Research Matters Blog
Recently there has been a growing focus on the problem of youth homelessness. More and more people are recognizing the scope of the problem, and are expressing a desire to do something about it. Today we’ve released the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness to support this work.
You might be thinking: “Why do we need a definition of youth homelessness? Isn’t it clear? They are young. They are homeless.” Well, there’s more to it than that. When we released the Canadian Definition of Homelessness in 2012, our goal was to provide a sharp definition that could help the public, policy makers and service providers share a common language and understanding. We drew attention to the problem of homelessness as something we as a society have created, not a description of individual failings. We created a four part typology of homelessness and housing insecurity that provided details regarding the nature and scope of housing and shelter situations that people living in extreme poverty might find themselves in. At that time we also indicated that the work was not done; that we also needed some focused definitions of youth and indigenous homelessness, for instance, to accompany the broader Canadian definition.
A common definition of youth homelessness is important for several reasons:
To share a common language
For those interested in addressing youth homelessness an agreed upon definition gives us a common language to talk about, think about, and respond to the problem. Up until now, there has generally not been a lot of consensus – within government or the community – as to what age range the term applies to. Does it include young people under the age of 16? Over the age of 18, or 20? We have landed on a definition that includes young people ranging from 13-24. This broader definition – consistent with what the Province of Alberta is using – is important because it identifies that we are responsible for ensuring that all youth within this age bracket are eligible for support, and that being under 16 or over 18 should not disqualify you, or allow institutions who might say, “We are only responsible for young people up to the age of …” off the hook.
To measure progress
If we want to measure progress on preventing and ending youth homelessness, we need to agree upon what exactly we are measuring. If one community or jurisdiction uses one definition, and a second community uses another, we cannot compare results. This also goes for research. Clarity and consistency are important.
To support more effective policy responses
Youth homelessness is not simply a term to describe an age category, a way of carving up the population of people who experience homelessness. We need a separate definition to help drive home the point that youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness in terms of its causes and conditions and so must be the solutions. The needs of developing adolescents and young adults, in terms of policy, services and supports – including housing – are unique and distinct. We can’t just take the models of support for adults, change the age mandate, and create “Homelessness Junior”.
This new definition can help us with getting on with the important task of preventing – and eventually ending – youth homelessness in Canada. We CAN end youth homelessness . . . if we want to.
The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 says that for every person who is unsheltered, there are at least three people experiencing hidden homelessness. Applied nationally, this conservative estimate of 3:1 means at least 50,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. Women, including mothers and their children, are much more likely to be among the hidden homeless population. YWCA Canada’s When There’s No Place Like Home states that families experiencing homelessness are largely led by single mothers. Some families choose not to access shelter services because they don’t feel shelters are safe. They may instead be temporarily staying with extended family and/or friends so as not to displace their children from their school/community.
A recent study by Raising the Roof highlights some of the causes of family homelessness, including family violence, a lack of affordable housing, low wages, un/underemployment, and low rates of social assistance. The study also highlights that child and youth homelessness often leads to chronic adult homelessness, criminality, experiences with the child welfare system, and worsening mental health. Childhood stressors and trauma such as family breakdown, poverty, conflict, and abuse are not only contributing factors to child and youth homelessness but also childhood homelessness itself has been linked as a pathway to adult homelessness.
According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014, there are a number of signs that a family may be at risk of homelessness, including:
- Unaffordable rental housing units.
- Falling below the Market Basket Measure (MBM) poverty threshold and/or living below the Low Income Cut-off (LICO).
- Experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity.
- Stagnant or declining wages during periods of sustained economic and employment growth.
As these warning signs indicate, for many parents, one illness, layoff, family crisis, or loss of childcare can put them and their children over the edge. Without a national housing and homelessness strategy or comprehensive provincial/territorial and federal action to address system failures while strengthening Canada’s safety net, the number of families at risk of homelessness will rise.
Family homelessness disproportionately impacts some groups who experience greater levels of poverty than the general population, including Indigenous Peoples, racialized, newcomer families, parent(s) with a disability or single mothers. Service providers, researchers and policymakers are beginning to recognize the distinct challenges of sub-populations and that providing supports and developing better policies will help create solutions to ending homelessness.
