We often think of homelessness as something that transcends certain demographic markers, such as age, gender, and sexual orientation. To a certain degree, this is true. Individuals experiencing homelessness are unified by a singular characteristic: the lack of safe, adequate, and affordable housing.
With this being said, it is also important to recognize that the right to housing should include having choice in the type of housing one life in. Generalized, “one size fits all” solutions will not necessarily work for everyone who experiences homelessness. For example, we know that the response to youth homelessness is different than adult homelessness and that the experience of homelessness is different among Indigenous Peoples compared to non-Indigenous individuals. We also know that LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit) youth have a different experience of homelessness than non-LGBTQ2S youth, particularly as it relates to service use experiences.
Therefore, housing interventions that address the multiple layers of a person’s identity, is one way to recognize the diversity of individuals who experience homelessness.
LGBTQ2S Adult Housing Needs Assessment
With this knowledge in hand, I’d like to share the results of a needs assessment that I conducted with Daybreak Non-Profit Housing, through the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The project, based in Ottawa, Ontario, examined the housing needs of LGBTQ2S adults who have experienced homelessness. There is a paucity of research on LGBTQ2S adults who experience homelessness, so this project filled a much needed gap.
What did we do?
We conducted interviews with 22 LGBTQ2S adults who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness, and focus groups and surveys with local service providers. The participants of the focus groups and surveys were staff members from agencies representing various types of service models (e.g., emergency shelters, drop-in services, congregate supportive housing agencies, scattered-site supported housing agencies, and community health centres).
What did we find?
Key findings from the interviews with LGBTQ2S adults include:
- Half of the participants had an experience of homelessness prior to the age of 21.
- More than half of participants discussed the impact of their LGBTQ2S identity on their entry into homelessness, particularly in regards to landlord discrimination, harassment from other tenants, and struggles with their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
- The participants generally felt supported by staff members of agencies across the homeless serving sector, but some participants did recount interactions with staff that were homophobic, biphobic, and/or transphobic. Further, not all participants felt comfortable disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with staff.
- Many of the participants did not feel safe disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with other clients. This discomfort arose from the potential of verbal and physical harassment from the other clients. Housing experiences followed a similar pattern, as some participants felt safe in their housing and other participants experienced verbal harassment from other tenants.
- The housing needs of clients were diverse. Over half of the participants stated that they would access housing specific to the LGBTQ2S community. There was no consensus on the type of housing that participants wanted, although a majority of the participants stated that they preferred to live independently.
- Some participants expressed that housing options specific to certain identities and orientations within the LGBTQ2S spectrum are warranted, including housing specific to transgender individuals.
- Neighbourhoods were important, as some participants expressed wanting to live in a LGBTQ2S-friendly neighbourhood and others wanting to live outside of the downtown core.
- Regardless of the type of housing that is potentially developed, participants thought it was important to include supports for those who needed it and to staff the housing with individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ2S community.
Where do we go from here?
Based upon the results, we developed a series of recommendations for service providers, service agencies, and municipalities to assist in the creation of an inclusive sector. These recommendations focused on:
1 - the development of housing options specific to the LGBTQ2S community;
2- the inclusion of LGBTQ2S-identified staff members in these housing options;
3 - improving staff training on the LGBTQ2S community across the sector; and
4 - entrenching the rights of transgender, gender non-conforming, and Two-Spirit individuals.
By recognizing the importance of an individual’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation, this study has demonstrated that the response to homelessness should be one that recognizes diversity, inclusivity, and above all, choice in housing.
The report can be found here: https://www.daybreakhousing.org/events-newsletters
The link to the report is here: http://homelesshub.ca/resource/lgbtq2s-adult-housing-needs-assessment
Happy New Year! A Way Home Canada opened 2018 with an even stronger commitment to fighting for the human rights of youth experiencing homelessness. Building on the success of the first International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth held in London in June 2015, the American Bar Association, in late November 2017, convened an even greater number of jurisdictions and advocates for street-connected children and youth from around the world to examine the mandate provided by the United Nations General Comment 21 on Children in Street Situations. Bringing together street youth experts across the globe, this was the second-ever convening focused on the legal rights of street youth as a path to ensuring dignity and human rights for a population often forgotten or ignored. The Summit Agenda reviewed the legal guarantees in the General Comment point-by point through panel and live, interactive discussion by leaders from around the world examining best practices and challenges in the face of the UN's General Comment and its renewed expectations of every signatory nation across the world -- including Canada. Canadian delegates in attendance were Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada; Stephen Gaetz, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; Bruce Rivers, Covenant House Toronto; and Julia Huys, Justice for Children and Youth.
