Research Matters Blog
Homeless persons often struggle to obtain and maintain access to reliable and stable income. Access to income, alongside other factors such as education and health, can contribute to cycling in and out of homelessness.
Support is often needed to assist homeless persons with finding formal employment. Those who work informally (as undocumented workers who are “paid under the table"), can be at greater risk for safety issues in the workplace as well as unfair treatment with regards to pay by employers who assume these workers lack access to resources required for retribution.
Once they have acquired employment, many homeless persons also require support in gaining access to both government identification and financial institutions in order to safely secure their money. Without this support, many homeless people are at risk of violence and theft, especially those who do not have stable shelter.
Support may also take the form of assistance with accessing social services. In a study of shelter users, “only 20% were receiving any welfare support.” It was also reported that homeless persons “recommended that the welfare system be better designed to provide immediate assistance to those in crisis and to simplify the application process.” Services are needed to help homeless people navigate the system and aid with the application process.
Photograph by Carissa Rogers.
This week’s infographic, titled Help for the Homeless: How to Survive the Street and Work toward Employment and a Home, was created in order to help people currently experiencing homelessness by providing useful suggestions on planning for the future. Additionally, it seeks to advise those who wish to aid the homeless on how they might assist in helping persons experiencing homelessness in their pursuit of a better life. The contents of this infographic were put together using Kylyssa Shay’s article What to Buy if You are Homeless.
The infographic identifies steady employment and housing as important goals for homeless people. To meet said goals, persons experiencing homelessness must maintain their appearance and health, meaning that they need to be "clean, well-groomed, rested, [and] fed." More specifically, in order to demonstrate upkeep of good appearance and health, and in general, to progress toward the goals just mentioned, one must have access to "nutritious food, clean clothes and a place to bathe, a way to stay clean when they sleep, [and] a phone and a mailing address.” The infographic reminds us that these things are necessities as they can be integral to the process of getting off the streets. For example, "a cell phone and a mailing address" can be crucial to securing a job.
Essentially, what this infographic makes clear is that although it may be very difficult depending on the circumstances, there are certain things one can potentially do as a person experiencing homelessness to plan for the future. For example, people experiencing homelessness can:
- Reach out to peers or a local church in order to obtain a temporary mailing address, or even rent a mailbox for approximately 30 dollars per month.
- If possible, obtain a pay as you go cell phone to assist with job hunting. (Solar-powered cell phone chargers can be convenient.)
- Save money where possible to put toward a future housing rental and use a bank account “or have money orders made out to yourself so people cannot steal your money from you.”
- Be conscious of the end goal of securing your future, and refrain from substance use and spending money on “one day hotel stays [and] entertainment. Save only for your goal to rent a safe, lockable room.”
- Apply for any assistance, “you may qualify for money, food, housing or other aid.” (“Homeless shelters or other non-profit aid organizations” are great places to ask for such assistance as many typically have access to and are familiar with relevant resources.)
- Sleep in shelters whenever possible.
- Bathe frequently (i.e. in sinks of locked gas station bathrooms, using damp paper towels in regular bathroom stalls), and attempt to stay cleaner by laying a tarp on the ground to place bedding on.
Additionally, there are many ways for others to assist, starting from things as simple as acknowledging those experiencing homelessness as fellow members of society by pleasantly greeting them, to donating inexpensive, yet necessary items for addressing some of the health issues that may arise for those living in poverty, most of which can typically be purchased from dollar stores, discount stores, and second-hand stores. Some key items identified in this post that are recommended for those experiencing homelessness to carry in a backpack are:
- Hygiene items - bar soap, antiperspirant, toothbrush, hairbrush.
- Clothing - pants and shirts, underclothes, lightweight socks, hats and gloves (ideally silky and polyester material items as they are fast-drying).
- Food - cheap high calorie foods such as ramen noodles, canned beans, peanut butter, etc.
- Shelter - mylar emergency blanket (which is useful for both warmth and cooling), plastic tarp.
More and more the narrative around addressing homelessness is finally changing from one of “addressing homelessness” to “ending homelessness”. This is an important shift as our language establishes the outcomes we expect and anticipate. So much of our work from the 1980s until today has been band-aid solutions, providing comfort measures to those while homeless, food and shelter, yet has not necessarily addressed the root issue – lack of a home.
But indeed, you now see this shift in the language of service providers, funders, and governments. Plans to end homelessness, programs that end homelessness, and solutions focused around housing and housing first. This is a common goal and I believe it is a realistic one, and the right one to target. The issue is, what exactly do we mean when we speak of “ending homelessness”. Recall, of course, that the definition of ‘homeless’ itself is quite complex. We can all agree that someone sleeping under a bridge is homeless, and most understand shelters as still being homeless, but what about couch surfing? What about living with one’s pimp? Therefore, when we assess whether homelessness has been ended, we need to be clear what type of homelessness we are talking about.