Putting an End to Child & Family Homelessness in Canada includes a number of policy recommendations for all levels of government as well as service providers that reflect the demands and advocacy efforts by those working in the housing, homelessness and anti-poverty groups. Discussions about funding priorities, sharing of resources, and new models of service provision that draw in all sectors must continue.
With so many solutions and recommendations discussed among stakeholders, what are we waiting for?
Photo credit: Raising the Roof, 2016
In our latest website survey, Brenda S. asked: “What contributions have been provided by Indigenous academia that are specifically designed within an Indigenous framework on Indigenous homelessness in Canada?"
This is an excellent question. Historically, academia has been dominated by non-Indigenous* people studying Indigenous practices and ways of life. Much of this research failed to be shared with Indigenous communities or truly involve participants, and in many cases, has been actively harmful. As written in the Aboriginal Homelessness section of our Point-in-Time Count Toolkit:
For many years, research was used as a tool to exploit and exert control over Aboriginal Peoples, both in Canada and globally (see Smith, 2012). The National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) (2007) identifies that past research practices by external researchers have been “disrespectful, damaging and stigmatizing to First Nations People” in Canada (p. 3). The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) similarly identified that “[i]n the past, Aboriginal people have not been consulted about what information should be collected, who should gather that information, who should maintain it, and who should have access to it” (p. 4).
Furthermore, most research on Indigenous issues and homelessness follows a very Eurocentric way of researching. It is important to highlight the work of Indigenous scholars – and not just work done in collaboration with Indigenous peoples on committees, advisory boards, etc. – for these very reasons. What follows is a tiny snapshot of what indigenous academia has contributed to homelessness research – there is simply too much to capture in one post!
Defining Indigenous homelessness
Countless Indigenous scholars and elders have drawn attention to the role that previous as well as ongoing colonization plays in contributing to homelessness; and how it must be understood beyond a lack of physical shelter. In the 2014 Plan to End Aboriginal Homelessness in Calgary, members of the Aboriginal Standing Committee on Housing and Homelessness wrote:
From an Aboriginal worldview, homelessness is not only an issue of housing but the combination of inter-related issues including history, present day systemic and societal perspectives about Aboriginal people, as well as the cultural losses of Aboriginal people in the areas of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual balance.
Peter Menzies, a prominent therapist and member of Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, suggested that Indigenous homelessness is “the resultant condition of individuals being displaced from critical community social structures and lacking in stable housing.” So when we discuss Indigenous homelessness, the importance of history, present marginalization and cultural losses is crucial to consider.
Menzies has also done important work in connecting intergenerational trauma and mental health; as well as how intergenerational trauma can be a contributing factor to homelessness. From this research, he developed the Intergenerational Trauma Model, which draws from traditional medicine wheel teachings to expand understandings of Indigenous homelessness. As Menzies writes:
The Intergenerational Trauma Model is predicated on the assumption that public policies have disrupted relations between the four systems and the resulting trauma has incubated negative social conditions for Aboriginal peoples, making them significantly more vulnerable to a number of threatening conditions, including homelessness. This has disrupted the balance of the wheel in which the individual, family, community, and nation exist. The Intergenerational Trauma Model identifies risk factors that may contribute to Aboriginal people’s homelessness.
He goes on to discuss that for Indigenous peoples, healing must occur at every level: individual, family, community and nation and incorporate traditional activities. Such contributions have encouraged social service professionals to consider intergenerational trauma as a central point in the Indigenous homelessness experience.
Connecting health, history and homelessness
Through a Wellesley Institute initiative, Billie Allan and Janet Smylie wrote about the impact that racism has on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples in Canada. They review literature about the clear connections between marginalization, colonization and racism and conclude that: “It is time for stories of change: change in how we imagine, develop, implement and evaluate health policies, services and education, change in how we talk about racism and history in this country.”
Similarly, Cyndy Baskin drew attention to the strengths and resilience of indigenous youth who had been through the child welfare system. Using medicine wheels and sharing circles with participants, Baskin found that most did not grow up with their biological parents; and their grandparents and parents had had involvement with residential schooling and/or the child welfare system. Youth participants demonstrated deep knowledge of the spiritual and structural aspects of homelessness, connecting their experiences of homelessness to childhood trauma and communities struggling with the effects of colonization.
In her thesis, Mikaela Daria Gabriel explored the connections between Elders, mental health and homelessness amongst Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Her study found that traditional knowledge was highly valued by participants, but they faced many obstacles in accessing them; ultimately leading her to recommend more research in this area.