A unique outcome of the summit was a vibrant exchange of information and best ideas across borders about how nations can implement the rights embedded in the UN's new international instrument. Second, and equally unique, the Summit is using the input to produce a first-ever publication of principles from the world’s experts on street-connected children and youth that will foster the implementation of each of the legal issues in the UN's General Comment. This publication will be delivered to world leaders in Spring 2018. As Canadians, we have an opportunity to leverage the results of the Summit in our advocacy work on behalf of youth experiencing homelessness.
Another important development with support from Baker & McKenzie in partnership with the Consortium for Street Children is an online resource called the “Legal Atlas for Street Children.” This website will highlight the areas where governments can do more to ensure street children can not only meet their basic needs to survive, but can develop to their fullest potential. We have an opportunity to support the development of this resource to include Canada. This will be yet another tool in our collective toolbox to not only hold all orders of government to account for our international human rights obligations, but also help government know exactly where improvements can be made and compare those efforts to other countries.
Over the coming months, A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Covenant House Toronto and Justice for Children and Youth will work to educate stakeholders across the country about UN General Comment 21 and Canadian opportunities and implications therein. We’ll host a webinar in collaboration with the American Bar Association to kick-off these efforts and provide opportunities for Canadian stakeholders to “sign on” to the recommendations for country-level implementation. Stay tuned for more updates and announcements in the coming weeks.
I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video above where young people with lived experience share their reflections on the importance of the Summit and all of our collective work on the human rights of children and youth. Let’s make “Youth Rights, Right Now” our rallying cry for 2018!
The Youth Assessment Prioritization Tool – which is usually just called the “YAP Tool” – is one of the new tools that Making the Shift (MTS) is enthusiastic about bringing to the conversation on ending and preventing youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a strength-based assessment of youth who are experiencing, or are at-risk of experiencing, homelessness that strives to be as non-clinical and non-prescriptive as possible – which is part of what makes it so different from other assessment tools. But, first things first:
What exactly is the YAP Tool?
That’s a fair question; to put it simply, the YAP is an assessment that is undertaken when a vulnerable young person comes into contact with the service system. The assessment is designed specifically to determine what the youth’s risk factors and strengths are, through a short “pre-screen” questionnaire followed by a more fulsome interview, if deemed necessary. The pre-screen is primarily focused on identifying the level of risk of long-term homelessness that the youth is facing. The subsequent interview delves deeper into strengths. The information gained through the assessment helps the interviewer (who is generally a caseworker) to make decisions on the best service pathway for the young person. The tool uses the knowledge of both the youth and the worker completing the assessment, as there is ample space for discussions, clarifications, and recommendations.
Unlike many other assessment tools currently in use, the YAP Tool’s design is strength-based – so it captures the youth’s positive attributes, skills, and goals in addition to any vulnerabilities. A strength focus requires developmental supports and opportunities that promote success, rather than those that just get rid of failures. While this can be a daunting concept, the YAP Tool is a clear example of how to implement a strength-based philosophy in a practical manner.
With all that in mind, it is important to remember that no single assessment tool can do everything! The YAP Tool is meant to contribute to the decision-making process – to help workers with the decisions they must make, not to make decisions for them.
The YAP and MTS
The three communities participating in the MTS Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) demonstration projects will be using the YAP Tool to assist in facilitating their intake, assessment, and referral processes. This is a beneficial arrangement for everyone – the community partners gain a new tool to help them connect with and aid vulnerable young people, while the YAP Tool will go through a formal validation process, undertaken by an external team based at the University of Ottawa, to help solidify its legitimacy.
