Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
May 25, 2017

Screening and assessment tools can help programs coordinate the level of services needed to assist individuals in their exit from homelessness.

In 2015, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Mental Health Commission of Canada convened a task force to review screening and assessment tools that were currently available to Canadian communities. The search resulted in 15 tools -- each tool was vetted against criteria developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the United States. The taskforce concluded that the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT), created by Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Centre, was the best screening tool currently available to communities for the purpose of conducting coordinated assessments.

Previous Research on the VAT

Researchers from the Washington Institute for Mental Health Research and Training affiliated with the University of Washington rigorously tested the VAT to examine its psychometric properties, or in other words, if the VAT provides measurements that can be trusted (see page 6 of the report). The researchers found that the VAT was both reliable and valid, which means that the VAT provides consistent results and is sensitive to assessing the level of vulnerability among people who are homeless. The results highlight that the VAT is a trusted tool for communities to use. What has yet to be examined is the use of the VAT in Canada and if scores on the VAT are related to housing outcomes.

BC Housing VAT Evaluation

BC Housing and non-profit housing societies in Vancouver have been using the VAT since 2014 to assist in the placement of individuals into single-site supportive housing units operated by non-profit providers. In 2016, BC Housing initiated an evaluation to determine if the VAT was meeting its objective of contributing to the facilitation of suitable housing placements, to identify lessons learned from staff who have implemented the VAT and from individuals who have been assessed on the VAT, and to inform whether stakeholders should continue to use the VAT.

apartment units
Media Folder: 
Pathways PtH Housing First, Inc. (Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Dr. Eric Macnaughton, and Whitney Howard, M.S.W.) and the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa (Dr. John Ecker and Dr. Tim Aubry) were commissioned by BC Housing to conduct the evaluation. The evaluation team used a mixed methods approach, which included both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was collected from administrative records provided by BC Housing for seven housing sites and analyzed in order to demonstrate trends. Qualitative data was collected from building managers of the seven buildings, assistant managers, tenants and VAT assessors.

The key findings from the evaluation were:

1)   Clients were generally scoring on the low-to-mid-range of the VAT, which indicated that clients were assessed as having low to medium vulnerability although a wide range of score was represented.

2)   The VAT was effective in achieving BC Housing’s objective of facilitating a suitable tenant mix in supportive housing settings.

3)   The VAT has some ability to predict who will be successful in housing, as tenants with higher VAT scores had shorter tenancies perhaps requiring a higher service intensity or different type of housing.

4)   The VAT was perceived by BC Housing and not-for-profit societies’ staff as having significantly improved the fairness and transparency of the tenant placement process.

5)   The VAT interview was viewed as a positive experience by most of the tenants, and was experienced as being sensitive and understandable, though there were some concerns about the consequences of providing forthright answers, and about certain questions eliciting some discomfort.

6)   Within the context of supportive housing buildings, it can be challenging to house individuals who have higher VAT scores and more complex support needs.

Based upon these results, the evaluation team recommended the continued use of the VAT in BC Housing funded supportive housing. The full report can be found on the Homeless Hub’s website.

Canadian Version of the VAT

The results from this evaluation provide further evidence of the utility of the VAT as an effective screening and assessment tool for Canadian communities. In recognition of this utility, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness recently released a Canadian version of the VAT. The manual has been lightly revised to reflect the Canadian context and some new material has been added on best practices for planning and implementing coordinated assessment processes.

Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? Throughout our careers, we’ve been asked these questions by LGBTQ2S young people experiencing homelessness a countless number of times. We’ve been asked versions of the same questions by service providers working with youth experiencing homelessness, advocates for LGBTQ2S youth, and policy makers -- Where do we go from here? What are we going to do?

The problem of LGBTQ2S youth homelessness can overwhelm us if we let it. It is a big problem, involving other big problems, like poverty, racism, cissexism, transphobia, heterosexism, homophobia, and colonialism. We see the impact of these, and

 LGBTQ2S young people experiencing homelessness live the impact of these, every day. For example, some of us live in cities or provinces that are unwelcoming to LGBTQ2S people. This, in turn, may make the available services for LGBTQ2S young people equally as unwelcoming.

