Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 12, 2016
Tags: shelters
Categories: Ask the Hub

 This question came from Jo A. via our latest website survey: “I would like more information on out of the cold sheltering. How many are there, how are they funded, and how long do they stay open for? What gaps do they fill in the shelter system? Why do they exist? Why do some choose this type of sheltering instead of regular hostel settings?”

Out of the Cold (OOTC) shelters exist in many different forms throughout Canada, but are typically only available throughout the coldest months of the winter. They are funded either through municipal program funding, donations, or a combination. OOTC shelters, especially when backed by non-profit or faith-based organizations, are often volunteer run and operate with minimal resources.  

The aim of OOTC shelters is to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness who cannot stay elsewhere either because they can’t or would rather not. The reasons why someone wouldn’t want to be housed (either independently or in shelters) are varied and complicated, but might include:

  • They have difficulty with shelters that may have availability due to restrictions, overcrowding, the staff, other people there, etc.
  • They have had a bad experience in the housing or shelter
  • They don’t want to abandon pets or property not allowed into the housing or shelter
  • They are not welcome in the housing or shelter (for example, people who use drugs are not always welcome in certain shelters unless they can prove sobriety and/or abstinence)

The shelter system, especially in large urban areas, is notoriously over-capacity and getting a bed can be a challenge. The referral process is often complicated, relying on people to either return in a few hours or find a phone to be contacted – which isn’t always possible. Other times, people get referred to other shelters that are far away or sites of previous bad experiences. These issues can be worse in the harsh weather of winter, when those people who might normally stay elsewhere are forced to look for shelter beds and result in a drastic increase of an already-constant demand.

OOTC shelters are a crucial service in providing additional warmth and shelter space during cold months; and are especially helpful for vulnerable people who are very marginalized, have a long history of living in poverty and/or in homelessness, and who have mental health or substance use issues.

Blanket on a benchOOTC shelters and the existing systems

While many gains have been seen this year in the shelter system (such as the opening of Toronto’s first LGBTQ shelter, Sprott House), other areas have not seen the same growth. Scarborough, just outside of Toronto, lost its only youth shelter in October, and many OOTC programs have been reduced. One Halifax shelter cut its number of beds almost in half and switched to a referral-based system in December, while Toronto City Council has not included any funding for OOTC programs in early discussions of the new city budget. This has prompted a petition to city council, as well the planning of a march on City Hall by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

Toronto is a good city to explore OOTC shelters because rates of homelessness are high and the city boosted municipal funding for them after three people experiencing homelessness died last January in extreme cold. As a result, there are three 24-hour drop-in centres open between January 1 and February 29th. The importance of having two of these sites opened is huge, highlighted by Joe Cressy in his NOW article: “With an average of 290 individuals using both sites each night in the first seven days of January, a relatively mild winter, we can see that the program is needed.”

There are also other programs, like University Settlement, that operate on a reduced schedule (such as Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights). According to the city’s 2014 Cold Weather Plan, there are 16 sites throughout the city that normally operate one night per week between November and April. The effectiveness of such an approach varies: some people find navigating different sites and hours very confusing, and others say that being open one night a week simply isn't enough. In either scenario, these centres provide essential warmth, food and socialization for people who may not otherwise seek such services.

While it’s great that these centres are available, what happens when OOTC programs end? Women seeking shelter have two 24-hour drop-ins operate that operate year-round (Fred Victor and Sistering), but everyone else has to look to the already overburdened other shelters once winter is over. This can especially be a problem in rural and northern communities, where shelters are few or non-existent and may be a lack of connected, funded community resources. In the words of someone I met doing street outreach last week: “What do we do after February 29th?”

People need more long-term support

Shelters are an emergency service, offering beds when people really need them, but they are expensive to operate, unstable, and do not alleviate the structural issues that help cause homelessness in the first place. These become particularly evident as OOTC programs come to a close. Another reader, Linda Z. touched on this issue when she asked us: “Why is money being spent on so-called "temporary shelters" as opposed to something more stable and long term? Most of these "winter or weather" shelters will be closed come springtime, what happens then?”

