For many years, I’ve been powerfully committed to the idea that the arts have the transformative and energetic power to create social change. Even a cursory knowledge of the history of social movements shows us that art is a powerful tool for challenging power structures, mobilizing communities, and re-imagining more just and equitable futures. I first got a sense of this power as a teenager in Guelph, Ontario, when I was given a small grant to run an arts program at a youth shelter. When the shelter closed overnight, pushing youth onto the street with no transition plan, I began running the program on street corners, in parks, and in the basements of community organizations. I would wheel my arts supplies around in a little white cart, and remarkably attendance seemed to increase! Traveling from across the city and neighbouring communities, more and more youth came to create collages, stained glass, documentaries, paintings, and jewelry. I had the great pleasure of creating artwork side by side with marginalized youth who described themselves as “coming alive” when they were painting, sketching, or making music. These wonderful experiences caused me to ask: What was it about art that was so engaging for these youth? Why did art-making matter so much?
While arts programming and art therapy is often offered in community agencies and organizations serving youth who are homeless, research on this type of programming has been fairly limited. Available research, however, consistently emphasizes that art-making is particularly important for these young people. Sean Kidd’s study, for example, found that for street-involved youth, creating art “was not, as it might be described by many people without adversity in their lives, something merely positive. It was described as something vital to survival”. Other research has shown that the arts can provide a safe environment for self-expression for youth who face a range of traumatic experiences and social exclusions, and that youth are able to experience a sense of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and individuality by bringing new artistic works into existence.
Building on some of this important research, I recently conducted a study with Dr. Barbara Fallon on the value of art-making for youth experiencing homelessness. Conducted at a large youth-serving shelter, the study sought to explore (1) youth’s understandings of the value and importance of art-making in their lives, (2) the benefits youth attributed to art-making in their lives, and (3) program characteristics that youth viewed as important to successful arts-based programming. Through this study I was able to interview 20 youth experiencing homelessness about the value of arts in their lives. Here are some of the things they had to say:
“Arts are what keep me going . . . it’s everything.”
“I’d be lost if this wasn’t here [at the arts program] . . . I would honestly, like, lose my mind. Honestly. Like this is – I really need this. I feel like a lot of people need this space. It’s important for all of us. It’s like – we really need this. Just to express ourselves, to be us.”
“It’s very therapeutic. I think whether it be writing words on a page, like a journal, or whether it be drawing a picture. Your emotions go into that stroke of the pencil.”
“ [Art] is the one thing that actually helps out a lot . . . I kind of break down on the weekends because I don’t have that.
“And once the finished product is done, then I feel amazing. [I think] ‘Yes! I did this! It’s sick!’ . . . It makes me happy. [I think] ‘Oh, I can actually still do this, even though I went through this or went through that.’”
Benefits of Art-Making for Youth Experiencing Homelessness
Our study identified some of the key benefits that youth attributed to art-making in their lives:
- Stress Reduction & Relaxation: Many youth identified that creating art helped them feel “relaxed,” “calm,” and/or helped them deal with stress.
- Mental Health Recovery: Many youth felt that art making assisted in their mental health recovery and promoted mental wellness. Several youth felt that art-making was not just important but absolutely necessary for their recovery from mental health issues.
- Healing Trauma: Many youth expressed that being in a non-judgmental, safe space in which they were able to create and express who they are assisted with healing past traumas, including experiences during which they had been rejected, abused, or neglected.
- Self-Expression & Self-Discovery: Youth commonly explained that art-making provides an important therapeutic form of self-expression, while also providing a space in which to learn about their thoughts and feelings. For some youth, art-making allowed them to express and release difficult emotions, while others felt art-making enabled them to access a more authentic sense of themselves.
- Self-Confidence: Many youth attributed art-making and the arts program to an increase in self-confidence, which they often linked to self-discovery and mental health recovery.
Importantly, youth also identified program qualities that amplified these benefits, including:
- The creation of a non-judgmental, safe space;
- Flexible programming so youth engage at their own pace; and
- Opportunities for staff and other youth to appreciate youth’s talents, dreams, and needs through their artwork.
Some youth felt that these characteristics created a social environment in which they were more likely to help each other, seek help from others, think about the needs of others, and listen to one another.
