This question came from Denise C. via our latest website survey: “What are some suggestions around best practices in finding relevant (and applying) research/resources/models in rural and remote areas of Canada?”
When we think and talk about homelessness, we tend to view it as a big-city issue. There are a few different reasons for this, including larger population sizes – most Canadians live very close to the American border – and the sheer number of shelters and non-profit organizations that tend to exist in cities. Because of this focus, there is little research that is specific to rural and remote homelessness, but it is a problem. When looking for research, resources and potential models of service delivery or approaches to homelessness in these areas, here are a few things to keep in mind.
There are key differences
According to a literature review by Employment and Social Development Canada, homelessness in rural and northern areas tends to be less visible, a.k.a. hidden homelessness. Dee Ann Benard was recently quoted in a Western Producer article describing a common homelessness situation:
They may look like they’re housed, but they’re living in substandard housing, or old houses with no heat, no electricity or running water or too many people in one house. Or they’re living in a tent in the bush or they’re couch surfing, going from one place to another until people get sick of you and kick you out and you go to the next one.
While poverty and affordable housing are countrywide problems, people experiencing homelessness in these communities are less likely to have mental health or substance-related issues – though the prevalence of these factors vary; for example, one study from Wellington county found substance use (along with poverty) to be a significant factor in youth homelessness. There are fewer job prospects, opportunities for new or rental housing, and levels of income and education. The Homeless Hub’s Gaining Ground research summary found that participants faced four primary barriers to overcoming homelessness and mental health issues: social ties, social services, transportation and relocation.
In northern areas, the weather makes living without shelter downright impossible. The close-knit nature of small communities means that people either have much difficulty leaving conflicted or abusive situations, or have a strong local support network to help them – all depending on the individual’s social resources. As noted in our rural and northern communities information section, rural and remote communities tend to “lack the resources – and in some cases the will – to invest in infrastructure and services that may prevent or reduce the worst outcomes of homelessness.” These issues and more are further complicated in Indigenous communities, where residents are more likely to have lower quality housing and higher rates of poverty.
In short, keeping specific contexts in mind when approaching homelessness is key to properly adapting or undertaking research/solution models. For more key differences, read Alina Turner's Why rural homelessness is different, and Nick Falvo’s 10 things to know about homelessness in Canada’s north.
Make use of existing research, resources and models
With so much of homelessness research focused on urban issues and participants, the vast majority of models presented are based on this research – so it’s good to look for research based in rural and remote communities. Though they might not be immediately applicable to rural or remote areas, it is possible that they can be adapted and tested in pilot programs in these communities.
Rural- and remote-specific researchers are already doing this. In 2008, the National Alliance to End Homelessness developed a tool to help rural communities adapt point-in-time counts. In their study on rural homelessness in Alberta, Waegemakers-Schliff and Turner (2014) recommended exploring innovative alternatives to shelters and adaptations of Housing First approaches. In determining the feasibility of Housing First in 22 rural Canadian communities, they surmised that while aspects of the approach can be used in some areas, the various barriers (like lack of available housing or staff support) to direct implementation means we must be creative and flexible in how we create Housing First programs in rural communities.
Despite the growing-but-still-small research base on rural and remote homelessness, other practices identified by Robertson (2007; Rural Homelessness symposium paper) as promising included regionalized services, development of community collaboration and coalitions, rural service teams, the housing-plus-services model, and employment initiatives. For youth, specialized services like Youth Reconnect have been shown to be quite effective in several areas: remaining housed, becoming employed and doing better in school.
Build or join a network/coalition
Many communities look to each other for solutions that work better in rural and remote contexts. The Alberta Rural Development Network, inspired by the Safe Couch program in Victoria, British Columbia, began funding the program in Cochrane, Alberta.
Effective information sharing can be improved by creating a network, as suggested by the authors of the Housing First in Rural Canada report:
There is a high level of interest from the participants in the study to learn from peers in similar rural contexts and connect with others facing similar issues. ... Developing a network on rural homelessness would enable mutual support and the sharing of learnings for hundreds of small communities grappling with similar challenges nationwide.
If there is no established network in your community of interest, get grassroots! Start small: look at communities roughly the size of the one you’re considering and learn how they are or aren’t addressing homelessness. How are the issues in that community different from or similar to yours? Asking these kinds of questions can point you towards existing research, resources or models that might work for your community.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.