It is possible that many people will return to having nowhere to stay. Others may get connected to housing and other support services during their stay at an OOTC shelter. It is important to recognize that people need more than temporary shelter to leave a state of homelessness. The writers of Hearing the Voices: Learnings from Kitchener-Waterloo Out of the Cold point out that: “Finding and maintaining housing stability is about more than finding and maintaining housing, it requires a combination of adequate housing, income, and support. From this study, people experiencing homelessness are struggling with each of these areas of housing stability.” Many participants they spoke to had not found housing that was good quality, within their price range, and/or had access to supports they need to stay housed. Emergency shelters, especially OOTC ones, are usually accessed as a last but necessary resort; and people may return to the same circumstances.

The unfortunate reality is that in tight housing markets where little is affordable, and as income gaps continue to widen, we are still in desperate need of emergency shelters. While it is crucial to develop more preventative approaches, we also need to improve the shelter systems to more effectively help people right now – a precarious balance in a time of reduced funding at almost every level. As argued in the 2014 State of the Homelessness in Canada report, this will require a massive financial and political commitment from all levels of government.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Daniel Lobo via Flickr

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
February 10, 2016

This week’s infographic, produced by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative, looks at what happens when youth age out of foster care at 18 and find themselves without proper supports. The organization’s mission is to “ensure that young people make successful transitions from foster care to adulthood”. The infographic comes from their Success Beyond 18 Campaign, which aims to spread awareness about the need to provide youth living in foster care with increased opportunities to succeed.

The infographic states that after youth living in foster care turn 18, in many US states they “age out” and are no longer part of the foster care system. Many of these youth find themselves in a precarious living situation, in the absence of supports, resources and guidance. Each of the aforementioned factors can play a critical role in ensuring youth a pathway to becoming a successful adult. Being cut off from their support network heightens the risk of experiencing loneliness, engaging in criminal activities and even experiencing homelessness.

For every young person who ages out of care in the United States, failure to bridge gaps in the social safety net results in high long-term costs for these youth and their communities. These social costs amount to $300,000 per youth who ages out of care. A closer look at the research methodology employed by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative in reaching this figure reveals that the real cost per youth is likely significantly higher. At every point in the estimate where a choice had to be made between different cost figures, researchers “chose the lesser cost option, the bottom of the range, the conservative assumption and the simplest way to calculate.” Evidently, there are significant cost-savings to implementing changes to existing supports that can help these youth make a successful transition into adulthood.

Aging out of Care and Homelessness: The Canadian Context

While this infographic focuses on the youth aging out of care in the United States, Canada’s child protection system is also in need of reform. Although child protection, legislation and programming varies by province in Canada a lot of the times youth “age out” before they are ready for a complete transition to adult life.

Research demonstrates a significant relationship between adult homelessness and a history of living in foster care. A Raising the Roof study with street-involved youth found that 43% of survey respondents had also been in foster care. Recently, researchers at Simon Fraser University conducted a study using data from the At Home/Chez Soi project in Vancouver, British Columbia involving homeless adults with mental illness. Analysis of this data revealed that foster care placement was an independent predictor of failing to obtain a high school diploma, discontinuous work history and daily drug use.

Looking at a cost-benefit analysis by the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, research finds that effective reforms, which include extending support to the age of 25, would cost $26 million but save over $132 million on welfare and jail costs over 40 years.

When we consider the difficulties that youth aging out of foster care face, the need for continued support becomes all too clear. Failing to make the necessary supports and services accessible for these youth results in avoidable expenses for their communities and more importantly, demonstrates a lack of commitment on Canada’s part to their health and well-being.  

Aging out of foster care in America infographic

McGill University
February 09, 2016

Click here to download the book.Next week, the Homeless Hub and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness releases a new book, Exploring Effective Systems Responses to Homelessness. The book reflects the collective efforts of people who work in and with the homelessness sector in Canada and internationally. We launched the call for chapters for the book at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) Conference in Vancouver in 2014. Just over a year later, we are able to celebrate the publication of this peer-reviewed volume. This publication timeline – unheard of in traditional academic publishing – is a testament to the dedication of all the folks who contributed to the volume as well as the creative energy of the staff at the Homeless Hub.