10 ways the arts can be used to address the individual, systemic, and structural causes of youth homelessness
Given the value that many youth experiencing homelessness attribute to art-making, how can we use the arts in our efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness? Here are 10 possibilities:
Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, which uses the arts to transform the juvenile justice system.
2. Healing & Recovery from Trauma: Given that many youth experiencing homelessness have histories of trauma, and that homelessness itself is traumatizing, there is a need for services to employ a trauma-informed approach. Various studies have shown that arts-based programming can foster healing and recovery for youth who have experienced trauma. In my study, for example, many youth felt that art-making was crucial to their recovery from traumatic life experiences. Importantly, some youth identified art-making as absolutely necessary for their recovery, as well as the foundation upon which they were able to re-engage in employment, education, and/or training. Such research suggests that arts programs may function as an important pathway to education, employment, or training for some youth who are homeless. A great example of a program that does this work is the Arts & Minds program at Covenant House Toronto.
3. Public Education: Shifting public discourse and understandings about youth homelessness is crucial in order to promote public and governmental investments in solutions. The arts is one of the many tools we can use to foster improved public understanding of the issue, which in turn can encourage government action. Us and Them, produced by Krista Loughton and Jennifer Abbott, is a great example of using filmmaking to transform public perceptions of homelessness.
4. Building Social Supports and Connections: Given the social isolation many youth experience while homeless, arts programs can provide an important opportunity to connect with others, build friendships, and establish support systems. An excellent example of this in Toronto is Sketch, whose theory of change is based on the belief that “if young people living on the margins or homeless engage and develop in the arts, they will increase their resilience and capacity to live well and lead in building inclusive and creative communities.”
5. Skill-Building for the New Economy: Young Canadians are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment that enables them to live independently and support themselves. In fact, 42.3% of all young Canadians between the ages of 20 and 29 continue to live with their parents, almost double the figure from the 1980s. In this context, youth are increasingly employing entrepreneurial means in order to generate income, including through creative enterprises. The rise of online platforms like Etsy and Shopify have provided young artists new opportunities to support themselves, while also developing their artistic and business skills. Given this changing economy, educational and employment programs for youth experiencing homelessness should integrate arts-based programming that fosters both artistic and entrepreneurial skills in order to prepare these young people for the new economy.
6. Community Integration: Not only are youth experiencing homelessness isolated from critical supports and relationships in their lives, but as a group, these youth often face systemic discrimination and marginalization because of their housing status (among other factors). Not only does this significantly worsen outcomes for youth who are homeless, but their communities also miss out on the ideas, skills, talents, and ingenuity of these young people. Art-making and arts programs which foster community integration and community building can provide important avenues for youth to see themselves as important members of their society, and for society to benefit from their skills and talents. A great example of this kind of work is Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming Inc., which aims to “foster acceptance, integration and equality within the Saskatoon community by carrying out collaborative projects with different sectors, such as business, government, social and health services, and promoting inclusiveness and diverse cultural expression in classes, workshops and presentations.”
7. Cultural Connection for Indigenous Youth: Indigenous youth are disproportionately represented among the homeless youth population in Canada. As has been documented by many contemporary reports and studies, including the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the disproportionate poverty, violence, and marginalization experienced by Indigenous peoples is directly related to the historical impacts of colonization and ongoing racism. In this context, arts-based programs for Indigenous youth experiencing homelessness, focused on Indigenous art forms and cultural practices, may foster community connections and healing that can support youth to transition out of homelessness. An excellent example of this in Vancouver is the Overly Creative Minds program in the Urban Native Youth Association, which aims to “encourage skills-building, leadership and community engagement amongst Indigenous youth, while celebrating, developing, and sharing their voices and perspectives through dynamic arts and culture programming.”
8. Supports for Youth Transitioning from Homelessness: Research has shown that transitions from homelessness can be difficult for youth, and that without the proper supports youth may experience poor outcomes in health, housing, and wellbeing. The Halifax-Toronto Exiting Street Life study, for example, found that transitions out of homelessness can be improved through “access to programs that foster valued identities, skill building, social interaction, and healthy entertainment and stress relief (sports, art, bike repair, etc.). As one of the lead investigators, Sean Kidd, explains, “Engaging the creative process through the arts is a critical tool in this area . . . At a time when many people are feeling alone and uncertain about their place in the world, engaging in the arts builds community and meaning.”