For the most part, when we are talking about ending homelessness, we are talking about eliminating rough sleeping, reducing shelter usage (particularly chronic usage), and making affordable housing with supports widely available, reducing other forms of temporary stay such as cells or hospital. This idea of ending homelessness is well represented in the recent article of the work of London CAReS in London, Ontario. The article speaks to moving 100 individuals from states of chronic or persistent homelessness to being housed, permanently. This still requires high levels of service and support, but is far less costly than cells, hospital, or shelter. Also, most of these individuals were not rough sleepers, but were still considered homeless by any recognized Canadian definition.
This is why I believe ending homelessness is possible. Yes, we will always need emergency shelters as a point of transition for people who are de-housed, but these should only be needed for a few hours or days of other, more desirable (and less expensive) forms of affordable and supported housing are available.
This post was republished with permission from Abe Oudshoorn, RN, PhD.
A growing body of Canadian research focuses on the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison. That is, people who are homeless are more likely to become imprisoned, and are over-represented in the prison population. Additionally, because of the inadequacy of discharge planning and reintegration policies and practices, both for those who are convicted and those awaiting trial on remand, many ex-prisoners are discharged directly into homelessness. Discharging people from prison represents a failure of policy and practice. For without proper and adequate transitional support (including housing), there is a risk of reoffending and/or enduring homelessness. There is a strong body of research evidence that attests to this.
While research shows that for people leaving corrections, attention to discharge planning and support for reintegration to independent living has benefits in terms of reduced recidivism, increased public safety and reduced homelessness, the evidence often collides with ‘get tough on crime’ policies that, in a sense, achieve the opposite (this is particularly important in the Canadian context, where we are implementing policies that follow from the mistakes made in the United States from the 1970s to 1990s).
Despite this history, there are programs that provide support based on an understanding of the challenges faced by offenders upon reintegration. In a recent literature review* by the AERO project identified the following approaches and services that are believed to be effective in helping inmates retain and/or find and maintain housing upon release. Many of these are uncommon or non-existent in Canada.
- Programs that enable inmates to retain their housing while incarcerated;
- Re-entry planning that begins at the time of sentencing;
- Programming that specifically targets inmates who are likely to become homeless on release;
- Programs that provide information about housing services or that maintain landlord registries in the area where the ex-offender wishes to live;
- Legislation, including laws that prevent landlords from discriminating on the basis of a criminal record, and policies that define certain ex-prisoners as a priority need group for housing purposes;
- Transfer of offenders to pre-release facilities near the offender's intended home, so they can begin to search for housing and work, re-connect with family and loved ones, and access community supports;
- Utilization of community services within jails, to provide stronger support to inmates who have a history of homelessness, as well as those with mental illness, addictions, or FASD.
Ensuring that people discharged from prison have access to safe affordable housing not only improves their life chances, but also benefits communities, as recidivism rates decline. In other words, providing housing for released offenders is both a housing and crime reduction issue.
* Lafleur, Harrison & O’Grady, forthcoming.
I received this message (edited for privacy) in my Facebook inbox the other day from a friend in Toronto.
Hey Tanya! You’re a housing person. I’d like your input.
I’m on ODSP but my health is improving. I want to move but I’m not sure I will go off ODSP for another year or so. I’m trying to make sense of how to potentially hook up some subsidized housing. I know it won’t likely happen overnight, but I want to do lots of research, and get my name on as many lists as I can. I’m already on a list related to my illness category. Also, it never hurts to be on lists that might come up someday in the future anyway.
Today I called “Housing Connections” and they were very discouraging, telling me that there is a 20-year wait list for a 1 bdrm. I also went to the Toronto Housing Coop page, but the ones with open wait lists are areas I don’t want to live in.
What I would really like is to get my hands on a list of buildings that have been built in the last 20 years, in good neighbourhoods, that are subsidized.
Also, is the 20-year wait time from Housing Connections realistic?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much good news to give my friend. An increasing number of people are precariously housed and low vacancy rates, low minimum wages/social assistance rates and a lack of affordable housing make it hard for people across the country to find rental units.
I did recommend that they look up market and affordable rent units in Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (TCHC) portfolio. As TCHC and other social housing providers move towards more mixed rental housing projects there are an increased number of market and affordable rent units becoming available. 93% of TCHC tenants are subsidized with rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing which means tenants don’t pay anymore than 30% of their income on rent. Above this you are considered to be in ‘core housing need’.
The remaining units are priced on the lower end of market rent and therefore are assumedly more affordable. For market rent units the rate is set to match local rental rates and there is no income cap. For affordable units the guidelines state that the rent is set “at or below average market rent”. These affordable units have an income cap based on cost/size of unit under which the household’s gross income cannot exceed 4 times the amount of rent.
While this is great in theory and assures that people who have the resources to pay market aren’t living in units aimed at people with lower incomes the rents are still not affordable to someone on social assistance or working a minimum wage job.