On a more personal note, I was given the chance to participate in a YAP tool training session last week in Ottawa that was led by our colleague (and part-time MTS collaborator) Wally Czech and attended by many of our Ottawa HF4Y community partners. The training outlined the history of the YAP Tool, the theories it builds from (for example, the importance of prevention and of assessing youth differently than adults), and went through both components of the tool in great detail. The best part – and this was surprisingly hard to decide on – was the chance to get practical experience actually using the tool. Second best was getting to ask any and all questions we had about the tool, its application, or its history – which, for an enthusiastic question-asker like myself, was a real draw. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to participate in one of these trainings, I sincerely recommend it!
The Origin of the YAP Tool
While we at MTS are very excited about the YAP Tool, we are by no means its creators. That honour rests with Wally Czech, who noticed some challenges with the existing assessment tool for intaking youth into the service system in his community of Lethbridge, AB. At the time (2013), Mr. Czech was the Housing First Specialist with the City of Lethbridge, meaning that he was in charge of all Housing First projects there. While in this position, Mr. Czech was introduced to the TAY (Transition Age Youth) research from Dr. Eric Rice and his partners who developed a Triage Tool and conducted interviews with over 700 youth experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area. The research discovered 6 “core predictors” for long term (5+ years) homelessness among the youth: running away from home; violence at home between family members; religious differences with parents or caregivers; first using marijuana before age 12; being incarcerated before age 18; and whether they have ever been, or gotten someone else, pregnant. The TAY authors and Mr. Czech agreed that the research and triage tool should be incorporated into a more extensive, youth-specific assessment tool.
Mr. Czech decided that he wanted to create a tool that wouldn’t focus exclusively on numeric scores and rankings, but instead would allow each individual’s unique story to play a role in decision-making. Enter David French (another MTS colleague!) into the story: Mr. French – who was then the Manager of Community Partnership Initiatives with the Alberta Government – was looking to develop a “needs/risk assessment tool” as a deliverable (Strategy 1.2) within Alberta’s Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness. The two brought their expertise together to develop the early editions of the YAP Tool, along with feedback and contributions from other pan-Canadian partners and would-be users. The Alberta Government has been and will continue to be a strong partner in moving forward with broad dissemination of the tool.
In the beginning, the YAP Tool was used in conjunction with the community’s existing tool, so the results could be easily compared and workers would feel comfortable using it. After an initial testing phase, the next version of the YAP Tool was adapted to be a separate assessment, formatted as a conversational interview with a short questionnaire (known as the “pre-screen”) preceding it. In its current form, the pre-screen step is mandatory for all young people who come into contact with the service system but the longer interview afterwards is largely optional, depending on what’s revealed during the first step. For example, if the pre-screen shows that a young person is stably housed but needs help elsewhere, the full interview isn’t necessary to be able to direct the youth to proper supports.
Now that the MTS demonstration projects are fully launching, it’s time for us to turn our attention to the practical questions of why and how this project is going to be different from the usual responses to youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a significant part of what makes (and will continue to make) MTS unique, with its strength-based nature, its youth orientation, and its focus on adaptability setting it apart from other assessment tools currently in use.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the fourth installment of the series; click to read the first, second, and third installments.
This blog is the first of a series in which Jonathan Robart and Kaitlin Schwan explore the relationships between housing law and homelessness in Canada.
Research has consistently demonstrated linkages between intimate partner violence (IPV) and homelessness. A 2008 study in Edmonton found that “[h]aving abusive relationships and housing problems (62.3%) were the main reasons why women had come to the shelter” (p. 13). IPV is disproportionately experienced by women and trans-identified people, and the Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that on any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters due to safety issues in their home.
How do experiences of IPV affect a person’s ability to access affordable, safe, and adequate housing? What legislative tools in Canada protect the rights and housing of survivors of IPV?
In this blog, we tackle the connections between IPV and tenancy rights and law in Canada, specifically exploring recent changes to the Residential Tenancies Acts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. These changes have the potential to positively influence a survivor’s ability to escape violence and obtain alternative housing, in combination with targeted supports and services. It is essential that knowledge of these changes reach survivors and those working to support them - please share widely!
What is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)?