9. Research Mobilization: While we have decades of powerful research on youth homelessness in Canada, we have not yet been able to meaningfully reduce the number of young people without housing. As part of our efforts to make research matter, we can utilize the arts to more broadly and effectively communicate research findings to decision makers, who in turn can develop policies that can reduce and end youth homelessness. A great example of arts-based knowledge mobilization is the Halifax-Toronto Exiting Street Life study comic book.
10. Career Development: Providing youth experiencing homelessness with training in artistic skills can also help prepare them for future careers in the arts. There are some great programs across Canada that connect artistic youth who are homeless with career opportunities in creative industries. For example, The Remix Project in Toronto and Chicago is a creative marketing agency providing career training and experience to marginalized youth who wish to enter into the creative industry or further their education.
On January 24, I gave a presentation to students at the University of Calgary as part of the Certificate in Working with Homeless Populations program. The goal of this presentation was to discuss emerging trends in Canada’s affordable housing and homelessness sectors.
A version of my PowerPoint slides, which are chock-full of visuals and references, can be downloaded here: Falvo Recent Emerging Trends in Homelessness WHP 2 of 3
This is Part 2 of a 3-part presentation I gave that day. I’ve blogged about Part 1 here and will blog about Part 3 in the coming weeks.
- When it comes to affordable housing and homelessness, the Trudeau government has put its money where its mouth is…so far. In its first budget, substantial new investments were announced for housing for First Nations, Inuit, and Northern communities (approximately $370 million annually for two years). New funding for renovations of existing social housing was also announced. Approximately $55 million in new annual funding was announced for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (also for two years). Annual funding for the Investment in Affordable Housing Initiative was doubled (for 2016/17 and 2016/18). What’s more, $100 million in new annual funding for seniors housing was announced, also for two years. (A succinct list of housing-related initiatives from the 2016/17 federal budget can be found here, while a more thorough analysis can be found here.)
- However, the Trudeau government has yet to put in place a long-term plan to deal with operating agreements that are expiring on existing units of non-profit housing. Canada’s provinces and territories receive funding on an annual basis from the federal government to operate existing housing units (mostly for low-income tenants). This funding is not just used to cover the mortgages; it also helps with the ongoing operating costs—that is, the difference between the rent received from tenants and what it actually costs the housing provider to keep the units in a good state of repair. These funding agreements usually last 35-50 years. Some of these funding agreements have already started to sunset; they’re scheduled to end altogether in 2039.
- Canada’s aging population will pose challenges for non-profit housing providers across Canada. It’s well-known that Canada’s population is aging, and this is starting to impact homeless demographics. Among other things, this means that demand for seniors supportive housing (i.e. subsidized housing with professional social staff support for low-income seniors) will grow a July 2010 advocacy paper on this topic (with a Calgary focus) can be found here.
- Many plans to “end homelessness” are starting to sunset. Beginning in the late-2000s, several Canadian jurisdictions made plans to “end homelessness.” Most were 10-year plans; and those 10-year ‘deadlines’ are nearing, which means the proverbial chickens are now coming home to roost. Very recently, the City of Victoria announced it was pushing its ‘deadline’ back by three years. An October 2016 report argues that such plans are overly ambitious and ill-advised without substantial new funding from senior orders of government. I think the belief that communities can “end homelessness” with a ‘can do’ attitude is starting to wear thin. Indeed, for some observers, 10-year plans, while well-intentioned, lacked the necessary support from senior orders of government to be successful. I therefore predict we’ll start to see advocates place increased emphasis on the need for deep-seated changes to public policy, and less emphasis on what local communities can do differently.
- The final report of the National Housing Strategy will soon be released. Canada’s federal government has undertaken national consultations on the development of a “national housing strategy.” The consultation web site is called “Let’s Talk Housing.” It includes the consultation’s stated vision, principles, themes, intended outcomes, a ‘what we heard’ document and key dates.
The author wishes to thank the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, Louise Gallagher, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Steve Pomeroy and one anonymous source for assistance in writing this. Any errors are his.
This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.
