Research Matters Blog
How does homelessness impact the recidivism rates for youth involved with the justice system?
This question came from Marlene N. via our latest website survey.
As a 2006 Toronto report points out, most research suggests that the relationship between homelessness and incarceration is bidirectional: “That is, just as homeless people are at high risk of becoming incarcerated, prisoners are at high risk for becoming homeless.” Unfortunately, the criminal justice system in Canada is inextricably linked with homelessness.
This is also true for youth involved with the criminal justice system, which is a highly vulnerable population. Specific data about youth offenders in Canada is difficult to obtain, but we know that many of these youth come from backgrounds of poverty, health issues, conflict and/or violence, and general instability. As a result, many do not have a stable, positive place to stay once they’ve been released; or families, friends and other social systems simply are not able to cope with caring for those who have been recently discharged. In the words of Jane Glover and Naomi Clewett (from their report, No Fixed Abode): “…periods of unsettlement in the transition periods just prior to release and immediately following release from custody can be triggers for disengagement from services, risky behaviour and re-offending.” The authors presented several case studies and outlined their paths to homelessness and back into custody (if that occurred). Below is one example of how they conceptualize the system failures that can lead youth back into custody.
In England, fewer youth are committing crimes but recidivism rates are very high at 74%. Glover and Clewett’s report highlights previous research from the English government that estimated youth recidivism rates could be reduced by 20% if stable housing was provided; and notes: “A Home Office evaluation concluded that 69 per cent of offenders with an accommodation need re-offended within two years, compared to 40 per cent who were in suitable accommodation.”
Similar rates have been found in a number of American studies. A 2013 study from the Washington state department found that 26% of youth released from juvenile detention facilities are homeless within 12 months of being released; and that recidivism rates were higher for these youth than those who had stable housing. Furthermore, the youth who experienced homelessness were found to have “a high rate of substance abuse, serious mental illness, rates of chronic illness, and higher mortality rate than youth released with no identified housing need.”
A lack of stable housing and effective discharge planning also affects adult offenders, as research by Gaetz and O’Grady explores. Studies have also been done on the complex relationship between homelessness, trauma, poverty, and mental health—all of which makes people more likely to be incarcerated.
Other research supports solutions that go beyond limiting recidivism and improving people’s lives. A study about the cycle of homelessness and incarceration among Aboriginal women in Canada—among the participants, 56% reported a lack of housing contributed to recommitting crimes—concluded that “…there is a need for prevention and intervention supports for women living in poverty." The writers also argued that we "...need to address the systemic and institutional racism and sexism that continue to deny women the right to a living income, safe and affordable housing, and human dignity.”
Glover and Clewett recommend that youth first be given the opportunity to stay with family whenever possible upon release, with additional support services to ease the transition. If this is not possible, the writers state that youth be provided with safe, supportive accommodation (with quality standards defined by the government) as they have seen success with this approach through their work at Barnardo’s. The writers also advocate for a cross-government strategy to support not only youth, but their families in order to move towards preventing homelessness.
In February of 2015, the BC Provincial government released its annual budget plan. While issues like healthcare, education, and the projected surplus gained most of the media attention, BC Non-Profit Housing Association wanted to look at how the budget affects subsidized housing. Using BC Housing Annual Reports and Service Plans (released alongside the budget), we put together an infographic that shows some recent and long-term trends in housing policy.
Funding levels of housing programs
In the first section of the infographic, we highlight the funding levels of housing programs and how they are projected to fluctuate between 2014-15 and 2015-2016. Looking at these short-term trends is useful because it allows us to better understand where the province’s housing funding priorities lie. The numbers show that the province places a strong emphasis on emergency shelters, homelessness services and transitional housing, which is broadly reflective of the shift in housing policy away from long-term funding for independent social housing.
There’s no doubt getting people off the streets and into housing is critical, however we need an affordable, secure housing supply to make this happen. Unfortunately funding priorities are not reflecting this reality. Emergency and short-term housing is estimated at $335 million in 2015/16, while funding levels for independent social housing lag behind at $206 million.
Funding relationship between the provincial and federal government for housing programs
For every dollar that the federal government contributes, the provincial government contributes $2.50. This figure is reflective of two broad trends occurring in housing policy over the last 20 years. The first is that the federal government has not developed any social housing supply programs since 1993 (except on-reserve). The second reason is that the federal government began to devolve responsibility for social housing portfolios to the provinces back in 1996, which means that the provinces are now primarily responsible for housing policy. While the federal government has provided some piecemeal funding through the Affordable Housing Initiative/Investment in Affordable Housing, it has not been enough to keep up with growing demand.
