Research Matters Blog

Calgary Homeless Foundation
December 01, 2015

On November 18, I gave a presentation on “ending homelessness” at the 7 Cities Leadership Summit in Edmonton. My PowerPoint slides can be downloaded here.

Here are ten things to know about “ending homelessness” in Canada:

1. In 2008, Calgary became the first Canadian municipality to publicly commit to “ending homelessness.” More than a dozen other Canadian municipalities have since followed suit, with Medicine Hat’s Mayor recently claiming that his municipality has indeed “ended homelessness.” Such plans have the potential to raise awareness and focus collective efforts to develop new practices focused on ending homelessness. I think one reason Alberta communities have adopted such advocacy approaches stems from the successful use of similar advocacy campaigns in the United States. Speaking at a Toronto conference in 2009—and drawing on successful homelessness advocacy campaigns in the United States—Nan Roman said: “By saying the problem keeps getting worse, we weren’t getting resources. By focusing on solutions, we got more resources.” Put differently, speaking positively (and demonstrating positive outcomes) can result in more resources being committed to fighting homelessness; and I think that’s been an important reason that many advocates in Canada have developed “ending homelessness” strategies.

2. Good researchers should be cautious in attributing success or failure in “ending homelessness” solely to each community’s respective plan. “Correlation doesn’t imply causation” is a common expression in statistics. In the present context, it should be interpreted to mean that, just because a municipality’s homeless population has decreased after a plan to “end homelessness” has been written, doesn’t mean it’s because of the plan that the number of homeless people has gone down. Likewise, just because one municipality’s homeless population has decreased faster than another’s, doesn’t mean it’s because the former is doing a better job of designing and coordinating programs that respond to homelessness. Indeed, a wide array of other factors are at play here, including availability of rental housing, migration, and unemployment.

3. When it comes to “ending homelessness” campaigns across Canada, Alberta is generally viewed as being the leading province. In 2009, Alberta became the first Canadian province to commit to “ending homelessness,” establishing a government agency to develop and monitor a provincial plan to “end homelessness” by 2019. The plan includes the following components: i) the development of measurable standards (aided by municipal-level plans to “end homelessness”); ii) the establishment of an information management system; iii) the ongoing monitoring of outcomes; iv) the provision of more supportive housing (i.e. an arrangement that combines subsidized housing and social work support to tenants); and v) preventing “provincial systems” (i.e. public health, justice and child welfare systems) from “discharging clients into homelessness” (ASAH, 2008, p. 12). A January 2013 progress report reports that, since the implementation of the provincial plan to end homelessness, Alberta has seen a 10-percent reduction in the use of emergency shelter beds.

4. The Ontario government recently committed to “ending chronic homelessness” by 2025. In its 2014-2019 poverty reduction strategy, the Wynne government announced its “long-term goal” of ending homelessness. A 13-member advisory panel was then struck to advise the government; and in October of this year, that panel released a report that recommended—among other things—that the Ontario government aim to “end chronic homelessness within 10 years” (Matthews & McMeekin, 2015, p. 1). The Wynne government has accepted that advice.

5. With “ending homelessness” campaigns being in full swing for many years now, government officials and researchers are attempting to define what precisely it should mean to say a jurisdiction has “ended homelessness.” The following organizations are involved in this effort: the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development; the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Earlier this year, Iain de Jong blogged about this here. More recently, the topic was discussed on a panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness by Alina Turner, Tom Albanese, Jaime Rogers, Michael O’Brien and Kyle Pakeman.

6. Considerably less rental housing is being built in Canada today than in the past; this will make it harder for communities to “end homelessness.” In the 1960s and 1970s, a good deal of new rental housing was built in Canada each year. Some units were owned and operated by for-profit entities, often supported by tax incentives from government; other units were developed by non-profit entities, with substantial government subsidy, and always in partnership with the private sector. In the 1980s, with neoliberalism in full swing, Canada’s federal government stopped providing most of its tax incentives to for-profit developers; it also seriously scaled back its subsidies for the construction of new social housing units (i.e. housing developed and operated by non-profit entities). In 1993, federal funding for new social housing units stopped altogether (with the sole exception of on-reserve units). Beginning in 2001, the federal government began subsidizing new social housing construction again, but not to the extent that it did in the 1960s and 1970s (I’ve previously blogged about more recent initiatives here).