I’m heading to Helsinki Monday night. Why Helsinki? Though I do enjoy the commitment to all things death metal, uncomfortable group spa trips with colleagues and the extreme cold, I’m actually heading there with Dr. Gaetz to learn from European colleagues and to contribute to a growing body of work concerning the Canadian-made Housing First for Youth model. (All kidding aside, Finland is a pretty fantastic place.)
As an American in Canada, I’ve had years of practice in breaking open my thinking beyond national borders. Concerning my work in youth homelessness, I find it not only important but essential to look beyond Canada to innovative solutions in policy and practice globally for preventing and ending youth homelessness. Canadians also make important contributions to this body of work. The Housing First for Youth model is adapted from the adult Housing First model to meet the needs of developing adolescents. It was developed by our very own Dr. Stephen Gaetz in collaboration with youth with lived experience, the Hamilton Street Youth Planning Collaborative, and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. The model has taken root in countries around the world and the learnings from those implementing the model in various contexts are proving invaluable in evolving the model, and therefore enhancing the supports young people experience on the ground.
Another great example of making international engagement work for Canadian youth is The Upstream Project. Though I’ve written about it before, it’s one of the things I’m most proud to be a part of. Led by our friends at Raising the Roof in partnership with Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home, the Push for Change and community partners The Raft and 360°kids, this model of school-based early identification and intervention could help to transform our response to youth homelessness in Canada. The Upstream Project is an adaptation of The Geelong Project in Australia. Our on-going collaboration with “the Australians” as we lovingly refer to the visionaries behind this project, has proven key to implementing the model in the Canadian context.
Recently, we were proud to host a delegation from Denmark that came to learn from our efforts to prevent and youth homelessness using the Collective Impact approach. They visited Calgary and Toronto to learn about innovative solutions at the policy and program levels that they can adapt in Denmark. As is the way with these types of exchanges, I think we learned more from them than they could possibly know. The great news is now we have established relationships with the Home for All Alliance and the Bikuben Foundation that will allow us to continue the shared learning. Catherine Donnelly Foundation also hosted a funder-to-funder event and dialogue concerning the role of philanthropy in this global movement.
I would also like to give a shout out to Canadian service providers, many of whom have program models that have been showcased and adapted internationally. Just the other day, Eva’s released an updated version of the Family Reconnect Toolkit that has supported communities internationally to do this important work. Our friends at Covenant House Toronto have shared their model for supporting young women who have experienced human trafficking. I met someone in the U.S. just last week, who said that their community was basing a lot of their work in this area on Covenant House’s toolkit. In a meeting with the E.U. Commission last year, Dr. Gaetz and I were asked to represent and discuss HireUp’s innovative work on youth homelessness and employment. One more example that is at the top of my mind lately is the approach that Winnipeg took concerning Indigenous leadership on developing a youth homelessness community plan. This is just a tiny sampling of the kinds of innovations that can, and in my experience will translate to many countries around the world.
I’ll close by saying that I feel completely honoured to engage internationally on behalf of A Way Home Canada in service of youth experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Next up? I’m off to pack my Black Sabbath t-shirt and bathing costume for Finland.
This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman.
In 2014, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness released Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada: A Literature Review. One of the recommendations coming out of the literature review was a call for future studies not to homogenize the Indigenous population of Canada, and pointed out to the dearth of research focusing on colonial relations between Indigenous Peoples and governments. Considering these critiques of the existing literature on Indigenous Peoples’ homelessness, I will try to touch on some of these aspects within the constraints of a blog entry.
Nunavut’s population reached 37,146 residents in 2016; Iqaluit is the largest community with more than 6,669 people as of 2011. Nunavut has the highest population growth than any other province or territory in Canada mostly due to high birth rates rather than immigration and/or inter-provincial/territorial migration. A third of its population is under the age of 15, and 64% is between the ages of 15 to 64. Inuit represent 85.4% of the total population of the territory and 45.5% of the total Inuit population in Canada. With a median age of 24 years, Canada’s newest territory has a young and rapidly growing Inuit population. Yet, the needs are great. Nunavut has the lowest socio-economic outcomes than any other province or territory. In 2011, high school graduation rates stood at 35% - shockingly low considering the 85% Canadian average for that same year. The unemployment rate as of January 2017 was 12.5%, almost twice as high as the 6.8% national average. The median income ($24,868) is lower than the national average ($29,878) and because of the high cost of living, the average Nunavummiut is considered poorer than most other Canadians. In 2013, 41.1% of Nunavut residents relied on social assistance. These combined factors make Nunavummiut at higher risk of becoming homeless, living in overcrowded conditions or staying in dangerous housing situations.