Intimate partner violence (IPV), often used synonymously with the term “domestic violence,” refers to some form of violence or abusive behaviour by one person upon another individual in a past or current relationship. The term “intimate partner violence” acknowledges that abusive dynamics occur across the gender spectrum and regardless of marital status. This violence or abuse can manifest in many forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. IPV does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or level of educational attainment. Research also demonstrates the intersectional nature of this issue, revealing that people who face multiple forms of marginalization are at increased risk for experiencing IPV and face additional barriers to obtaining help. For example, research shows that Indigenous women in Canada are at increased risk of experiencing IPV, as well as violence more generally. The cycle of abuse is extremely challenging to break without external support systems and interventions, as well as legislation which supports the rights of survivors.
Intimate Partner Violence and Tenancy Issues in Canada – Barriers to Fleeing Violence and Abuse
Tenants experiencing IPV face a range of barriers to fleeing unsafe living environments and obtaining safe, affordable, and adequate housing. Research has shown that financial barriers are particularly powerful. A 2014 report by the University of Alberta and the Centre for Legal Education Alberta concludes: “The biggest legal problem that victims of domestic violence appear to face in obtaining and maintaining rental accommodation is dealing with the financial obligations that have arisen with respect to the accommodation.” Key financial challenges include:
- Financial penalties or threats of legal action due to breaking a lease early
- Lack of access to funds, bank accounts, or credit cards in the survivor’s name or under their control
- Securing the funds for first and last month’s rent, as well as security deposits, for new rental housing
- Costs associated with moving (e.g., storage, moving of belongings)
- Costs associated with setting up a new home (e.g., purchasing new furniture)
Importantly, it is often the survivor that the landlord pursues for overdue rent and damages, rather than the abuser. This means that the survivor may be left with such poor tenancy records and poor credit ratings that obtaining new rental accommodation is extremely difficult. Given that multiply marginalized peoples are also more likely to experience IPV, some survivors are likely to face additional challenges when fleeing violence, including discrimination when trying to obtain new rental accommodations or employment.
How do changes to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia’s Respective Residential Tenancies Acts impact IPV survivors fleeing violence?
There are some important recent changes to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia’s and respective Residential Tenancies Act that address some of the barriers to leaving abusive and violent homes. Here are the top three legislative changes you need to know about:
1. Providing Notice to Landlords
Tenants fleeing IPV need to do so quickly, flexibly, and with minimal cost. Unfortunately, the Notice requirements for legally terminating a tenancy agreement in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are lengthy, rigid, and not suited to the financial realities faced by tenants fleeing IPV. Until 2016, legislation specified that:
- Tenants in Ontario and Alberta fleeing IPV would have to provide their landlord at least sixty (60) days Notice to terminate a yearly or fixed-term tenancy agreement. This meant that tenants fleeing IPV were legally liable for all outstanding rent up to and including the date the tenancy agreement is terminated.
- Tenancy agreements in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia could not be legally terminated prior to the last day of a tenancies term (i.e., the end of a yearly tenancy or the end of a monthly rental period). This means that tenants fleeing IPV were not legally allowed to terminate a tenancy on the date of their choosing.
- A tenant fleeing an abuser one month into a year-long tenancy agreement could potentially be legally liable for a monetary amount equal to 11 months of rent. Given that the average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in both provinces’ largest cities exceeds $1100.00, the financial consequences for terminating a tenancy agreement early could be ruinous.
Under the new legislation in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia changes to Notice requirements allow tenants fleeing domestic violence to avoid many of these barriers. The new legislative changes allow for the following:
- Tenants in on Ontario and Alberta fleeing IPV can now terminate tenancy agreements, whether month-to-month or yearly/fixed-term, by providing twenty-eight days written notice to their landlord
- In Ontario and Alberta, the termination date does not have to be the last day of a tenancy agreement. This means that tenants do not have to wait until the end of the lease and/or the end of a monthly rental period
- In Ontario and Alberta, tenants fleeing IPV are able to terminate a tenancy on any date of their choosing, so long as the tenant fleeing IPV provides at least 28 days written notice
- Tenants in British Columbia who are fleeing IPV can now terminate a fixed term tenancy by providing their landlord with one-month’s Notice. It should be noted, though, that the termination date must be the day before monthly rent is due. This means that, unlike in Ontario and Alberta, tenants in British Columbia who are fleeing IPV cannot terminate a tenancy on a date of their choosing.
