In Florida, people are being arrested for giving food to people who are homeless. That’s right, for providing food to malnourished people. The City of Orlando has been targeting Food not Bombs, a community group that, twice a week for the past 5 years, has been providing meals to homeless people in parks. By June 15th of this year, 15 people had been arrested. The penalty for violating the Orlando ordinance is 60 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both. This kind of ridiculous policy and practice raises a couple of issues for me. 

First, we have to address the criminalization of homelessness as a serious problem. Most people don’t consider law enforcement when thinking about our response to homeless. Shelters and day programs are usually what come to mind. But, criminalization of homelessness isn’t just an American issue; we’re equally good at this in Canada. Ontario, for instance, legislated the Safe Streets Act over ten years ago to address panhandling and squeegeeing (many communities across Canada have followed suit), and in Toronto police continue to issue thousands of Safe Streets act tickets (not to mention tickets for other misdemeanors) to people who are homeless and without means to pay the fines. In response to this, there is a growing body of research on ticketing and the use of law enforcement to address homelessness, and the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison, that attests to the highly problematic (and unethical) nature of this ‘response’ to homelessness. 

The second issue to consider is the nutritional vulnerability of people who are homeless. While many of us may believe that the nutritional needs of homeless people are met through charitable food services, the reality is quite different. In fact, Val Tarasuk’s research on youth homelessness and nutritional vulnerability shows that it doesn’t matter whether young people get all their food in agencies, or from the proceeds of panhandling, they are quite likely to be malnourished, and this at a time when they are growing and really need appropriate and adequate food. 

A new report from Victoria highlights the link between homelessness and nutritional vulnerability. More than this, the report reminds us that a person’s lack of food isn’t solved once they become housed. In fact, when homeless people do become housed, a large number continue to live in extreme poverty, and after the rent, utilities and other necessities are paid, there is often very little left for food. The use of food banks in Victoria and other communities continues to rise. 

If we want to support people who are homeless in an ethical and humane way, we need to begin by treating them as people. Criminalizing homelessness, and failing to address nutritional needs of particularly vulnerable people is no solution, and this is something no one should be proud of.

The headline in the Saturday Globe was disturbing enough: Residents of Toronto public housing four times more likely to be murder victims.

But I found myself equally rattled by the 285 on-line comments that followed. There were vitriolic references to “welfare bums,” the “psychiatrically deranged,” “gang-bangers, drug dealers, crack whores and other miscreants.” But if I looked past the mean-spiritedness, I could see a consensus opinion that even progressives might share: that social housing is simply unworkable, and that low-income neighbourhoods – especially those with black majorities -- will inevitably be breeding grounds for crime.

Lowden Homes Tenant Council
Media Folder: 

Earlier this year, I read a book that challenged this view. It is the tantalizingly-entitled When Public Housing was Paradise, J.S. Fuerst's compilation of 79 first-person accounts from people who lived or worked in Chicago’s public housing in the 1940s to 1970s.

The communities created by the Chicago Housing Authority were all, by current wisdom, destined to fail. The new-built estates were large and isolated – Regent Park-style low-rises punctuated with high-rise towers. They were overwhelmingly black communities, drawn from the tenements on Chicago’s South Side and migrants from the southern US. They were not mixed-income communities either. The CHA selected families – one third of them women-led -- exclusively from the bottom third of the income scale.

An incubator for leadership

Yet Fuerst credits public housing for creating Chicago’s black middle class, providing an “incubator for leadership” for African Americans. Account after account describes the children of stockyard workers and unemployed widows who are now lawyers, teachers, business leaders, police officers and senior public officials.

What made Chicago Housing Authority a launching pad to success?  The tenants’ stories are filled with praise for the clean, well-managed buildings and grounds, where prizes were given for the best gardens. They spoke about housing managers who knew everyone’s name, encouraged local initiatives, and found jobs for teenagers. They spoke about the schools, churches, clubs, sports teams, and womens’ associations that were integral to the community’s strength.  And they talked about the community itself, where everyone would look out for local children, and did not hesitate to pick up the phone if they spotted trouble.

Paradise lost

Today, public housing in Chicago and elsewhere is seen as anything but paradise. What went wrong?

The answers offered by the CHA’s former residents and staff will induce squirms in Toronto’s right- and left-wing readers alike.  Here they are:

Abandoning tenant screening.

In CHA’s early days, preference was given to applicants with the lowest incomes in the worst housing conditions. But only those prepared to pay their rent, keep their homes clean, and supervise their children were accepted.

Once in the housing, the management strictly enforced standards, and so did other tenants. As one tenant recalled, “We kids cleaned those halls. And if somebody messed up our hall, we were quick to tell them, ‘Get that paper off that floor. Don’t you do that on my stairs, cause I got to clean it Saturday.’”

By the 1970s, federal rules forced CHA to give preference to the poorest of the poor, with no other screening. Today, tenants and former tenants quoted in the book say that “destructive and dangerous” tenants – anywhere from 10 - 30 per cent of tenants – need to be evicted to allow a return to healthy community life. Draconian as this move is, they argue it would be less disruptive than Chicago’s current practice of evicting all tenants to demolish entire buildings.

First tenant receives key from property manager
Media Folder: 
The introduction of income limits.

Public housing originally offered affordable rents for working families. But when a rent-geared-to-income system was introduced in the late 1960s, working families received a rent hike with each pay increase, and the most successful families moved out. Public housing was transformed from successful working class communities to the “people left behind.”

The loss of visionary leadership.

The Chicago Housing Authority’s first Executive Director, Elizabeth Wood, gathered around her an energetic team of the “brightest and best.” But in 1954, she was dismissed, ostensibly for “management inefficiency,” but more likely because her anti-segragation convictions put her at odds with her board.

After her departure, the most talented staff became demoralized and drifted away. To return to its former success, says Fuerst, public housing would need a cadre of employees with the same dedication, competence and sense of mission as the early staff.

What about us?

Chicago in 1950 is not Toronto in 2011. Yet we have too have a contingent of striving families, many of them immigrants, who are poorly-housed with very low incomes. We too have seen the decline of stable working class neighbourhoods into “the housing of last resort”  – quite possibly for the same policy reasons that led to decline in Chicago’s public housing.

So what if . . .?

What if we explicitly designed public housing to vault low-income families into middle-class success?

  • What rent polices would we set? How would we create opportunities to build savings?
  • What institutions would provide the “incubators for leadership?”
  • Would we be prepared to favour “strivers” (to use Fuerst’s term)? And if we did, what about those who don’t make the cut? Could we accept that private rental housing, or shelters, or the couches of family and friends, would become the real “housing of last resort?”

Well, what do you think?

Joy Connelly started working in social housing 30 years ago doing street outreach in downtown Toronto. Since then she has managed a housing co-op, developed new co-ops, and acted as the communications manager for the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Over the past ten years, Joy has worked as an independent consultant on over 130 projects for federal, provincial and municipal agencies and many social housing providers. Joy's blog, Opening the Window, provides fresh ideas for social housing in Ontario.

Calgary Homeless Foundation
May 25, 2011

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:

Homelessness in Yellowknife book cover

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

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

York University
April 13, 2011

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.

Family Matters report cover

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.

University of Victoria
February 14, 2011

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. 

Housing and Harm reduction cover

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.



Recent Tweets

Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License

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.