Within the homeless and precariously housed population, the 2010 Nunavut Housing Survey found that 1,220 Nunavummiut were experiencing homelessness and revealed that 4,230 dwellings out of a total of 9,400 did not meet minimum housing standards. Half of Inuit homes are overcrowded and/or in need of major repairs. Nunavut’s 2014 point-in-time count found 98 people living in shelters or in places not meant to be housing. Some other findings include:
- 57% of survey respondents identified as male and 43% as women.
- 30% of shelter respondents reported staying at the shelter with their children.
- The average age of respondents was 38 but about 1/3 were youth between the ages of 18 and 29.
- 69% of respondents grew up in the community that they were currently living in.
History of Housing Provision
In order to understand the high rates of homelessness and overcrowding in Nunavut, we must trace back the Government of Canada’s colonial relationship with Inuit People. Inuit People had contact with European settlers since the 15th century mostly through their central role in the fur trade industry. However, most Inuit continued living a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle until the 1960s when the Canadian government started establishing permanent settlements across Canada’s North. With the increasing number of federally administered permanent settlements, Inuit experienced added pressures and were forced to assimilate into Western culture by taking up wage employment for sustenance, moving into state-sponsored housing and sending their Inuit children to residential schools or federal hostels. As a response to the colonial attacks against their traditional livelihoods and self-determination, Inuit leaders formed a number of associations in order to negotiate land claim agreements that called for their self-determination, governance over Inuit land and social provisioning. In 1982, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Keewatin Inuit Association, and the Baffin Regional Inuit Association formed the umbrella organization Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut and collectively negotiated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement signed in 1993. With this, Inuit achieved greater self-governance, stewardship of their lands and resources while splitting with the Canadian government the responsibilities over health care, education, economic development and housing.
Traditional Inuit homes were portable to fit their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Yet, the first houses that the federal government built in the 1960s were plagued with problems from extremely high cost of construction and maintenance issues due to their sizes, poor quality materials, inadequate designs, and overall a low supply. As Inuit families were forced into permanent settlements, overcrowding became a serious concern by the mid-70s. And while a number of housing initiatives have been implemented by different agencies, housing problems worsened overtime. This violent uprooting from traditional Inuit life and forceful assimilation strategies have led to the high rates of homelessness, overcrowding, couch surfing, tent as well as shack and car living across Nunavut.
In 2004, Nunavut Tunngavik and the Government of Nunavut (GN) put a proposal forward to the federal government for $1.9 billion to address housing and homelessness over a period of 10 years. Five years ago, the demand for housing in Nunavut stood at 4,000 units, each costing $275,000 to build not including maintenance costs or electricity which would inflate this figure significantly more. As part art of the 2013 GN’s housing and homelessness strategy, the GN and housing authorities will continue to work with the federal government on this issue. Earlier this year, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) submitted its response the federal government’s Canada-wide consultations for the development of a national housing strategy. ITK advocated for “direct Inuit access to federal housing investments” for affordable housing, affordable housing alternatives, shelters and transitional housing. No dollar amount was included in their response but it was clear that their interests lay on boosting the housing continuum beyond what Inuit communities have received thus far from the federal government including what has been made available through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS).
While very little has been written specifically on Inuit homelessness, the literature on colonialism, housing and poverty illustrates the unique realities of Nunavut including; the climate, the geographical remoteness, the lack of transportation infrastructure, the high costs of living, and most critically, the tragic aftermath of the colonial dispossession of Inuit traditions, culture, language and way of life. Today, the last point manifests itself through high poverty rates, food insecurity, violence, high unemployment rates, low educational attainment, disproportionate incarceration rates, poor mental health, intergenerational trauma, and high suicide rates. All of which are liked to Inuit homelessness either as a cause and/or barrier to obtaining adequate housing in the private rental and real estate market.