"Almost all LGBTQ people going into shelters have a fear of them, because it isn’t a matter of if it’s dangerous, but just how dangerous it will be."

Many of us live in cities or provinces that are hostile towards Indigenous youth and Black youth, often resulting in violence towards youth of colour, stigma, and social isolation. Systems are often not designed to meet the specific needs of youth who have experienced multiple stigmas related to racism, homophobia, and transphobia. As such, providers working within these systems may not always understand how to meet the needs of youth with intersecting identities, leaving LGBTQ2S youth of colour experiencing homelessness with few places to turn to for support.

"As a queer person I can find a few resources which may help, but as a black trans woman, the margins are even more narrow."

Most of us live in places that criminalize the experience of homelessness. The notion that youth experiencing homelessness make the streets unsafe is still a widely held belief. Public discourse on crime and homelessness tends to revolve around youth experiencing homelessness as the perpetrators of crime, rather than the victims, which has been a key factor leading to the criminalization of homelessness. However, a major part of the problem is that there is not nearly enough housing for youth experiencing homelessness, leaving young people with no choice, but to fend for themselves. Youth are then criminalized for figuring out how to survive without any support or assistance; they are ticketed for sleeping outside, trespassing, and loitering. And when they engage in street economies to buy the things that they need, they are arrested.  

"That’s when I started getting in trouble, like, with the police and everything."

So, where do we go from here? What are we doing to do? We hope this book will provide some direction. It includes some of the latest research related to LGBTQ2S youth homelessness, as well as case studies of innovative program models that are working alongside LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness in Canada and the U.S. It also includes wisdom from several young people who have experienced homelessness. We believe that those most impacted by LGBTQ2S youth homelessness - LGBTQ2S youth themselves - must be at the center of conceptualizing and creating the solutions that will help us end LGBTQ2S youth homelessness.

As queer researchers with a profound understanding of family rejection and the complexities of coming out, as well as the relationship between coming out and homelessness, we are deeply connected to this work. Our relationship to this work has taught us about reflexivity and the importance of being reflective researchers.

We approached the creation of this book, much like we approach our everyday work, committed with a full heart. This is a project of love and hope. We put this book out into the world with the hope that it may help create a necessary shift, so that all young people have a safe place to call home, and that together we may work to end LGBTQ2S youth homelessness.

Download the e-book for free at homelesshub.ca/whereamigoingtogo or purchase the paperback for $25 CND.

Calgary Homeless Foundation
May 12, 2017

The present blog post is the first in a two-part series on social assistance. The series is inspired by recent data captured in Alberta’s 2016 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness suggesting that just a small percentage of persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary receive social assistance (see point #7 of this previous post).

 —

Ron Kneebone (Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary) and Katherine White (Yukon’s Deputy Finance Minister) have referred to social assistance as “the final layer of the public social safety net — designed to catch those people in need of support but unable to find it from family, friends or non-government agencies…”

(I’d argue that, in larger urban centres, social assistance is in fact the second-last layer before the homeless-serving sector…)

Here are 10 things to know:

  1. Every Canadian province and territory has its own social assistance system—that is, its own legislation, its own regulations and its own policies. First Nations with self-government agreements have their own “income assistance” programs. And for First Nations without self-government agreements, income assistance is funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (but “aligned with the rates and eligibility criteria for off-reserve residents of the reference province or territory”).[1] In the words of Martin Papillon (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa): “First Nations administer income assistance on behalf of federal authorities, yet they follow rules and objectives established by provinces.”[2]
  1. There aren’t enough jobs to go around,[3] and it’s well-known that Employment Insurance benefits provide only temporary coverage (and only cover a small percentage of jobless persons). [4] Without social assistance, people without jobs would be destitute. This places elected officials and public servants in a conundrum—while wanting to provide some basic income assistance for those without work, they don’t want to ‘make life so comfortable’ for those persons so as to discourage them from actively looking for work. They also don’t want workers to quit their jobs in the belief that social assistance provides a ‘good living.’ In other words, by design, social assistance has two contradictory objectives: 1) to give people enough money to live on; and 2) to not give people enough money to live on.
  1. In Canada, social assistance coverage expanded in the post-World War II era; it then contracted in the 1980s and 1990s. In the years following World War II, Canada experienced low unemployment, high levels of tax revenue and a strong feeling of collective solidarity. During this time, senior orders of government designed and funded a social assistance system with benefit levels and rules that were generous relative to today.[5] From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, this expansion was especially fast.[6] (For more on the political and economic factors that led to the post-1970s contraction, see this 2014 article by Jim Stanford.)
  1. Most people agree that social assistance benefit levels are insufficient to live on. Across Canada, 70% of households on social assistance are “food insecure.” In fact, it’s rare to see an elected official or senior public servant even attempt to make a case that social assistance benefit levels are sufficient. In 1995, an Ontario provincial cabinet minister attempted to do this; he was roundly ridiculed. In Alberta, a “single employable adult” on social assistance receives approximately $8,000 annually to live on. (To see social assistance benefit levels for yourself, check out the most recent Welfare in Canada)
  1. Very few immigrants (relative to Canada’s general population) receive social assistance.That’s a finding of research done by Tracy Smith-Carrier and Jennifer Mitchell (and that research is presented in Chapter 17 of this 2015 book on social assistance in Canada). However, a very large percentage of members of First Nations receive “income assistance” (this issue is discussed in detail by Martin Papillon in Chapter 18 of the aforementioned book).
  1. In recent years, there’s been a substantial increase in persons with disabilities receiving social assistance. At a national level, John Stapleton and Anne Tweddle have written about this here. They find this increase to be especially apparent in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia (and they find it to be most pronounced in Alberta). For a recent review of what this trend looks like in Alberta, see this recent report.
  1. The inadequacy of social assistance puts a strain on other parts of Canada’s social welfare system. Three specific points are worth making here. First, if social assistance benefit levels were higher, there would be less demand for emergency shelter beds (that’s one of the findings of this recent report). Second, most of the government funding required for social housing in Canada is for the “rent supplement” component of the assistance (i.e. financial assistance to cover the gap between what it costs the operator to pay for the housing, on the one hand, and what a low-income household can afford, on the other). There’d be less need for social housing funding if social assistance benefit levels were higher. Third, low income is associated with poor health outcomes,[7] which in turn lead to higher health care costs. It’s therefore likely higher social assistance benefit levels would reduce health care costs in Canada.
  1. Many landlords discriminate against tenants who report social assistance as a source of income. This is commonly known by both social assistance recipients and their advocates. And in 2008, this theory was put to the test in a study where ‘mock phone calls’ were made to Toronto landlords; during the study, researchers found solid empirical support for the claim that landlords do indeed discriminate against social assistance recipients.
  1. Social assistance administrators do not track what happens to people who are denied coverage. In other words, when a person’s application for social assistance is rejected, there’s no systematic effort made to track what happens to them. However, researchers do sometimes look at what happens after people stop receiving social assistance; one such Canadian study is available here.
  1. A modest increase in social assistance benefit levels would likely reduce homelessness. A recent report estimates that modest increases in social assistance benefit levels would likely result in less need for emergency shelter beds for homeless persons. Specifically, the report suggests that a 15-20% increase in benefit levels for ‘single employables’ would likely result in a 15-20% decrease in demand for shelter beds.

In Sum. Across Canada, social assistance plays an important, but insufficient, role in poverty alleviation. Higher social assistance benefit levels would likely result in tangible outcomes, including less food insecurity, improved health outcomes and less homelessness. Part 2 of the present blog series will focus on the Alberta context.

The author wishes to thank Daniel Béland, Gerry Boychuk, Pierre-Marc Daigneault, Louise Gallagher, Seth Klein, Jennefer Laidley, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Michael Mendelson, Dionne Miazdyck-Shield, Munir Sheikh, Anne Tweddle and Donna Wood for invaluable assistance with this blog post. Any errors lie with the author.


[1] An important exception is Ontario, where the provincial government is responsible for on-reserve income assistance. Martin Papillon briefly discusses this in Chapter 18 of this book.

[2] I’ve taken this quote from p. 334 of this book.

[3] For more on the relationship between the labour market and social assistance receipt, see Gerard Boychuk’s chapter in this 2015 book. Figure 2.2 in the chapter consists of a line graph suggestive of a strong correlation (R2 = – 0.88) between the percentage of Canada’s adult population receiving social assistance, and the employment rate, over time.