- Tenants in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia who are fleeing IPV face no financial penalty or the threat of legal liability for early termination of their lease.
2. Supporting Documents Required
Under the new legislation, tenants in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia fleeing IPV must, in addition to giving proper Notice to their landlord, provide supporting documents that confirm the tenant is experiencing intimate partner violence.
In Ontario, tenants are able to use the following documents to satisfy the requirements of the new legislation:
- A peace bond issued under subsection 810 (3) of the Criminal Code (Canada);
- An order issued under section 46 of the Family Law Act;
- An order issued under section 35 of the Children’s Law Reform Act; or
- An N15 - “Tenant Statement About Sexual or Domestic Violence and Abuse” form issued by the Landlord and Tenant Board
Tenants attempting to obtain the above noted Court orders may face lengthy delays and the additional trauma and confusion associated with navigating a complex web of courtrooms and legal paperwork. These barriers impede a tenant’s ability to flee violence quickly and without additional trauma.
To assist tenants in avoiding these barriers, Ontario also gives tenants the option to complete a form (“Form N15”) to satisfy the requirements of the new legislation. Relative to most court forms and procedures, completing the N15 form is quite easy:
- The N15 form is easily accessible online and can be completed by tenants themselves, with or without assistance from a third party
- The form does not require tenants to identify the abuser by name or specify the type of abuse they are experiencing
- Tenants who use this form (or one of the other allowable documents) will benefit from the presumption that the contents are true and will not be subject to cross examination about the details/content in the form at a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board
Those who work with and assist survivors and or vulnerable people should know about and familiarize themselves with the above N15 form. It’s an accessible, easy to complete and, most importantly, is grounded in the presumption of survivors telling the truth. This presumption will encourage survivors to come forward and seek assistance.
In contrast, the procedures for obtaining the required documentation in Alberta and British Columbia are far more onerous and places an unfair burden on tenants by requiring corroboration that the tenant is experiencing IPV from a designated third-party professional. These procedures require that:
- In Alberta, tenants fleeing IPV must obtain a “Certificate Confirming Grounds to Terminate Tenancy” (“Certificate”)
- To get a Certificate, tenants in Alberta must first either obtain a “protection order” (which includes an Emergency Protection Order; a Queen’s Bench Order; a Restraining Order; or a Peace Bond) or a statement from a third-party professional (such as a doctor, nurse, or social worker) that confirms the tenant is experiencing IPV
- Once the tenant obtains either the protection order or the statement, they must then apply to a Safer Spaces Processing Centre ( a department of Alberta Human Services) for a “Certificate”
- Tenants must then either wait to receive their Certificate from a Safer Spaces Advisor by either mail, fax or in person at an Alberta Supports Centre or Alberta Works or request that the certificate be sent to a support worker or the police.
- In British Columbia, tenants must obtain a “Ending Fixed-Term Tenancy Confirmation Statement” (“Statement”)
- The “Statement” must be completed by an approved “third party verifier”.
3. Privacy and Confidentiality
Both Alberta and Ontario have adopted similar legislative changes that help protect the privacy and confidentiality of tenants fleeing IPV. Importantly, these provisions apply whether or not tenants live with their abuser. These privacy and confidentiality protections include, but are not limited to:
- In Ontario and Alberta, landlords are forbidden (with very limited exceptions) from disclosing that a tenant is terminating a tenancy if tenants give notice pursuant to the new rules
- In Ontario and Alberta, landlords are forbidden (again with limited exceptions) from disclosing copies of the Notice of Termination/supporting documents, or any of their contents
- In Ontario, if tenants fleeing IPV share a lease with other joint-tenants, landlords are not allowed to tell (a) joint-tenant(s) (including the abuser) that a notice of termination has been given until after the termination date in the Notice and after the tenant experiencing IPV has moved out
- In Alberta, tenants that are fleeing IPV and share a joint-tenancy with other tenants may be required to advise a “Safer Spaces Advisor” that they have given their landlord Notice pursuant to the new rules. The Safer Spaces Advisor may then contact the landlord and coordinate an effort to advise the other tenants in the joint-tenancy that a Notice has been given and the termination date.