One of the dominant trends moving forward is that households living in core housing need in BC will increase by approximately 2,200 households per year while the provincial and federal governments have only managed to fund 1,700 units a year on average. If we project this out, it means we will have a minimum shortfall of 12,000 units by 2036. It should be noted that this number is a conservative estimate that does not examine factors such as affordable housing stock lost to reconversion and demolitions, or more rapid increases in core housing need due to income and labour market issues. Nonetheless, a shortfall of 12,000 units will certainly result in more homelessness and housing insecurity for lower-income groups.
Trends in subsidized housing
The charts at the bottom of the infographic take a longer-term perspective and show trends in subsidized housing over the last 10 years. The chart on the bottom left demonstrates the relationship between provincial and federal spending levels over the last 10 years. While housing at the provincial level more than doubled between 2006 and 2015 (in part due to devolution of social housing portfolios to the provinces), it has recently levelled off. Federal spending increased over the course of 2008-2011 due to more than $2 billion in stimulus spending for social housing allocated under Canada’s Economic Action Plan. Now that this funding has evaporated, federal funding has trended downward, and will continue to do so because of expiring operating agreements.
Related to this last point, the graph at the bottom right looks specifically at funding levels for independent social housing over the last 10 years, and highlights the impact of expiring operating agreements. Operating agreements are long-term subsidy arrangements (usually between 35 and 50 years) with social housing providers to cover mortgage costs and keep rents affordable for low-income tenants. The bulk of these agreements will expire over the next 20 years, and while many projects will be viable and providers will be able to keep rents affordable, others will be forced to raise rents to ensure the building remains financially viable. This growing affordability squeeze will contribute to homelessness as it leaves society’s most vulnerable citizens with few housing options.
The lesson learned from infographic is that although the provincial government has attempted to provide at least some support for subsidized housing (although mostly in the form of rent supplements and shorter-term housing), more needs to be done. Both levels of government need to step up and create permanent and long-term independent social housing if we are to truly have an impact on homelessness.
Introducing the Guide
In its renewal of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), the Government of Canada has prioritized Housing First as a key strategy to reduce homelessness. A Housing First approach focuses on moving people who are experiencing chronic or episodic homelessness as rapidly as possible from the street or emergency shelters into permanent housing with supports to maintain housing stability.
To support communities transitioning to Housing First, HPS commissioned the development of a guide to performance management specifically for Community Entities with the support of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. The Guide is accessible in full here, a French version is also available.
You can also register for today's Homeless Hub webinar from 1-2PM (EDT) that introduces the key topics covered in the Guide.
What is performance management?
Performance management is essential to understand the effectiveness of interventions funded under HPS, as well as a community's overall progress towards reducing homelessness. It is important that communities develop effective performance management processes to link their efforts to national-level goals and benchmarks.
Performance management can help you:
- Articulate what your homeless-serving system, as a whole, is trying to achieve;
- Illustrate whether progress is being made towards preventing and reducing homelessness in a particular community;
- Keep programs accountable to funders;
- Quantify achievements towards the goals of the Community Plan and HPS targets;
- Use information gathered for continuous improvement;
- Align program-level results to client outcomes at the individual and system-levels; and
- Inform the next round of strategy review and investment planning.
An Overview of the Guide
The Guide consists of 4 modules, each building on previous discussions on interrelated topics.
Module 1 - Designing the Homeless-Serving System discusses the tenets of Housing First as program and philosophy and links these to system planning. The Module provides an introduction to implementing a systems approach focusing on the role of the CE in leading the development of a local homeless-serving system. This is an important first step to introducing performance management.
Module 2 - Performance Management introduces the concepts of performance indicators and targets to enable program and system-level analysis. These concepts are brought together in real-life examples to illustrate the systems approach to performance management in CE practice.
Module 3 - Quality Assurance outlines key processes and procedures that aim to improve service impact through continuous improvement with a focus on service standards, program monitoring and risk management.
Module 4 - Funding Allocation brings the concepts discussed full circle by linking performance management, system planning, and quality assurance to CE investment practices. Financial monitoring is presented as a powerful tool that can be leveraged in performance management, with particular focus on developing eligible costs guidelines and benchmarking costs. The module discusses annual funding cycles that incorporate funding allocation into strategic review and business planning processes.
The modules begin with an overview of the main aims of each section, present detail discussions on themes, and end with a summary, reflection questions, and key considerations for smaller CEs to highlight essential steps in a particular practice area. Each module points you to sample resources, such as client grievance and serious incident forms, contract boilerplates, etc. from the CE Resource Inventory, which you can adapt locally.
Building a Resource Inventory
The Guide was developed through research and key stakeholder consultation to collect and review existing promising practices from 14 CEs. Practices across a range of communities varying in size were reviewed to shape the content of the Guide and identify promising approaches. The review process also included consultation with national organizations and drew on US, UK and Australian performance management practices to complement Canadian findings.