[4] For more on the inadequacy of Employment Insurance benefits, see the Employment Insurance chapter in the 2017 Alternative Federal Budget.

[5] This happened as part of an expansion of Canada’s entire social welfare system. For more on this, see this book by Dennis Guest.

[6] To learn more about this history, check out my PhD thesis, which can be downloaded here.

[7] This 2009 report, focusing on the Ontario context, looks specifically at health outcomes of social assistance recipients.


This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.

Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale.

Contact him at nick@calgaryhomeless.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nicholas_falvo

With contributions from Lesley McMillan, Program Director, A Way Home Canada

I’m excited about this week! Over the course of one week, I not only get to celebrate my birthday, but I also get to help host a group of thoughtful, passionate and determined folks that make up the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness (LC).

The LC’s annual meeting is happening between May 10 and 12 in Toronto. This rich community is made up of leaders from across Canada, who are making the shift away from simply managing the crisis of youth homelessness to preventing and ending it. I was fortunate to come on board with Eva’s, prior to my role with A Way Home. Since then, I’ve helped grow the LC and support a refinement and expansion of the LC’s scope of work. Now, not only does AWH host the LC, but the LC is a critical founding member of the A Way Home coalition and continues to contribute to our vision to prevent and end youth homelessness.

A community of practice on youth homelessness is very important to our collective vision. Prior to the LC’s inception, service providers across the country were doing essential and often innovative work, but they were generally done in isolation. A small group of services providers, with the support of Eva’s, decided that this needed to change and founded the LC. Not only do LC members support each other in their local work, but the LC has developed tools and resources to support the homeless-youth serving sector to implement the best practices. Some acclamations include:

“Without the support, guidance and learning opportunities provided through the Learning Community, Vancouver's Broadway Youth Resource Centre would not have been able to develop its continuum of supported housing for youth. Prior to BYRC's engagement in the Learning Community in 2006, it did not have any housing for youth. Since joining the LC, the Youth Centre has opened, supported and maintained more than 50 units of supported housing -- and the number keeps growing.” – Robert Wilmot

“I've been a part of the Learning Community since 2008 and the experience has been nothing short of exceptional. There is no greater privilege than to be a part of a group of like-minded professionals who experience the same challenges and can offer a perspective to people who cannot understand. It is comforting to know that someone across the other side of the country went through the same thing you just went through, and can be reached with a phone call. It is this kind of fellowship that truly makes the Learning Community an invaluable tool to everyone involved.”  –  Darrell Lechman (SCYAP, Executive Director)

These comments show the LC is a space where members share their local work in an open-source environment, which enables others to replicate those programs to fit the needs of their communities. It is also a space where members can ask for support and assistance to improve their practices and policies, which would directly support young people and reduce the length of their experience of homelessness.

The LC works in partnership with A Way Home, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and others, to help ensure that the voices of youth with lived experience are elevated in all areas of policy, practice and resource development. One such example is the Without a Home’s report, based on the largest national survey on youth homelessness ever done in Canada. Led by Canadian Observatory on Homelessness in partnership with A Way Home, the study was supported at every turn by the LC. Service providers from the LC advised on the scope and delivery of the study, as well as ensuring that youth with lived experience in their communities were involved as well. The result is an important report that gives us insights into the causes and conditions of youth homelessness and points squarely at the need for prevention. This is invaluable as we collectively work to impact public policy and investment.

So lock down the hatches and board up the windows, because the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness is in town!

On January 24, I gave a presentation to students at the University of Calgary as part of the Certificate in Working with Homeless Populations program. The goal of this presentation was to discuss ways students could advocate to senior orders of government for better public policy that can help end homelessness.

My PowerPoint slides from the presentation can be downloaded here: Falvo_Homelessness Advocacy WHP 3 of 3 20jan2017.

This is the last of a 3-part presentation that I delivered that day. A blog post based on Part 1 can be found here, while a blog post based on Part 2 can be found here.