Indigenous research methods
So far, many of the studies I’ve highlighted have used mostly Eurocentric research methods. Many Indigenous scholars are calling for the increased use of methodologies more in line with traditional knowledges and processes. In a 2005 journal article, Baskin reflected on the importance of using Indigenous research methods:
Gathering our own stories through Aboriginal research methodologies becomes our Indigenous medium. It involves how we gather our information, the stories we choose to tell and how we communicate them. Indigenous research methodologies also concern who does the gathering and communicating, for uppermost is the responsibility to anticolonialism and the promotion of Aboriginal world views.
Shawn Wilson, an Opaskwayak Cree from Manitoba, wrote an entire book on the subject: Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods.
Many studies incorporate storytelling and sharing circles, while others establish more comprehensive frameworks. For example: One study conducted by the Blue Quills First Nation College Research and Program Evaluation Partnership emphasized that ceremony, circle process and relational accountability are key components of any Indigenous research methodology.
Though using Indigenous research methods is important, there can be many challenges in bridging Aboriginal and Western worldviews. In her 2009 article, Lynn Lavellee discusses the use of sharing circles and Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection in research. She discovered that translating her work to fit western academic requirements could be difficult:
I found the academic requirements of putting this research into the written form of a dissertation and publications limited the details about the symbols. Pictures of the symbols and the stories that accompanied them were included; however, attempting to put the symbols into words is somewhat of a contradiction because words can limit the meaning of the symbols. This challenge was accentuated in trying to explain the songs that two participants selected to describe the meaning of the program. As noted in Hawk’s story, one of her symbols was the Strong Women’s Song. The second participant to use a song was Crane. His song was Ogitchada, which translates into “a person of great heart.” He stated that this song “speaks of our people as warriors, men and women, how strong our people are and how strong our hearts are.” Both songs involve melodies and do not contain words. However, Aboriginal songs have spiritual meaning, and both participants described their personal meaning of the songs.
Another aspect that was problematic was how she was expected to interpret the stories. As Lavellee wrote: “…I began coding the data the way I had been taught in my qualitative methods courses and past qualitative research experiences. This method fragmented the stories and reduced them to ‘bits of nature’.” The use of symbols and telling a collective story (its symbol pictured right), however, brought more of an Indigenous approach back to the project.
More on Indigenous research
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is just a small sample of the work being done by Indigenous scholars. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to peruse our library, as well as searching elsewhere to learn more. Connecting with researchers at local universities and attending Indigenous conferences are also a few ways to find out about work being undertaken by Indigenous academia.
* I have used “Indigenous” throughout this post for consistency, but wish to acknowledge that it is a homogenizing term that does not accurately represent the groups of people discussed.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at email@example.com and we will provide a research-based answer.
This question came from Kristina B. via our latest website survey: “Do you have any tips on how to educate landlords about human and tenant rights; as well as dealing with slumlords?”
Landlord engagement has been a popular topic lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote about some ways to work with landlords, and people have been sharing their strategies in the Community Workspace. Educating negligent, unwilling or altogether absent landlords, however, is an entirely different task.
Most landlords know what their responsibilities are and want to maintain the value of what they own. “Slumlord” is a derogatory term for absentee and/or negligent property owners, especially those who own multiple properties, ignore repairs and other tenant needs, and profiteer. These types of landlords are in the minority, but they do exist. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness, living in poverty, and who are new to Canada, are all especially at risk of ending up in housing that is overcrowded and/or otherwise unfit for living in. So it is important to ensure we do what we can to engage with landlords and make sure they know the rights that tenants have and how they can honour them.
Share legal information
Rental housing is governed at both the provincial/territorial level and the municipal level, and there’s a great many different laws involved: building codes, human rights frameworks, tenancies acts, and so on. Presenting the information – perhaps in partnership with local community legal clinics – in an easy-to-understand format can help further landlords’ understanding of what they’re expected to do.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has plenty of plain language resources for landlords, including a guide for new landlords and fact sheets for every province and territory. Such information can be repurposed in simple formats and shared with landlords at local community meetings, on websites written for landlords, small-scale informative campaigns (ie. on social media), and so on. This information is equally important for tenants to have, and many local tenant organizations and community legal clinics specialize in creating easy-to-read resources. (The housing law section of the Community Legal Education Ontario website is an excellent example.)