British Columbia’s Residential Tenancy Regulation and Personal Information Protection Act forbid landlords and third-party verifiers from disclosing the tenant’s “Statement” and/or its contents to anyone, including other tenants, without consent of the tenant. This means that landlords and third-party verifiers must keep the existence of the “Statement” and its contents strictly confidential.
These protections are crucial given that the ability for tenants to protect their privacy and confidentiality when fleeing IPV is directly related to the ability to flee safely and quickly. Without the above protections, many survivors may be dissuaded from fleeing their abuser and this may extend their abuse and threaten their life / lives of children. In addition, the above protections help ensure that the abuser does not become aware of the survivor’s intent to flee, which may lead to retaliation.
A Step in the Right Direction
Survivors of IPV face long-term financial, social, economic, and health consequences, including a high risk of experiencing homelessness. The recent changes to Ontario and Alberta’s Residential Tenancies Acts are an important step towards supporting survivors’ right to live free of violence in housing that is safe. Given that these changes are recent and survivors may not be aware of them, it is essential that knowledge about this new legislation is distributed widely. Please share!
We also know that greater action is needed to ensure survivor’s access to affordable and safe housing. Survivors’ ability to escape violence is severely limited by the lack of affordable housing stock across Canada, as well as the low wages and social assistance rates that make obtaining housing so difficult. With nowhere to go, or no funds to get there, survivors may be forced to stay in abusive dynamics in order to maintain a roof over their head. We know that these challenges are even more pronounced for women experiencing multiple exclusions. For example, research has shown that women escaping IPV who have a lower socio-economic status, are racialized, and/or face mental health challenges are at greater risk of becoming homeless. This means that in addition to significant investments in housing and social assistance, we also need to address broader structures of classism and racism in all systems and sectors of society.
Need help? Here are some key resources:
Assaulted Women’s Hotline (available 24 hours):
Toll Free 1.866.863.0511
Toll Free TTY: 1.866.863.7868
Mobile: #SAFE (#7233)
Multilingual hotline for male survivors of domestic abuse (available 24 hours):
Toll free 1.866.887.0015
Do You Know A Woman Who Is Being Abused: A Legal Rights Handbook
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic: offers legal representation & professional counsel
Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC): Legal information and education for vulnerable women and community service providers. Multilingual interpretation to women who have experienced abuse.
Emergency shelter intake: for information on numerous shelters in Toronto with direct admission. For 24 hour intake hotline, call: 311 or 416-338-4766 or toll-free 1-877-338-3398.
Shelter Safe (Ontario): An online resource for women and their children seeking safety and shelter from violence and abuse.
Nellie’s Women’s Shelter: Nellie’s runs a shelter, housing, outreach and other programs for women and children experiencing homelessness.
Care & Treatment
Ontario Network of Sexual Assault / Domestic Violence Care and Treatment Centres: A network of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centres providing access to medical and legal services for all survivors, men and women, of domestic violence and sexual assault.
From my point of view, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness is one of the most important research-to-action initiatives that the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) has undertaken.
In 2012, I undertook a study of the COH’s networking and knowledge mobilization processes. One of the things I sought to talk to people about was the creation of the definition because people at the COH saw it as an important outcome of their work. I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about, but I was curious to understand. When I started to speak to people across Canada about their involvement with the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (which later became the COH), I was surprised by how many people spoke about the Definition. Defining Homelessness enabled people on the ground to get on the same page about what they understood homelessness to mean or look like in their communities. It was a pivotal first step in enabling communities to enumerate the problem and understand its scale from coast to coast.
Without a common definition, it is impossible to say with certainty whether our efforts are contributing to reductions in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness or not. In research terms, it’s called operationalizing your variables, and it isn’t just about numbers. It is about understanding the nature and scope of the problem. To create the Canadian Definition, a cross-sectoral team of people from across the country drew on all kinds of knowledge (e.g., lived experience knowledge, research knowledge, policy knowledge, and service provider knowledge) to come up with an accessible, inclusive and unambiguous definition of homelessness that would be useful to policy-makers, government, homelessness sector professionals, funders, and academics. For people experiencing homelessness, the definition needed to reflect their experiences and serve as an effective tool to prevent and end homelessness on a pan-Canadian scale. For others, the definition had to be useful in their work and promote better – more just – outcomes for the people they work with and for.