Here are 10 things to know about advocacy in Canada’s homelessness and affordable housing sectors:

  1. Advocacy can be defined as a collective effort to bring about changes to political priorities, funding levels, legislation, regulations or policies. It’s relevant to people working in the homeless-serving sector because, in addition to delivering services to clients on a day-to-day basis, many workers in that sector also want to see changes to public policy that would help end homelessness.
  1. In the homelessness and affordable housing sectors, there are at least seven approaches to advocacy. They are: grassroots advocacy; direct action; rights-based advocacy; government-to-government advocacy; advocacy within Parliament; professionalized advocacy; and policy-based advocacy. Some people and groups take part in more than one type of advocacy; also, there’s considerable overlap among the different approaches.
  1. People engaged in “grassroots advocacy” have often been directly affected by homelessness. Also, their effort likely has a very small budget. This often involves informal working relationships, as well as a strong volunteer component. Examples of grassroots advocacy in Canada’s homelessness and affordable housing sectors include: Calgary’s Client Action Committee; Vancouver’s Carnegie Community Action ProjectHousing Action Now (in Toronto); Montreal’s Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain(FRAPRU); and Montreal’s Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM).
  1. People who engage in “direct action” are very willing to be disruptive (i.e. sit-ins, protest, civil disobedience). Little effort is made to charm or cajole the audience (e.g., observers, media, etc.). Direct action often receives a considerable amount of media attention. Examples of groups who engage in direct action include CLAC-Montréal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
  1. The underlying argument of “rights-based advocacy” is that individuals should receive a social benefit because it’s their legal right to have it. This often means challenging interpretations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and invoking “economic, social and cultural rights.”[1] Rights-based advocacy is heavily dominated by people in the legal community. Examples of organizations that take this approach include Canada Without Poverty and the Right to Housing Coalition (organized by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario). An example of a Calgary-based approach to rights-based advocacy is the Homeless Charter of Rights project.
  1. Government-to-government advocacy, as well as advocacy within a legislature or parliament, has obvious importance. Examples of organizations that engage in the former approach include the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Assembly of First Nations. Examples of advocacy that take place within a legislature or parliament include Question Periodcommittee work and the legislative process.
  1. “Professionalized advocacy” is often well-resourced and tries to positively reinforce what it sees as ‘good behaviour’ by government. This approach typically involves frequent meetings with elected officials—sometimes elected officials even seek out the group in question for their opinion and for background information. Such groups typically have multiple paid staff and sufficient resources to plan large events (e.g., conferences), hire consultants, commission research and produce web-based resources. Such organizations often provide services to their members (e.g. webinars, trainings). They also place emphasis on positive messaging with government (i.e. praising good behaviour, positive reinforcement). Canadian groups in the homelessness and affordable housing sector that engage in this approach include the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, Housing Partnership Canada and the National Housing Collaborative.
  1. “Policy-based advocacy” is an approach whereby a specific policy or funding pitch is used to galvanize attention and lobby government. Examples include the Alternative Federal Budget, the One Percent Solution and “ending homelessness.” (As a self-proclaimed policy wonk myself, I like this approach very much.)
  1. In the past decade, there’s been a change in tone in Canadian homelessness advocacy. Beginning in the mid-2000s, many homelessness advocates began making their cases to senior orders of government in Canada in new ways. Advocates started to emphasize what the non-profit sector could do differently, rather than how much more money senior orders of government needed to spend on social welfare programs. Increasingly, advocates also began using economic arguments in favour of action (by emphasizing the economic cost of homelessness to society) rather than a moral argument. This approach was especially popular among those practicing the professionalized approach; it has notbeen as popular within the direct action movement. I’ve previously blogged about this phenomenon here.
  1. There’s a role for all of these approaches. There’s no inherent reason why all of these approaches can’t co-exist. Not only do they not need to compete; they can actually complement and reinforce each other. I would argue, for example, that direct action approaches ‘create space’ for professionalized approaches. What’s more, some people and groups may choose to practice a variety of approaches.

The author wishes to thank the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post:  Cathy Crowe, Katie-Sue Derejko, Louise Gallagher, Kara Layher, Allan Moscovitch, Emily Paradis, Steve Pomeroy, Kaitlin Schwan and Greg Suttor. Any errors lie with the author.


[1] For a consideration of whether economic, social and cultural rights can be litigated in courts, see this resource.

This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.

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