We are extremely thankful for the willingness of the 14 CEs to freely share resources and knowledge to build the collective effort to end homelessness. In fact, over 80 resources have been shared to date. These resources include: calls for proposals, privacy policies, safety guidelines, data collection examples, service standards, indicators of progress, system planning frameworks, and more.
It is our hope that this online inventory supported by the COH will continue to grow as the community of practice evolves in our country – and we call on everyone to contribute further to ensure its ongoing relevance and continuous improvement. You can access the current CE Resource Inventory here.
The prevalence of mental illness in Canadian children and adolescents, at any given point in time, is about 15%. In other words, 1.2 million children and adolescents experience mental illness and/or addiction of sufficient severity to cause significant distress and impaired functioning. The most common mental illnesses among children and adolescents are anxiety (6.5%), conduct (3.3%), attention deficit (3.3%), depressive (2.1%), substance use (0.8%), and autism and other developmental disorders (0.3%).
At the provincial/territorial level, the delivery of mental health services to children and adolescents is highly fragmented and uncoordinated. Usually, a variety of departments and agencies (e.g., mental health, primary health care, hospitals, child welfare, schools, young offender, addiction services, and special education services) are involved. When services are available, usually there are long waiting lists for access to service. Service capacity must be increased to provide a basic level of accessible services in the places where children, adolescents and their families spend most of their time (e.g., schools and homes) and at appropriately flexible times of day.
In addition, there are specific mental health care needs of those making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The need for mental health services and supports will likely continue following an adolescent’s 18th birthday but children and adolescent mental health services are generally no longer accessible when an individual turns 18. The period of transition from childhood to adulthood can be difficult, and requirements for mental health services and supports may actually increase rather than decrease during this important developmental period.
The various systems must work in an integrated, collaborative and timely manner to prepare and plan for adolescents experiencing the transition to adulthood. Unfortunately, child and adolescent mental health services and supports have been called the “orphan’s orphan” of the health care system in Canada, a term that has its origin in the frequent reference to mental health as the “orphan” of the Canadian health care system.
Learn more about the research on mental health and youth homelessness and the need for early mental health intervention for street-involved youth in this chapter of the Youth Homelessness in Canada book.
Recently, there’s been a lot of media coverage of a new initiative in Woodstock, Ontario called Foods for Friends. The program, run by Operation Sharing, invites people to donate 25 cents at the cash registers of local grocery stores. The funds are then distributed to people in need in the form of a grocery card that is good for non-taxable items, which includes most food staples.
The food cards come in predetermined denominations once a month on one-time use cards—usually $25 for single people, $45 for families of three, and $60 for larger families. Though Foods for Friends won’t be covering a month’s worth of groceries, extra money can really make a difference at the end of the month when many people experience budget constraints.
Ed Keenan wrote about the program back in February for The Toronto Star, and highlights many of the positives: “It removes a lot of the obvious inefficiency in the food bank system — no need for trucks to ship thousands of pounds of cans all around town and back, no need for armies of volunteers to sort donations and assemble boxes, no need for warehouses to store it all.”
The Foods for Friends program shows significant promise when compared to our flawed food charity system. Most foods from banks are preserved or near expiry, and rarely provide the healthiest diets. Food charities are expensive to run and make great demands on volunteers and environmental resources. As such, a growing body of research suggests that they simply do not work.
The state of food charity in Canada
One study of food bank operations in five Canadian cities found that because supply relies on donation, 75% of food banks had issues meeting demand. The only food banks that reported running efficiently and experiencing no issues were those that somehow restricted access through reduced operating hours, limits on number of visits, and who is eligible to use the food bank
In some areas, like Toronto, food bank use is on the rise. The Daily Bread recently released the latest Who’s Hungry report, finding that people with low incomes who live with disabilities (49%) and/or are lone parents (45%) are more likely to visit food banks.
Despite this, and the fact that many food banks provide referrals and other services (as pictured above) they are notoriously underused. Tarasuk, Dachner and Loopstra’s study on food banks and welfare in Canada found that even though 70% of households dependent on social assistance were food insecure, a much smaller percentage actually used food banks. Reasons for not using food banks ranged from families not thinking they were appropriate for their needs, to facing logistical barriers (such as narrow hours of operation, lack of transportation, and line-ups). The researchers concluded that:
“…there is no indication that this ad hoc, donor-driven system of food relief is able to compensate for the chronic household budget deficits arising from fundamentally inadequate income assistance programs. Furthermore, there is nothing inherent in the design or delivery of charitable food assistance programs in Canada that suggests this 'system' is able to correct itself.”
Similar findings were included in a study that aimed to find out why people were not using community gardens and kitchens—they simply were not convenient, appropriate or close enough to people experiencing food insecurity.
