their work, but to make their work visible to others, and to really contribute to good solutions to the problem of homelessness.  More to come on this one…

Until then, here are some photos from the event...

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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.