For example, someone working full-time in Ontario makes $22,862.40 gross annually or $1905.20/month. With a rent of even $822 this is 43% of their gross income. With the higher rents of $979 and $1161 this equates to 51.4% and 61% (respectively) of their income. While a single person would likely be able to handle the 43% and live in a bachelor unit, a family would need a larger unit. If that is the only income than they would automatically be in ‘severe housing need’ and yet, they may spend years on the waiting list for RGI housing.
Calculation guide for an affordable rental unit
Type of unit
Sample monthly rental rates
x 12 months x 4 =
Maximum household annual gross income
x 12 months x 4 =
x 12 months x 4 =
x 12 months x 4 =
This fall, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness will be releasing some up-to-date information on vacancy rates and housing affordability across the country. In the meantime, what we do know is that it is extremely challenging for people without a lot of income – especially those on social assistance, receiving pensions or making minimum wage – to be able to afford to pay for the housing that they need.
The problem exists across the country, in large urban areas and small rural communities. In this week’s blog about the release of Housing First in Rural Canada: Rural Homelessness & Housing First Feasibility Across 22 Canadian Communities, Dr. Alina Turner explained that rural communities have a strained housing and service infrastructure. She says, “Bigger communities often note the lack of affordable housing and essential supports (mental health, addictions, domestic violence services, etc.) to be a major challenge in addressing homelessness. In rural centres, this issue is even more acute. There simply isn't enough funding and service capacity to offer the diverse supports needed. When it comes to assisting homeless persons with complex addictions and mental health issues, these communities have to point people to move to larger centres. Many rural communities don't have formal rental sectors, never mind affordable housing stock.”
The problem exists primarily because there are not a lot of new housing projects that have been built around the country, especially compared to the ‘golden years’ of the 1970s and 1980s when the federal government was solidly in the rental housing market and made a strong investment in co-ops and social housing. The downloading of housing to the provinces/territories in 1993 (and subsequent downloading to the municipalities in many areas) marked the end of Canada’s major housing investment. Canada, as we have said here before, remains the only country in the industrialized world without a national housing strategy.
The Ontario data shows that in 2012 there were 158,445 households waiting for RGI housing as of December 31, 2012. That’s 3.05% of households in Ontario. The report explains that 18,378 households or about 11% of households on the waiting lists were housed. They had experienced an average wait time of 3.2 years. But for every household housed there were three new applications added to the wait list.
The numbers in Ontario ranged depending upon size of the community and housing market. In Toronto the number of households (not people…households) waiting for subsidy is 72,696, in Niagara 5,831, in Ottawa 9,717 and in Cochrane 1,458.
- “Calgary and Waterloo have more than 3,000 families on wait-lists for affordable housing, and Metro Vancouver has 4,100.”
- “The average price of a new home more than doubled from 2001 to 2010.”
- “Saskatchewan needs 6,500 to 7,000 new housing starts a year to meet demand and attract workers and Metro Vancouver needs an estimated 6,000.”
Citizens for Public Justice, put out a good infographic about the lack of affordable housing. It stated that, “Across all of Ontario, for example, there are 156,358 households waiting for affordable housing. While it varies by location and household type, the average wait time in Ontario is two to four years. Some groups (mostly seniors) are housed within a year, while others (mostly singles and childless couples under 65) wait up to 10 years. Similarly, in Vancouver, the average wait time is 16 months and in Halifax it is approximately three years.”
According to FCM’s Housing Crunch campaign, while 1/3 of Canadians are renters only 10% of new housing built in the past decade has been rental units. Combined with “high home prices and record levels of household debt” it’s no wonder that the Bank of Canada calls “the imbalance in the housing market the number one domestic risk facing the economy.”
But it’s not all bleak.
Wellesley Institute has an amazing e-map of local housing initiatives across the country broken down into several categories including: Policy and Information, Service Providers, Shelters, Networks and Resource Links. It shows the dedication and the multiplicity of programs and initiatives across the country.
In British Columbia, their housing strategy Housing Matters BC is touted as the "most progressive housing strategy in Canada. With a focus on those in greatest need, our government has invested more than $2.5 billion into housing programs since 2006 and transformed affordable housing in British Columbia. Since its release, the Province has doubled the number of shelter spaces, added thousands of affordable units for seniors and people with disabilities and seen a significant reduction in the number of unsheltered homeless. Today, more than 98,000 households benefit from provincial affordable housing programs — a 20 per cent increase since 2006."
There are new housing projects being developed and funded under the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). HPS itself was renewed for several years with a focus on Housing First. We know from research that Housing First is a successful model for housing people experiencing homelessness. The use of rent supplements, in the absence of new affordable housing units, will be key for its successful implementation across the country. Tools such as the Housing First in Canada: Supporting Communities to End Homelessness e-book and the web-based Housing First tool-kit will be useful for communities.
It’s just not enough!
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.
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