There is good news in Canada.  The federal government has recently launched a welcome consultation process to inform Canada’s first National Housing Strategy. Among the list of potential outcomes, the Government has indicated a desire to ensure “homelessness in Canada is rare, brief and non-recurring.” While it is good news that the government sees addressing homelessness as a key part of the National Housing Strategy, it does raise a question: “How exactly do we make this happen?”  

Herein lies an opportunity to reimagine our response to homelessness; to innovate. While in recent years we have welcomed a shift from simply managing the problem of homelessness to working harder to move people out of homelessness through Housing First, there is still a need to do more.  In other words, it's not enough to simply wait until people fall into homelessness and experience declining health and well-being before we help them. If housing is in fact a right (and Canada is a signatory to many international treaties and conventions that declare this) it is not good enough to wait for people to be in deep trouble before we respond to their need.  Instead, why don’t we do something to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place?

That is the realm of prevention.  In the United States as well as Canada there has long been a reluctance to really address homelessness through preventive measures.  Part of the problem is a lack of clarity about what homelessness prevention involves.

A true homelessness prevention framework is a multi-faceted, layered approach. While working upstream to prevent new cases of homelessness is a key facet of prevention, a more nuanced prevention model is required to effectively address homelessness.

Defining Prevention

Based on well-established public health research, there are three categories of prevention: 

  1. Primary Prevention: Addressing structural and systems factors that more broadly contribute to housing precarity and the risk of homelessness.
  2. Secondary Prevention: Strategies and interventions directed at individuals and families either at imminent risk of homelessness or who have recently experienced homelessness, such as early intervention and evictions prevention.
  3. Tertiary Prevention: Supporting individuals and families who are chronically homeless to access housing and supports, thereby reducing the risk that they will become homeless again.   

A Typology of Homelessness Prevention

The Government of Canada asks “How can federal, provincial and territorial governments and other stakeholders better support Canadians who are homeless or at risk of being homeless?” The answer lies within the five categories of prevention:

  1. Structural Prevention
  2. Institutional Transition Support
  3. Early Intervention Strategies
  4. Eviction Prevention
  5. Housing Stabilization

The 5 types of prevention
Media Folder: 

Embracing Prevention in the National Housing Strategy

In early 2017, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness will release a robust Homelessness Prevention Framework. The framework will serve as a roadmap as we collectively embrace prevention-focused responses to homelessness. However, we need not wait. Now, while the Government of Canada is shaping the National Housing Strategy, is the time to commit to homelessness prevention.

Take, for instance, structural prevention. How might this contribute to the goals of the National Housing Strategy?  

Indisputably, an effective National Housing Strategy must confront the large-scale structural drivers of housing instability and homelessness. The most obvious structural contributor to homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Increasing the supply – a cornerstone of the proposed housing strategy – is an essential pursuit.

But within our proposed prevention framework, structural prevention goes beyond affordable housing. Complementary solutions to address other structural causes of homelessness – such as poverty reduction, violence reduction and anti-discrimination work – are required.

By embracing strategies that mitigate the economic and societal conditions that contribute to homelessness, the National Housing Strategy will prevent new cases of homelessness - our best avenue to ensure homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

However, we know that structural prevention alone won’t solve homelessness. The National Housing Strategy must embrace a more inclusive definition of prevention.  Institutional transition support, for example, is required to prevent the systems failures that lead people leaving institutional settings (hospitals, corrections, child protection) to become homeless. This type of systems-based prevention requires a collaborative effort, one beyond the confines of the traditional housing and homeless-serving sectors. Thus, the opportunity within the National Housing Strategy is to provide a framework that urges public systems to be accountable for housing outcomes, while acknowledging that they require adequate resources to do so.

Then, when homelessness cannot be prevented upstream or at the systems level, we need policies, practices and interventions that allow individuals and families in crisis to access the support they need. Here, early intervention strategies – such as family mediation and domestic violence victim support – are required. For the National Housing Strategy, this means a commitment to crisis housing and shelter diversion, an evolution from our traditional overreliance on emergency shelters.

Ideally though, the National Housing Strategy will endorse a robust evictions prevention strategy – the fourth strategy within our proposed Homelessness Prevention Framework. Doing so will reduce the need for crisis interventions in the first place by preventing instances of homelessness that result from financial or conflict-based evictions.

And finally, an effective National Housing Strategy will concede that despite best efforts, homelessness, today, still exists. Thus, the strategy must include solutions to improve housing stabilization, and ensure that those who have experienced homelessness will never experience it again. A commitment to Housing First (and other proven models of accommodation and support) is an obvious way forward.   

Our Next Steps

The National Housing Strategy is an opportunity to turn prevention into practice. We must do more than react. We must strategize, innovate and invest until we have prevented homelessness. By doing so, we will send a powerful message: No one should experience homelessness.  

The Canadian Observatory will soon submit a response to the #LetsTalkHousing consultation Our recommendations will include more discussion on the role of prevention, in addition to a set of recommendations jointly drafted with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. The latter will also be available in the forthcoming State of Homelessness in Canada 2016.

What role should prevention play in the National Housing Strategy? Share your thoughts with us using #LetsTalkHousing and #LetsTalkPrevention.