As one 2008 Ontario-based report highlighted, discrimination during the rental process is not uncommon. While most landlords know that they can’t list a preference for some tenants over others, this happens regularly. For example: The Ontario Human Rights Commission (ORC) has an information section for landlords that outlines human rights in housing. Though the ORC states that landlords cannot discriminate against potential renters for various reasons, rental listings (especially in tight rental markets) regularly describe the only kinds of tenants that the owner will consider (“quiet couples,” “students,” “working professionals,” etc.).
Filing a claim is often simply too much work for most people looking for housing, so there is little action that is taken against such discrimination. In very tight rental markets where vacancy rates are low, landlords have a lot of control over who they rent to and some feel comfortable openly discriminating against some groups of people (ie. “No welfare” postings). A Regina study conducted in 2011 found that while many people on social assistance can be good tenants, a small minority have been disruptive, destructive and failed to pay rent – resulting in widespread discrimination against people on assistance, even though these problems often arise with people who aren’t on social assistance. Dispelling negative myths about potential tenants is a key issue that should be included in any communication strategy with landlords.
Legislated protections are important, but so are grassroots bills of rights developed by people with lived experience. Last year, The Dream Team created a bill of rights for people in permanent supportive housing to raise awareness to issues of secure tenancy and quality of housing/services, and more importantly, to ensure housing providers consider the voices of their tenants. The Homeless Charter of Rights, developed in 2013 through the Calgary Homeless Foundation, is another example of highlighting the needs and desires of people with lived experience of homelessness.
Highlighting documents like these adds a social element to housing, often forgotten in situations where owners are simply trying to make a profit. It also ensures that people who are vulnerable are being represented beyond being painted as “difficult.”
Include a focus on social housing organizations
Much of Canada’s existing social housing is owned by municipalities, and some of these buildings are among the most poorly maintained. In 2014, BC Housing tenants in Vancouver claimed they’d been living in mould-infested apartments for two years while waiting for repairs. Some participants in the At Home/Chez Soi study noted that they gave up on waiting for social housing due to the poor condition that many BC Housing units were in, and the time it took to get transferred/receive housing. As Chris Selley pointed out in the National Post, Toronto Community Housing is plagued by spending scandals and a $2.6 billion repair backlog.
Engaging these types of landlords requires more political action – reaching out to local councillors, representatives for housing organizations, tenant boards, etc. - as well as advocacy around multi-level government commitment to improve existing social housing and ultimately, build more.
Inform landlords about Housing First and other programs
Some landlords will discriminate against certain people (ie. those who make lower incomes), but as the At Home/Chez Soi study showed, many are willing. Housing First programs can be particularly attractive to landlords because they offer guarantees on rent and evictions planning, as well as other crucial social services for the tenants who need them, therefore decreasing the amount of time and money they spend on what some call “problem tenants.”
Having designated people to support both landlord and tenant and mediate potential problems is incredibly important. Landlords are primarily concerned with maintaining their property’s value and covering expenses, but they’re not necessarily immune to understanding individual circumstances.
Help tenants organize
Unfortunately with some landlords, no matter how much engagement takes place, problems may continue. In these instances, it’s crucial to help affected tenants organize and take action through the development of tenant groups and in some cases, legal action.
In 2014, tenants took Akelius, a Swedish company that has been aggressively buying up rental buildings in Toronto and beyond, to the Landlord and Tenant Board after the removal of onsite superintendents led to neglect. (The same company has been accused of forcing out low-income tenants by ignoring repairs until they leave, then renovating and renting to higher earners.) Parkdale Community Legal Services represented the tenants in the case, who were awarded a $50,000 collective settlement in 2015. Though the settlement doesn’t solve the issue that tenant concerns are not dealt with as quickly as they were before, tenants at least saw some reimbursement for their struggles – and Akelius was ultimately held responsible.
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.
So you’ve ended homelessness – but can you prove it?
The notion of ending homelessness has shaped public policy and community-based responses towards greater accountability and evidence-based decision making in recent years. While great success has been achieved, actually ending homelessness is another matter altogether. Policy makers, funders, system leaders, and practitioners alike have all come to understand that an end to homelessness means something other than an absolute end – rather, a “functional” end, or achievement of “Functional Zero”.