One of the homelessness sector professionals I interviewed back in 2012 said the following, which speaks to the reasons why people seeking to address homelessness saw (and continue to see) the definition as valuable:
“…by having everybody at least on the same page, there’s opportunity for a broader influence on a policy level so whether its federal governments or provincial governments … if we have an accepted definition, then policies will be drafted in a particular way, funding will flow in a different way to address homelessness from that perspective. (With a Canadian definition) when talk about homelessness, you know we don’t have to identify whether we are talking about those who are at risk of homelessness, are couch surfing, those who are one paycheck away, those absolute homeless, everyone’s got those little qualifiers on it which either include or exclude particular groups of people based upon what that definition is. By having an accepted definition where everyone’s of the same page, when we talk about homelessness, we can be more inclusive … it’s a challenge that we have from an organizational standpoint because depending upon the definition of homelessness, it could be inclusive of everybody that we work with or right down to the people who are using our food banks in various communities or it could be very exclusive and just talk about the people who are in our shelters. But when you look at the people who are coming and going from our treatment programs, that are coming and going from our halfway houses, from the family violence programs, … if there is a broader based definition that is more inclusive and you know all of a sudden has people who are provisionally housed or people who are even in a transitional or supportive housing relationship … suddenly there’s opportunity to do more with people and work with them further down the road so that it’s not a matter of discharging them and seeing them in another month when things didn’t work out.”
This also speaks to the importance of an inclusive and precise understanding of homelessness that captures those who are provisionally sheltered or at risk of homelessness and those who are experiencing absolute homelessness.
Five years later, we continue to track the ways the COH and others are moving research into equitable and just changes across this country, and people still mention the role that shared language and concepts play in coordinating effective responses to this complex problem. Pragmatically and conceptually a Canadian Definition of Homelessness was the first step in a series of important changes that shifted the conversation about homelessness and housing in this country as well as the ways that we seek to address homelessness through policy, funding, programs and supports.
But definitions of complex social problems like homelessness can’t be treated like immutable laws. They need to change, as our understanding of the problem of homelessness changes and as people’s experiences of homelessness continue to change. I realized this when I was asked to join an emerging team of researchers in the area of homelessness prevention for youth in 2017. The meetings happen in French and my capacity for French is still weak. But I use meetings with Francophone colleagues as an immersion experience, and my understanding is improving. During an early meeting, when we were defining terms for a research proposal, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness came up. It was squarely rejected by everyone on the team. I asked why, explaining that I didn’t see the difference – in spirit – between the Quebec definition and the Canadian one. I was advised that the centrepiece of the Quebec definition was missing from Canada’s. In the Canadian Definition, homelessness has not historically been presented as a rupture in the social contract – a key political and ethical distinction made by the province of Quebec: “l’itinérance se définit comme étant la combinaison de facteurs structurels, institutionnels et individuels inscrits dans le parcours de vie des personnes menant à un processus de rupture sociale qui se manifeste entre autres par la difficulté d’obtenir ou de maintenir un domicile stable, sécuritaire, adéquat et salubre” According to the National Policy to Combat Homelessness (Gouvernement du Québec, 2014, p.30).
This distinction – that homelessness is a breach or rupture of the social contract – struck me as politically and ethically important. And so this past fall, I brought the idea forward during the annual executive meeting of the COH, when the conversation turned to the subject of a revised definition. When the new definition was released later in the fall, this change was incorporated: “The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion is the outcome of our broken social contract; the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and supports are in place so that all people, even in crisis situations, have access to housing and the supports they need.”
The range of physical living situations – what the definition describes as Typology of Homelessness – has not changed; but this important ethical and political dimension has been added. For this, I thank my new Francophone colleagues who generously invited me to sit at the table with them, listen in French and speak in English, in an effort to work together for outcomes that demand humble collaboration from all of us.
Summary of Updates to the Definition
Based on national consultation, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness was updated in 2017. Notable updates include:
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.