The production of Exploring Effective Systems Responses to Homelessness feels like a sign of shifting tides. It is no longer the case that academic researchers toil away alone in their offices, producing research for academic journals that most people outside of universities won’t read. The book is also symbolic of what I sense are big shifts in the homelessness sector. Almost a decade ago, I remember people telling me that if you work in housing and homelessness, you operate near the bottom of a symbolic social service hierarchy. Less then ten years later, it isn’t uncommon for people who work in the homelessness sector to bring together institutional decision-makers from other sectors to create collective change. Not only are people who work in housing and homelessness at the table, so to speak, we are setting the tables and inviting others to join in on the action. Nationally, I’ve been amazed to see activists, service providers, and academics have come together in a strategic alliance to end youth homelessness. Across the country, people are working across sectors to create tangible policy changes in support of preventing and ending homelessness through Housing First and other rights-based initiatives. This year, Toronto established the first LGBTQ youth shelter in the province of Ontario and I continue to hear about innovative local efforts to improve service coordination in municipalities across the country (e.g., Comm-Un in Montréal). Clearly, the homelessness and housing sector is leading the change.

I walked away from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in 2015 feeling inspired. As I walked up Montréal’s “Mountain” to my office, I reflected on how the tone and focus of the conference had changed over the last three years and how the energy seemed to be building, rather than waning as one might expect. I wondered how I could translate the collective momentum and spirit of the work of the various Communities, Alliances, Collaborations, and Collectives that have been driving changes in the homelessness sector to similar changes in Education. Education is a sector where research continues not to matter much, and a lack of systems thinking, acting, and planning significantly reduces the impact the sector could make in terms of entrenched patterns of educational and social inequality.

As I walked up that big hill, I tried to figure out what the formula has been in the homelessness and housing sectors, so that I could start to imagine what needs to be done in Education. A distributed approach to leadership clearly matters, as does representative leadership from diverse stakeholders/decision-makers. Vision, daring, passion, hard work – these things also seem to matter. But it seems to me that it is also important that people enjoy working together and that we have grown to trust and respect one another. I will admit that part of my reason for attending the conference each year is to catch up with old friends. This too – our ability to play as hard as we work – seems to be part of what makes us effective as a loose-knit group.

On that note, I’ll end this blog post with a toast: to the work we’ve done together and the work we have yet to do! If anyone wants to help me reform the Education system, drop me a line. I suggest a preliminary brainstorm session over drinks.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 05, 2016
Tags: seniors
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Tammy M. via our latest website survey: How many homeless or at risk older adults are there in Canada? In Ontario? What are the most preferred housing options chosen by older adults/seniors?

Last July, Statistics Canada reported that 5,780,900 (or, 1 in 6) Canadians are now over the age of 65. Our aging population is growing and currently outnumbers Canadian youth. The Atlantic provinces are seeing a much higher percentage of older adults, while the prairies and territories are seeing the least.

Working from 2011 census data, the Ontario Ministry of Finance estimates that in 2013, Ontario’s senior population was somewhere around 2.1 million, and that it will more than double by 2041. This is already having an enormous impact on our economic and social service systems, forcing everyone within to re-examine how we secure housing and services for older adults and seniors.

Older adults, poverty and homelessness

In the housing sector, an “older adult” is anyone over the age of 50 – much younger than the government definition of “senior” because marginalization, poverty and homelessness contribute to premature aging. This definition is not used by Statistics Canada or most other ways of accounting for older adults who may be at risk, which contributes to a lack of knowledge about this population.

What we do know is that seniors and older adults are vulnerable to homelessness because they often face deteriorating social support systems, increased mental and physical health needs, and financial constraints all at once. These complex needs often mean that our standard emergency responses to homelessness – shelters and transitional housing –are rarely appropriate for older adults and seniors.