Researchers and advocates have connected the social realities, histories and experiences of Indigenous Peoples to the concept of home as a way of making better sense of the issue. The literature discusses Indigenous homelessness in terms of a cultural disconnection, involuntary uprooting and displacement from communities, a crisis of personal identity, colonial assimilation, the residential school system and child welfare legislation. My colleague Jesse Thistle is presently drafting on a definition of Indigenous homelessness and uncovering the notion of “home” beyond a physical structure over one’s head and a door to lock behind you. This research is paramount and very much needed if Canada is to prevent, reduce and eliminate Inuit homelessness by first understanding its multi-dimensional components in order to then establish coordinated responses that work.
Three major events are underway that could see improvements for Inuit living across the North.
First, the National Housing Strategy consultation report discussed Indigenous Peoples’ needs, their priorities, their desired outcomes and opportunities for housing. The report recognized the unique needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit as distinct Peoples with their own cultures, rights and relationships with the federal government. A section of the report was dedicated to housing in Canada’s northern and remote regions and survey respondents called for a number of actions including:
- Modernizing the social housing portfolio
- Addressing gaps in the housing continuum particularly in small communities
- Addressing the social housing operating agreements and expiring subsidies
- Applying a northern and remote community lens when developing policies, supports and programs
- Addressing overcrowding with suitable options and solutions
- Using building materials and construction techniques appropriate, sustainable and durable for the region
- Improving coordination and collaboration among all levels of government
While the actual National Housing Strategy remains to be seen, on February 9, Inuit leaders including Natan Obed from ITK and Aluki Kotierk from Nunavut Tunngavik with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett signed a new Agreement on Inuit-Crown body, and launched a new bilateral working group. Mr. Obed stated:
“The Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee will paly an important role as we take action on the priorities that matter to Inuit and Canadians. This committee will enhance cooperation between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the federal government, allowing us to give continue renewing the relationship between Inuit and the Crown in a sustainable and positive way.”
With improving access to appropriate and affordable housing as one of the primary objectives of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s 2016-2019 Strategy and Action Plan, this new Agreement may lead to future housing and social infrastructure developments not only in Nunavut but across Inuit regions.
Third and last, the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat is putting together an Advisory Committee of 8 to 10 members from across Canada to provide policy and program expertise and advice. Final membership will be announced later this spring. This could be an opportunity for greater Indigenous representation in HPS’ policy development process, and hopefully an Inuit leader present at the table advocating for the housing needs and rights of Nunavummiut.
- Inglutaasaavut (Our New Home): Neither “New” nor “Ours”: Housing challenges of the Nunavut Territorial GovernmentInuit: Fact Sheet for NunavutIf Not Now…When? Addressing the Ongoing Inuit Housing Crisis in Canada
- We Can Do Better: Housing in Inuit Nunangat
- Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami National Housing Strategy Submission
- The GN Long-Term Comprehensive Housing and Homelessness Strategy: Igluliuqatigiilauqta
- The Little Voices of Nunavut: A Study of Women’s Homelessness North of 60
- Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development
Image Credit: CBC News “Nunavut’s social housing faces billion-dollar shortfall”
On January 24, I gave a presentation to students at the University of Calgary as part of the Certificate in Working with Homeless Populations program. The goal of this presentation was to convey the fact that public policy strongly impacts the number of homeless people in a given jurisdiction at any particular time.
A version of my PowerPoint slides, which are chock-full of visuals and references, can be downloaded here: Falvo Public Policy and Homelessness WHP 1 of 3
This is Part 1 of a 3-part presentation I gave that day. You can expect Parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks.
Here are 10 things to know:
- Federal spending in Canada fell drastically from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s. In the early 1990s, federal spending (not counting intergovernmental transfers) represented 19% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By the late-2000s, that figure had dropped to about 13%. That’s a remarkably sharp drop in such a short time.
- Taxation fell sharply in Canada between the mid-1990s and the late-2000s. Looking at annual tax revenue expressed as a percentage of GDP (all orders of government combined) tax revenue in Canada represented 36% of GDP in the late-1990s. By 2012, that figure had dropped to below 31%. What’s more, Canada’s level of taxation was considerably above the average for OECD countries in the mid-1990s; today, our taxation level is well below the OECD average.
- Federal spending on housing decreased substantially beginning in the early 1990s. In light of the trends discussed in points #1 and #2 above, this comes as little surprise to most people. For more on the federal role in housing policy, including a look at how it has evolved over the past several decades, see this 2013 conference paper.
