In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness.

Financial supports for low-income Canadians are much more comprehensive for older adults than for those supported through general social assistance. In Ontario, for example, between OAS, GIS, GAINS, CPP, the GST/HST credit, and the Ontario Trillium Benefit, less than 5% of seniors live below the Low Income Cut Off (LICO). However, in spite of these more comprehensive income supports, older adults are still at risk of experiencing housing loss.

Victoria Burns and Tamara Sussman sought to understand pathways into homelessness for older adults in Montreal, Quebec. They interviewed 15 men and women currently residing in emergency shelters. Through a grounded theory analysis, they discovered two distinct pathways into homelessness for older adults: Gradual versus Rapid.

Gradual

A gradual pathway into homelessness involved decades or a lifetime of financial, social, health, and/or housing precarity. These individuals had often accessed many services for many years, including frequently living on poverty-level social assistance rates. Many had complex and traumatic life histories including activities meant to assist in maintaining housing. For these individuals, entering emergency shelter was often considered a relief, as they entered a system of support and momentarily left behind a lifetime of stressors related to maintaining housing.

Rapid

A rapid pathway into homelessness involved multiple, rapidly-occurring catastrophic events such as relationship-breakdown, financial crisis, health crises, or deaths. For these individuals, entering emergency shelter was often perceived as a shock and a failure. These individuals often minimized their use of services, feeling ashamed of reaching out for support.

While these unique pathways into homelessness for older adults are interesting, and should lead those providing emergency shelter to reflect on the very divergent experiences of those they support, the conclusions of the authors sound all too familiar. “We recommend an influx on affordable, quality housing with varying types and levels of support.” Neither those who experience gradual or rapid losses should have to end up in shelter if better housing with supports were available.

However, the authors offer an additional and potentially promising practice: Those who add themselves to the social housing waitlists should automatically be connected with an intake worker to be assessed for potential case management support. This could be a preventative intervention for a group who is self-identifying as being in housing need.