Ask the Hub - How can Housing First work in rural communities?

York University
July 04, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

During the webinar launch of the report “A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth” Loren Roberts asked:  “In rural communities, where continued care might not be available, how does Housing First fit with private sector housing as the only option?”

This blog is adapted from the reply that Dr. Stephen Gaetz gave at the time.

Rural Canada image
Media Folder: 
In thinking about the relevance of the Housing First model in rural and small town contexts, there are several things that need to be considered. First, Housing First is no doubt a particular intervention to address homelessness and is defined by core principles, there is a recognition that it can be, and needs to be adapted to different contexts, absolutely. One of the key things about the At Home/Chez Soi project, and the experience with Housing First elsewhere in Canada, is that it can work in different communities from large centres such as Toronto, to smaller places as well. Our book on Housing First in Canada also highlights how the model has been adapted and implemented in very different kinds of communities. So in terms of figuring out how to move forward, I would say identify and locate people who are doing those interesting things, and find out from them how it works. Find out what the best practices are in other agencies, communities or countries, understand implementation challenges, and figure out how to adapt them to your clientele/situation.

As part of the At Home/Chez Soi project, Moncton was a key site. Not only is this a small city, but it should be noted that as part of their work, they did Housing First in rural areas. Smaller places face particular challenges, for instance, in putting together ACT teams or ensuring people have access to necessary supports for complex needs. Nevertheless, people are figuring it out. Smaller places also have advantages, in that the network of people you need to know is much tighter, and one can often ‘get things done’ more quickly than in large centres where things can become very complicated. In Alberta, in places like Grand Prairie and Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, they’ve had incredible success in doing Housing First and they too lack the extended continuum of care. Smaller communities need to come up with ways of providing the supports needed. This is where integrated services and systems can really help. At Home/Chez Soi said “Implementing a Housing First approach to small-city and rural homelessness required extensive collaboration with government departments, regional health authorities, non-governmental organizations and community partners. These partnerships were essential to connecting At Home/Chez Soi staff to the expertise necessary to navigate the complex and interconnected mental health, housing and social services systems.”

The lack of appropriate and affordable rental housing piece is a key thing that can be a real challenge in small town/rural areas. There may be other options that one has to explore and that’s going to require the ingenuity and innovation on the local level. It may mean going the route of host homes for a while until people can find their own housing. The host home model is established in the UK and in the United States in certain communities. And in Canada there are at least two places where it’s being done; I believe in Victoria and also the Halton region in Ontario. So that means getting people in the community who have extra rooms, might be parents whose children have moved out, to make available a room for somebody to move into.

Housing First is also going to require creativity on the part of the people developing it. Private-sector scattered-site housing, whether urban or rural, is not the only option. Transitional housing might be needed, or supportive housing; these may be scattered-site or congregate living. People using the services, especially young people, need to have a say in what works and that’s going to involve some negotiation.

One final point on the rural question that I think it’s really, really important to figure out is the issue of helping to keep young people in place, which should really be a priority. Unless it is unsafe for a young person to remain in their community, we should do whatever we can to keep them there. Young people are usually surrounded by ‘natural supports’ such as friends, family, maybe extended family, teachers, other adults, employers etc. That is, they’re involved in a web of relationships and when they are forced to leave their community to move to a city because they have no options, the troubles can intensify, as young people are vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation, and will have weak supports. Prevention and working to keep youth in their family home (when safe), OR to help them move into more independent living in a safe and planned way is incredibly important. We explored many issues related to youth homelessness in our Coming of Age report.

We’ve got to figure it out. We do need more research about this. Rural homelessness and rural Housing First are areas that we definitely need to understand more about. We look forward to a report being released July 9th by Jeannette Wagemakers-Schiff and Alina Turner "Housing First in Rural Canada: Rural Homelessness and Housing First Feasibility across 22 Canadian Communities” that explores these issues in greater depth. 

Join us for a tweet chat on rural homelessness with Jeannette Wagemakers-Schiff and Alina Turner on Tuesday, July 8th at 12:00 PM (ET) by using the #HHChat hashtag. You can also participate in our webinar for the July 9th launch of the report at 1:00 PM (ET). Click here to register.

Photograph by Kris Krug.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.