What are the top priorities of people working in homelessness?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
March 06, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

According to Oxfam, poverty and homelessness are worldwide concerns. Results from a poll of 24,000 people over 24 countries showed the two issues are top-tier concerns for people in 15 countries (including Canada). On average, more than 80% of respondents in those countries stated poverty and homelessness were at least “somewhat serious.”

For people working in shelters, supportive housing organizations and other social services, poverty and homelessness are always considered extremely serious issues. But given their complexity, what are the workers’ priorities? 

These will vary from person to person, as well as from agency to agency—for example, some will focus more on solutions for certain populations, such as Aboriginal peoples, seniors, or youth—but workers tend to share some common priorities.

Homeless Link top concerns about preventing homelessnessHomeless Link, a UK-based membership organization for charities working with people experiencing homelessness, recently conducted a poll on the top concerns that workers have. Here’s a quick snapshot of what workers said they prioritized:

  1. Prevention: Two years ago, Homeless Link found that 7 out of 10 workers prioritized prevention. In 2015, this rose to 9 out of 10.

  2. Accommodations: There is a lack of suitable and affordable long-term housing for people trying to leave shelters.

  3. Health: Mental and physical health is related to poverty and homelessness.

  4. Funding: Like in North America, funding for housing services has been drastically reduced in the U.K.

  5. Welfare reform: To provide vulnerable people with additional support.

These concerns are common amongst people working in the homelessness sector, and echo what Stephen Gaetz, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, and Tim Richter wrote about in the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report. Their priorities included:

  • Shifting from a short-term, emergency model to one that prevents homelessness

  • Creating more affordable housing, as well as on- and off-reserve housing specifically for Aboriginal peoples

  • Funding to support people who are chronically and episodically homeless

Similarly, the 4 core elements outlined by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years are:

  1. Plan for outcomes: Evaluating research and success of programs

  2. Close the front door: Preventing homelessness in the first place

  3. Open the back door: Creating opportunities for people to transition to long-term housing

  4. Build the infrastructure: Decreasing poverty and increase affordable housing.

Working conditions

People working in social services are aware of what needs to be done about homelessness, but their working conditions often make achieving this goal very difficult.

Over the past eight years, Canada’s federal government has made deep cuts into social programs that were built over generations. (A great summary can be found over at the Toronto Star.) Less support, decreased investments in affordable housing and growing job insecurity has made more people vulnerable to homelessness and increased the number of people workers try to assist.

At the same time, many workers are being scrutinized and managed in ways that make it quite difficult to help other people. Growing caseloads and the rise of casual contract work have, in many organizations, decreased workers’ capacities.

Donna Baines, a social worker and educator, conducted a multi-year study in three provinces to find out what social workers top concerns were in a climate of funding cuts, punitive measures, and new public management. When asked what one thing they would change if they could, social workers mentioned regaining their vision of social justice. They also mentioned making services more effective by becoming proactive, preventative and holistic.

Ending homelessness and poverty is possible, but there will be many roadblocks along the way. What are the top priorities in your organization or community that might help or hinder your work?

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Homeless Link

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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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.