According to the Canadian definition of homelessness, being at risk of homelessness refers to those “who are not homeless, but whose current economic and/or housing situation is precarious or does not meet public health and safety standards.” While it is impossible to accurately determine just how many older adults are at risk of homelessness – due to gaps in data and inconsistent counting - we can look to some existing studies to give us an idea.

While we don’t have a definitive number on seniors and older adults who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, we have some general estimates. A 2014 Statistics Canada report concluded that 600,000 Canadian seniors are living in poverty – huge risk factor for becoming homelessness. In the 2014 State of Homelessness in Canada report, 0.9% of senior participants said in a survey that they had at some point, experienced homelessness or housing insecurity in their lifetime. (A total of about over 1.3 million Canadians said the same.)

The report also draws attention to people who are precariously housed – due primarily to affordability issues – noting that 19% of renter households fall into the “extreme” category: paying more than 50% of their income on housing. With such a small remaining budget to work from, all it often takes is a relationship breakdown, a lost source of income, and/or a health issue to put someone at risk of homelessness. Many older adults are precariously housed, or in extreme core housing need.

Preferred housing for seniors and older adults

Older adults and seniors become homeless for a variety of reasons and they all have unique needs, so there is no one type of preferred housing – though many want to remain as independent as they possibly can. This is why “aging in place” is so important.

A recent report from the Office of the Seniors’ Advocate in British Columbia found that seniors were most concerned with housing being affordable, appropriate, and available.

If living in their own house or apartment with home care is no longer possible, the next logical step would be to move into assisted living. This offers continued independence but with some support and socialization. What I found however, was that, as a result of out-dated regulations, many seniors were being denied the ability to stay in assisted living and were being pushed into residential care before it was clinically necessary. When residential care is required, seniors deserve as much as possible to be where they want to be and to enjoy the privacy of their own bedroom and bathroom. While there is some very good residential care in this province, there is more that needs to be done to fulfill our commitment to allow seniors to live where they want as independently as possible.

The report categorizes main housing options as being independent, assisted, and residential care styles of living; and makes a number of recommendations specific to British Columbia in making each type of housing more affordable, appropriate, and accessible – because it isn’t about finding a “perfect” housing option for all seniors and older adults, it’s about finding what is best for each individual person. Below is a breakdown of all the current types of housing that older adults and seniors are living in the province. (Note that those experiencing homelessness, transitional or otherwise, are captured under "or other" and amount to less than 1% of the measure population).

Seniors accommodation type in BC

According to a 2002 Health Canada study, 75% of seniors considered their housing “ affordable, adequately sized and in good condition.” Whether they live with spouses, family, alone or in institutions varies greatly – with more people living in institutions as they age. And many housing options (such as living with family or a spouse) heavily depend on individual circumstances (economic situation, physical and/or mental ability, family support, etc.).

There are also big differences between older adults who are chronically homeless and those who are newly homeless or at-risk of homelessness. The researchers of a 2004 Toronto study further underscored this in their report:

The chronic older homeless appear to be ‘aging in place’ like most Canadians. For the chronic homeless this is evident, where the condition of homelessness becomes normalized over time, and they spend many years in the shelter system in their lifetime. On the other hand, for newly homeless older adults, factors such as a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of appropriate supports to ensure their successful transition into housing, may affect their ability to age in place.

While there is a small supply of non-profit and subsidized housing stock available in most major cities – which can be excellent options in Housing First frameworks - these are not appropriate options for older adults with extremely little money and/or with different physical or mental abilities. There is a greater need for prevention, more appropriate emergency housing, and more supportive, long-term housing. The same researchers recommended the following for older adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness:

  • Age-segregated programming and housing
  • Intensive case management to help older adults be connected to the services they need
  • Small-scale emergency shelters that are age- and gender-segregated; especially for older women
  • Additional supportive and long-term housing with integrated health and social services (harm reduction, palliative care, long-term care, onsite nursing).

