Retooling Emergency Services

Retooling Emergency Services

Many communities have continued to rely on emergency services such as shelters and day programs as central to their response to homelessness. One of the consequences of this is that many people become mired in homelessness for a long time, and those services that were designed to only provide short term, temporary supports become long term ‘solutions’. As more communities move to strategic responses to homelessness that shift the focus towards prevention and robust models of accommodation and supports (such as Housing First), there is a need to redefine the role of emergency services. In rethinking our approach to homelessness it is important to note that there will continue to be a need for a robust crisis response, because no matter how strong our prevention strategies, there will still be situations and events that lead people to be without housing and supports. However, emergency services cannot alone form the basis of our response to homelessness.

So when we say we need to retool the system, this is not a criticism of the emergency sector, per se, but rather a call to reorient the emergency response so that its mandate is to support prevention-based models of early intervention, and strategies to help move people into housing, with appropriate supports. In the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia – all countries that have been grappling with a large homelessness problem much longer than Canada – there has been a paradigm shift in the response to homelessness that involved retooling their emergency services. This is also the case in communities in Canada that have successfully adopted the planned approaches to ending homelessness leading to a reduction in the problem (communities in Alberta, for instance). This has meant providing a new policy and funding framework that rewards the emergency sector for providing longer-term solutions for people who experience homelessness, rather than for outputs such as how many beds are filled, or how many people use a day program, for example.

A retooled and repurposed emergency sector goes hand in hand with a commitment to end homelessness, and will:

  • Ensure that all people who come into contact with the homelessness sector are assessed and provided with supports to either return home or move into housing as quickly as possible.
  • Adopt a client-centered case management approach for individuals and families that enter the system, and ensure they are tracked as they navigate their way out of the system.
  • Fund and reward service providers for focusing on prevention and rapid rehousing as a service priority, and make the goal of emergency services a shorter experience of homelessness.
  • Integrate ‘Housing First’ and/or transitional housing supports when working with chronic and long term homeless clients.
  • Develop a strong outreach focus to bring people into the service who have historically not been connected, and make rapid rehousing a priority for them.
  • Invest in smaller and dispersed shelter environments that provide individual rooms with locked doors.


In retooling the crisis response in both the UK and Australia, emergency shelters are not seen as distinct from either preventive approaches or strategies that help people move into stable housing, but rather, they are geared to facilitate these outcomes. In other words, while in Canada we often see the homelessness sector as somewhat discrete from both the places people come from and where they are going, emergency services elsewhere are framed explicitly as tools to support prevention and rapid rehousing, and to help people move into independent living – and stay there. Emergency shelters must be considered as part of a continuum of care, with crisis services engaged in, and supporting aspects of, prevention and early intervention described in the previous section, but also becoming a pathway to a supported accommodation model, so to speak. The crisis response, then, is not distinct from prevention approaches and accommodation, but works to support them.

FROM: Gaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age - Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Homeless Hub Research Report Series