“We are becoming better at opening the back door of homelessness by assisting people to move out of this dire situation through providing them with necessary housing and supports” – A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention
Introduction: What is Homelessness Prevention?
Homelessness prevention is about finding ways to keep people from experiencing homelessness. This requires policies, practices, and interventions that reduce the likelihood of homelessness. It also means providing individuals (who have previously experienced homelessness or are entrenched in homelessness) with resources and supports to stabilize their housing, enhance integration and social inclusion, and ultimately reduce the risk of the recurrence of homelessness.
Shifting the Way We Deal With Homelessness
Until recently, our primary response to the homelessness crisis has been based on emergency services such as shelters. While emergency services play an important role in supporting those needing immediate assistance, they have a limited impact on reducing the scope and severity of the problem. Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in attitude on helping people exit homelessness and remain stably housed.
For example, ground-breaking initiatives like Housing First are changing the way we think about addressing homelessness. As we begin to work upstream, there are excellent examples of what shifting to prevention looks like, such as declaring housing to be a right, finding creative solutions to the lack of affordable housing stock, and implementing legislation, policy, and interventions to reduce the incidence of homelessness.
Below are some examples of governments and community-based organizations that have prioritized prevention in their response to homelessness.
In Canada, crisis interventions have been the main response to homelessness until recently. However, service providers and advocates have started to look into long-term strategies to move people out of homelessness. Most notable initiative is Housing First, which an approach built on the belief that all people have the right to housing and those who are experiencing homelessness will have better quality of life and recover more effectively if they are first provided with housing; this is followed by wrap-around supports as needed. This philosophy makes Housing First a form of prevention, because it uses rapid rehousing and supports people to maintain housing stability so that they don’t experience homelessness again.
Other prevention models share the philosophy of a right to housing. The City of London, Ontario is transforming their homeless services into a Homelessness Prevention System. Their report pointed out that investing in more shelters had helped them cope with the homelessness crisis. Their system applies key areas of Housing First where individuals and families experiencing homelessness are quickly moved into housing with support and then begin to work on the issues that contributed to their homelessness from the stability and safety of their own home. London also introduced the “Jail to Home” program, where individuals being discharged from correctional facilities are moved into stable housing rather than emergency shelters.
To address youth homelessness prevention, Raising the Roof is piloting The Upstream Project, which is a Canadian adaptation of The Geelong Project (TGP) (originally from Australia; see below) in the Niagara and York regions. TGP works with schools and is aimed at young people at risk of disengaging with school, becoming unhoused, and entering the justice system.
The U.S. has moved the dial on homelessness prevention for its key populations. Veteran homelessness is a priority, with the creation of a universal screening tool within the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration, which provides rapid rehousing and supports for veterans at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
The U.S. has also directed efforts in addressing youth homelessness. Between 2014 and 2015, the Washington Coalition for Homeless Youth Advocacy (WACHYA) developed and successfully advocated for the passage of the Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Act into law, designed to prevent youth homelessness. It established the Office of Homeless Youth, which leads state-wide efforts to reduce and prevent homelessness for youth and young adults. The Act contains a strong focus on family reconnection and commits to preventing discharging children onto the streets from state systems, such as foster care and juvenile justice facilities. In addition, the American Bar Association produced examples of Model Reforms to Child Protection laws that can be adapted at the state level. Finally, some community-based agencies have implemented innovative strategies to support youth leaving care such as Oakland, California’s First Place for Youth program, a homelessness prevention strategy to support youth leaving care that has shown to be effective.
Australia has been a leader in youth homelessness prevention since the 90s. Rather than directing efforts to building a crisis response to address youth homelessness, Australia invests in two substantial nationally-funded, school-based early intervention strategies for youth.
The first is the Reconnect Program, which has been in operation since 1999. Its extensive evaluation has demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing youth homelessness. This broadly implemented program is delivered through community-based services that work in collaboration with schools. The goal of Reconnect is to work with young people when they are identified as ‘at risk’ of homelessness and help them stabilize their living situation and “improve their level of engagement with family, work, education, and training in their local community.” The Reconnect Program is also an example of a systems level approach to early intervention, because it is widely available across the country and works across institutional jurisdictions to provide young people with the supports they need to stay at home or find alternative living arrangements in their community.