In a Homeless Hub podcast, Dr. Tarasuk elaborated on her research on food bank use in Canada:
“They’re not uniformly available or accessible, but also food banks are fundamentally a culturally inappropriate response to this problem. In an affluent society like ours people aren’t comfortable seeking charity. To go to a place where you have to “out” your poverty and your extreme deprivation to total strangers, it’s just not something that I think a lot of people are prepared to do. They don’t identify with the solution, or not the solution, it’s not the solution. They don’t identify with that response.”
The value of dignity
What Tarasuk is touching on in her above response is how humiliating it can be to be seen as poor. During my first undergraduate degree I had to make use of the university food bank a few times and I can tell you, I did not go in with my head high. And when I left with Kraft Dinner and pumpkin pie filling—the two most appealing items in the whole place—it wasn’t any higher.
The Foods for Friends program offers some agency and dignity to card recipients, who get to choose what they want to buy and shop like everyone else. Shirley Merry, a resident of Woodstock and recipient of Foods for Friends, appears in a CBC video and an article from the Woodstock Sentinel Review commenting on the change the program has made in her life: “With food cards, we can go into grocery stores and get whatever we want and be able to shop with dignity…we deserve to shop where everybody else does.”
This is incredibly valuable, especially for people who have faced the stigma of poverty for a long time. But Food for Friends is designed as an emergency food service only: the denominations are small, first-time users and families get priority, and repeat use is discouraged. Part of what is needed is a committed, long-term vision of equal food access and poverty reduction in Canada (and worldwide).
Food as a human right
Olivier De Schutter from the United Nations has recommended implementing a “right to food” policy, which prioritizes core issues like supporting small-scale farming and providing incentives for agriculture. So far, policymakers and leaders in Canada have yet to really consider his proposal.
The state of food security in Canada, a wealthy nation, is dire. According to Tarasuk, Mitchell and Dachner’s report, Household Food Insecurity in Canada (2012), food security has only been measured since 2005 and inconsistently so amongst different provinces and territories. Their report used the latest available data to show that in 2012, nearly 13% of Canadian households experienced food insecurity—that’s 4 million people. More key findings include:
- 62% of respondents said they primarily relied on wages, salaries or self employment, while 16.1% reported relying on social assistance
- Highest rates of food insecurity were found in northern communities, especially in Nunavut
- Households led by an Aboriginal or black respondent were almost 2.5 times more likely to report having difficulty securing food
- Recent immigrants reported being food insecure at a higher rate (19.6%) than those who arrived more than five years ago (11.8%)
In First World Hunger Revisited, a chapter by Riches and Tarasuk highlights that despite thirty years of food charity in Canada, food insecurity rates seem to only be increasing. They argue that ultimately, food charity models only help those severely in need on an intermittent basis, and underscore De Schutter’s belief that, globally, access to food must be positioned as a human rights issue.
Power, Little and Collins shared this view in their study of the food stamp program—now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—in the United States. They found that like many other food charity models, food stamp programs reduce the agency of its participants and generate stigma. The authors conclude that the source of food insecurity is a lack of income, not a lack of food, writing: “…the most useful course of action for health promoters is continued advocacy for a reconstructed social safety net, one that ensures income security and effectively reduces poverty, the underlying cause of food insecurity.”
Moving towards long-term and alternative solutions
While new emergency models like Foods for Friends have the potential to improve our current food charity system, we need to go further. Given her experience in the area, I asked Dr. Tarasuk what her initial thoughts were about the shift from food banks towards grocery cards. We talked about the various eligibility requirements of food banks and how those tend to limit agency and access, but we also spent a lot of time discussing the real underlying problem of poverty. She told me:
“We know the primary reason people can’t put food on the table is because of low income. This is a step forward in that, but aren’t we just augmenting an inadequate welfare program through charity? The sheer volume of the problem [food insecurity] is troubling, as well as the tendency of these numbers to go up…A very large number of people are struggling to meet their food needs because of issues of affordability…to say it’s more dignified to give a food card means we don’t talk about this very problem.”
Some researchers have advocated for Canada to adopt a minimum income policy to resolve issues of food insecurity and poverty on a broader scale; and ultimately save Canada a lot in healthcare spending. Other proposed solutions are a bit more out-of-the-box, and depend heavily on context. Gloria Song, a Nunavut-based lawyer, writer and musician wrote for CBC that, along with connecting local and southern organizations and resources, one way to help solve food insecurity in Northern communities would be to support more traditional ways of finding food: hunting and fishing.
Solving food insecurity will involve creativity and time, and Foods for Friends is certainly a step forward, especially when it comes to equalizing access and preserving dignity. But let’s not stop there.
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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