The notion of “Functional Zero”
A “Functional Zero” approach to defining an end to homelessness describes the situation in a community where homelessness has become a manageable problem. That is, the availability of services and resources match or exceed the demand for them from the target population. For example, a community may declare they have ended homelessness when they have enough supportive housing, shelter beds, service workers, and funds to assist the number of people accessing the services. In economic terms, we can simplify this concept to simply refer to reaching a balance in supply-demand.
More recently, communities have begun to declare they have in fact achieved the goal of Functional Zero with respect to ending homelessness. New Orleans, for example, has publicly announced they have ended veterans’ homelessness, while Medicine Hat is gaining attention as “the first community to end chronic homelessness in Canada”.
Despite these promising signs of progress, there is no internationally recognized definition of what an end of homelessness looks like, what the indicators and targets should be confirming such an achievement, nor process of verifying whether a community has indeed met their goal.
To this end, The School of Public Policy (SPP), the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness are supporting a collaborative process to develop a national definition of an end to homelessness. Through this process, we aim to also outline critical measures needed to confirm an end to homelessness and propose a set of indicators based on a review of targets internationally and the on-the-ground experience of communities working in this direction.
Why does a common definition matter?
A common definition with measurable indicators will help us articulate what local homeless systems aim to achieve in a consistent manner, allowing comparable analysis across jurisdictions and evidence-based assessment of policy implementation for government and funders. This will contribute to continuous quality improvement and enhanced performance towards common objectives, thereby informing investment decisions, system gap analysis, and policy change.
Importantly, a common definition can help us address concerns and skepticism about “what it really means to end homelessness” encountered across stakeholder groups, including the public, media, politicians, service providers and those with lived experience.
How do we define an end to homelessness currently?
In an international review of policy documents from 61 jurisdictions, we found little consistency in how an end to homelessness is defined. Most often, an implied definition following the Functional Zero approach was used in the application of targets, benchmarks or other performance measures that define progress.
Common metrics used included:
- Number of program and housing units available against estimated demand.
- Length of stay in shelter/street.
- Time between identification or ‘registry’ and placement in housing.
- Numbers of homeless persons (point-in-time count, annual shelter /transitional housing utilization).
- Percent who successfully exit to permanent housing, etc.
An important implied assumption across these definitions and their complementing measures is that the focus of our efforts is on effectively managing the supply-demand dynamic of the local homeless-serving system itself. In other words, an end to homelessness is coterminous with the effective performance of local services, balancing client needs with quality and efficient responses. The measures proposed track the flow into the homeless system and its capacity to respond to shifting demand with diverse interventions (prevention, emergency shelter, outreach, Housing First, etc.). They further focus on the workings of the homeless-serving system itself and how quickly it is able to assess clients for appropriate intervention, move them into housing with supports, and to what effect longer term.
While there is nothing wrong per se with this implied focus, making it the sole foundation behind a national definition of Functional Zero would fall short on several fronts, particularly evident when we look to the perspectives of those with lived experience.
The lived experience perspective
In an albeit small sample (n=6) of preliminary interviews with individuals with lived experience with homelessness, participants highlighted that access to safe, accessible, and affordable housing was essential to ending homelessness at a personal and broader social level. Secondly, they stressed that ending homelessness is more than housing as efforts are needed to reduce social exclusion and ensure those with lived experience are part of inclusive communities.
Q: What are your thoughts on typical performance indicators and targets such as the swiftness of re-housing?
Alice: … if it is just about getting people into a place where there are walls than… it’s not going to make a lot of difference. [People] are going to keep going back out [into homelessness] because there has to be community building.
What is evident from these interviews, is that those with lived experience do not define an end to homelessness in terms of targets and performance measures. In some ways, this is obvious; they look to their experience and that of their social networks to develop an understanding of what an end to homelessness would mean to them personally. Yet, to date, our approaches to defining Functional Zero have excluded such perspectives.
What use is building an effective homeless-serving system with lengths of stay in shelter of less than 30 or 21 or seven days, if those we serve report we have not ended their homelessness? There has to be congruence between the indicators we measure and the lived experience perspective.
Building on this research, we have developed a discussion paper that proposes a draft framework for the definition for further discussion across Canada. Over the course of the coming months, the COH and SPP will expand consultations on the proposed definition to a broad range of stakeholders including service providers, policy makers, funders, researchers and those with lived experience.
This blog post originally appeared on the University of Calgary School of Public Policy's blog, and has been republished with permission.
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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.