The second school-based intervention is the Geelong Project, which has also been extensively researched. The Geelong Project integrates and delivers early intervention services through system and service delivery development and reform. It begins with the Student Needs Survey, an evidence-based assessment tool that looks at both risks and assets. Every student in a school who is 12 years of age and older must complete the survey, which makes it a population-based form of primary prevention. The results are then combined with knowledge obtained about students from other sources, including teachers and counsellors. Students deemed at risk of homelessness, dropping out, or criminal involvements are provided with place-based case management support (including family mediation). Canada has adapted the Geelong Project’s model with The Upstream Project.
Another prevention-based program in Australia is Justice Connect Homeless Law, which has piloted a two-year project called the Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project (WHPP) out of Victoria. It is designed to prevent women and children’s eviction by providing legal support and social services such as family violence counselling, employment services and emergency financial assistance. WHPP prevented the eviction or found immediate alternative stable housing for 102 women and 157 children in their care. The WHPP estimates that preventing homelessness for these 62 women and their families saved Australia $1,825,900 (AUS) in health, justice and welfare costs.
The U.K. has its own national response to homelessness; this includes a response to youth homelessness by implementing early intervention programs. One is Host Homes, a shelter diversion program designed to provide young people and their families with community-based supports when a young person is at imminent risk of, or has become, homeless. The goal is to provide young people with temporary shelter, usually in a community member’s home, so they can remain in their community, stay in school, and are connected to their natural supports rather than relying on the emergency shelter system. When young people leave home due to family conflict, Host Homes can provide respite accommodation, allowing young people and their family a “cooling off” period during which time they can undertake a needs assessment and identify potential supports (such as family mediation). Young people and their families are provided with appropriate community-based case management and supports designed to help them either return home or move into age-appropriate accommodation in a safe and planned way. Nightstop is a specific Host Home program with a strong evidence base that collaborates with 360° Kids in York Region in Ontario. When placed with a Host, young people receive support from 360° Kids to help them find a permanent place to live and access supports.
Moreover, there is a Reconnect program in U.K. to prevent youth homelessness. The program aims to support family cohesion and repair fragmented relationships before things hit crisis point, as well as intervening when young people have left home and presented themselves as homeless to statutory services. This program has a strong evidence base as well, which reports that “homelessness is prevented in 90 per cent of clients who are helped before they leave home, compared to 64 per cent of clients helped at the point of breakdown after they have left home.”
Wales is currently a leader in homelessness prevention legislation and systems change. The Housing (Wales) Act of 2014 outlines specific obligations of different levels of government and addresses the institutional and systems-based drivers of homelessness. Specifically, it states that local authorities have a duty to provide information, advice, assistance, and navigation supports to those at risk of homelessness and to ensure services are in place to meet the needs of particular groups who are deemed to be at higher risk of homelessness. This includes (a) people leaving prison or youth detention accommodation, (b) young people leaving care, (c) people leaving the regular armed forces of the Crown, (d) people leaving hospital after medical treatment for mental disorder as an inpatient, and (e) people receiving mental health services in the community.
Ireland enacted a national Homeless Preventative Strategy in 2002. The strategy focused on the risk of homelessness for those leaving state institutions such as prisons, hospitals, or child protection. However, the strength of the legislation was identifying institutional pathways into homelessness that revealed state institutions’ responsibility for prevention. However, as the legislation was originally conceived, it did not adequately address the role of community services in the non-profit sector in facilitating transitions and enhancing housing stability. The strategy has since evolved to strengthen these aspects.
Recently, Finland’s Action Plan for Preventing Homelessness (2016-2019) uses Housing First to strengthen the prevention of homelessness and prevent the recurrence of homelessness. This action plan calls for collaboration between the housing, social services, health, and employment sectors. The Welsh government has implemented homelessness prevention legislation that clearly articulates what kinds of interventions are supported, the structural changes needed to achieve this end, and which parts of government must be involved. Finland has had earlier successful strategies, making Finland a leader in homelessness prevention.
In terms of facilitating effective transitions from public institutions or systems, such as children leaving child protection, Scotland extended the age of care; the country now provides aftercare for young people in their early 20s, and have enhanced statutory obligations to support young people in making a staged and successful transition towards adulthood and independence. Staying put Scotland (2013) outlines strategies to support successful transitions for young people, describing the relationship between the State and other non-profit providers working with youth.
Nationally and internationally, there has been some shift in the way that we address homelessness, from prioritizing the use of emergency services to investing in prevention efforts. There is compelling evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of prevention. It is vital that we follow the lead of these countries and continue in our own efforts to make homelessness prevention a priority in our efforts to end homelessness.