- Rental housing production in Canada fell sharply beginning in the late 1970s. This happened in part due to reductions in public spending on housing discussed in point #3 above. Other factors that likely led to this drop include high interest rates (which made it expensive for developers to finance new supply), a shrinking middle class (which resulted in less demand for rental units), provincial legislation pertaining to condominiums, and rent regulation.
- Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Alberta government began spending substantially less on housing.This decrease was drastic. Indeed, in 1995, the Alberta government devoted an amount worth 0.36% of its GDP to housing; just five years later, this amount had shrunk to a mere 0.10%. The Alberta government’s annual spending on housing didn’t start to increase again until the early 2000s.
- In 1993, the Alberta government introduced strict reforms to social assistance. This entailed at least two things. First, the rules changed, meaning that provincial officials made it much more difficult for Albertans to qualify for social assistance. Second, the annual value of benefit levels for those who did qualify for social assistance dropped quite suddenly (and then continued to erode over time). Indeed, a ‘single employable adult’ without dependents received almost $9,000 annually in 1992 (that figure includes tax credits); by 2007, this figure had shrunk to less than $6,000 That’s a very sharp loss in annual income for a very low-income individual.
- Alberta has much less rental housing than other provinces, and this gap has grown in the past 25 years. In 1990, Alberta had almost as many apartment rental units (on a per capita basis) as the rest of Canada. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, the amount of apartment rentals in Alberta started to decrease; today, Alberta has just half the number of apartment rental units (per capita) as the rest of Canada. There are three main reasons for this: the first being, historically, Alberta experienced higher rates of in-migration than other provinces; secondly, the Alberta government was not as keen as other provinces to subsidize housing for lower-income households; and lastly, Alberta has a relatively large number of high-income households (and higher-income households typically prefer to own than rent).
- Calgary has much less rental housing than Edmonton, and this gap has grown since the mid-1990s. Beginning in the early 1990s, the number of rental housing units (per capita) in both Edmonton and Calgary started to drop each year; and it dropped more sharply in Calgary than in Edmonton. Today, Calgary has approximately half the number of rental units as Edmonton on a per-capita basis.
- The many public policy factors raised above helped create the ‘perfect storm’ for a very sharp rise in homelessness in Calgary beginning in the mid-1990s. From the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, homelessness in Calgary saw very rapid growth. For example, according to analysis done with Point-in-Time Count methodology, it grew by almost 700% (per capita) during that time. And while it’s always hard for researchers to establish causation (see point #2 of this blog post) it can reasonably be inferred that the public policy changes discussed above played a major role in this increase.
- In 2008, Calgary became the first Canadian city to develop a plan to ‘end homelessness’; since that time, homelessness in Calgary has decreased. There are three main reasons for that decrease. First, since 2008, a great deal of progress has been made at the community level in Calgary (I’ve previously discussed the very important role played by the Calgary Homeless Foundation as System Planner here). Second, benefit levels for Alberta social assistance recipients have increased since 2008. For example, total annual income received by a ‘single employable’ household receiving social assistance jumped by more than 30% in 2009; and total annual income for a single adult receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped increased by 30% between 2011 and 2013. Third, Calgary’s rental vacancy rate is very high right now (an indirect result of the drop in the price of oil).
In Sum: The intended ‘take away’ from the presentation is that, homelessness is a complex issue that requires a coordinated and collective response that addresses the local issues through local responses. When it comes to ending homelessness, a community plan that is focused on increasing coordination and collaboration across a system of care and greater integration with big system public service providers is vital. For agencies at the frontline, having a System Planner, such as the Calgary Homeless Foundation, providing the big picture view and coordination matters a great deal… and so too does public policy.
I wish to thank: Rachel Campbell, Louise Gallagher, Ron Kneebone, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Chidom Otogwu, Steve Pomeroy, Joel Sinclair, John Stapleton, Greg Suttor, Alina Turner and Donna Wood for assistance with this. Any errors are mine.
 Both figures in this paragraph are expressed in 2015 constant dollars.
For a PDF version of the present blog post, please click here: Public Policy and Homelessness,The Case of Calgary
This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.
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.