Many studies have recommended similar approaches to housing for older adults, indicating that flexibility and choice in housing is paramount. Jones, in her 2007 report on the role of supportive housing for seniors in Ontario and British Columbia, advocated for cross-sectoral partnership for supportive housing education, awareness, operations and planning. She also cautions against substituting one type of housing for another, as all play essential roles in the housing continuum for older adults and seniors.

We must also consider the different needs of Aboriginal older adults, who tend to be more impacted by marginalization and poverty and have distinct cultural needs. As I wrote in my post about homelessness and senior women:

In their report on Aboriginal seniors experiencing homelessness, Beatty and Berdahl recommend establishing long-term care facilities in major prairie cities and on reserves; as well as funding initiatives for Aboriginal caregivers. Indeed, more publicly funded long-term care for all Canadian seniors—like those created in Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland—would be beneficial for all, and would help relieve some of the financial stress on our seniors.

It is also important that we begin to move away from a system that focuses on emergency response and one that looks toward preventing homelessness. This will require coordinated efforts between social service, health and housing agencies and ongoing outreach to older adults who are at risk.

For more information about seniors and homelessness, read our past posts:

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
February 03, 2016

This week’s infographic comes to us from Community Solutions and looks at ending veteran homelessness. Community Solutions is an organization located in the United States that is working towards a future without homelessness. The organization takes a community-based approach for identifying the best tools that can solve the challenge of homelessness facing communities. The infographic itself is closely related to Zero: 2016, a “national change effort designed to help a committed group of US communities end chronic and veteran homelessness outright by December 2016.” The project has seen tremendous buy-in from communities across the United States.

There is significantly more research available on the experience of homeless veterans in the States than in Canada. This can be misleading, and the absence of conducted research does not mean that homelessness is not a problem faced by Canadian veterans. In March 2015, Employment and Social Development Canada released a report of the first study to look at veteran homelessness nationally. The study was conducted using data collected at 60 emergency shelters from January to December 2014. The report estimates that 2,250 veterans use services offered by homeless shelters every year, and that there are higher rates of episodic homelessness for veterans compared to homeless non-veterans. The data is conclusive: homelessness is a problem faced by Canadian veterans.

Functional zero, used in this context, is reached when the number of veterans who are homeless, whether sheltered or unsheltered, is no greater than the monthly housing placement rate for veterans. This approach and terminology is not without its critics.

Number of veterans experiencing homelessness is less than or equal to average monthly veteran housing placement rate = functional zero

The project advocates for the immediate provision of supportive housing and wrap-around supports to homeless veterans. This is in contrast to the traditional approach to tackling homelessness, which largely consists of emergency responses to homelessness, such as emergency shelters. Homelessness in Canada and the United States is usually addressed in a treatment first approach, where individuals living in homelessness wait until housing is available, or are “treated” before being deemed fit for living in housing. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The project advocates for Housing First, which can be defined as the provision of permanent supportive housing immediately to those in need.  Time and time again, research has shown that Housing First is affordable, sustainable and cost-effective. While emergency shelters provide individuals with immediate relief in the short-term, Housing First is a solution that focuses on long-term outcomes and on helping individuals become independent again. 

There are numerous examples of successful applications of Housing First across Canada. These applications are tailored to the needs of local communities and populations. In Alberta, Nikhik Housing First/Homeward Trust highlights what agencies can do to integrate Aboriginal culture into a program. In British Columbia, the Streets to Homes project in Victoria demonstrates how large-city programs can be adapted to meet the needs of smaller communities. In Ontario, the Transitions to Home project in Hamilton provides a great example of how partnerships with police services can help identify individuals with high needs. These are just a few of the many ongoing Housing First projects that have had measured success in the Canadian context.

If you have any question about the Housing First model, I invite you to participate in our very first Ask Me Anything (AMA). Wally Czech, Housing First Specialist with the City of Lethbridge, will be answering questions live on the online Community Workspace on Homelessness today at 1PM (ET). Post your questions now!

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.