 7. Each year, the federal government provides non-profit organizations with less money to operate their existing non-profit housing units than the previous year; this too will make it harder for municipalities to end homelessness. Canada’s provinces and territories receive funding on an annual basis from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to operate existing housing units (primarily for low-income tenants). This funding does not just fund the mortgages; it also helps with the ongoing operating costs—that is, the difference between the rent received from tenants and what it actually costs the housing provider to operate the units. These funding agreements typically last 35-50 years. This funding is declining and is scheduled to end altogether in 2039. This two-minute video does a decent job of explaining all of this.

8. Today, the federal government spends considerably less money on programs that respond directly to homelessness than it did in 1999; this will also make it harder to “end homelessness.” Annual federal funding for homelessness today is worth $119 million; after adjusting for inflation, this represents just 35% of what federal funding for homelessness was in 1999. I believe this substantial erosion in federal funding for homelessness makes it considerably harder for communities to “end homelessness.” I think it would be reasonable for advocates to begin asking for the federal government to restore annual federal funding for homelessness to its 1999 level. Specifically, that would mean asking the federal government to increase annual funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy from $119 million to $343 million.

 9. Declining tax revenue in Canada will make it even harder still to “end homelessness.” Let’s consider the following: in the early 1980s, Canada’s top federal income tax rate was 43%; today, it’s just 29%. In 2000, the federal government’s general corporate income tax rate was 29%; by 2012, it was down to 15%. Finally, in 1999, total taxes as a percentage of Canada’s GDP (including all federal and provincial taxes) were 36%; by 2010, they were 31%. Social programs— including housing for low-income persons—need to be financed. Without important revenue from taxation, it will be more challenging for government to finance more housing and related social support for low-income persons.

10. Without a significant increase in the availability of affordable housing, I think enhanced efforts to simply make emergency responses to homelessness more efficient will be limited by behaviour responses. Across Canada, local officials often try moving homeless persons from emergency shelter into affordable housing as quickly as possible. As officials work toward developing more efficient ways of doing this, there are anecdotal accounts of ‘behaviour responses.’ That is, as word gets out that persons who access emergency shelter can be placed into affordable housing quickly (sometimes with social work support) low-income persons who had previously resisted accessing emergency shelter (by ‘couch surfing’ with friends and family, for example) are realizing that accessing emergency shelter may result in better outcomes for them. Put differently, the ‘flow in’ increases. My concern is that, as program responses to homelessness become more efficient, millions of low-income persons will be more inclined to ‘come out of the woodwork’ and access emergency support services. While I like to see people receive good services, I think this phenomenon may leave some local officials in the position of trying to push the ocean back with a spoon (unless of course a major increase in the availability of affordable housing supports the emergency response). Professor Dennis Culhane has previously written about this phenomenon here.

The following individuals provided invaluable assistance in the preparation of this blog post: Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Stephen Gaetz, Alison Kooistra, Steve Pomeroy, Angela Pye, Ron Kneebone, Kevin McNichol, Tim Richter, Alina Turner and Mike Veall. Any errors are mine.

This post was republished with permission from the Progressive Economics Forum.

This is an excerpt from the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Recounting memories of homelessness and trauma can be very difficult for some people. As a result, Joe’s story has been written by Jesse Thistle and Ernie Talda based on conversations with Joe.

This is the story of Andre Robert Joseph Motuz, or ‘Old Eagle Eyes’—a Métis elder (Woodland Cree and French) from Victoria, British Columbia, who is, to many of those who know him, a modern-day hero. Few people can say that they have lived a life with purpose and meaning, and even fewer can say they achieved it against insurmountable odds; Joe can. He has created meaning in his life where once there was none, he continued to try in the face of hopeless circumstances and he loves a world that had abandoned and forsaken him. Joe does these things every day.

After being homeless and addicted for many years, Joe pulled himself off the harsh Canadian streets and into permanent residency in a Victoria apartment. By blazing a pathway out of homelessness and addiction—he has been sober for 30 years—Joe has shown that it is possible. His example is a beacon of hope to his brokenhearted “brothers and sisters” still left in the cold. Perhaps the best way to describe Joe’s impact on those around him is heard in the words of his dear friend and confidant Ernie Tadla: “Joe is a light; a beacon shining forth in what to many people is a dark, cold, lonely place…[He is a] citizen of the streets, caring, giving help and assistance to his brothers and sisters on the street and in the shelters.” Kind sentiments can be allotted to any person, but when these words are contrasted against the many hardships of Joe’s life, the true value of Old Eagle Eyes’ heart can be understood and fully appreciated. 

Even the farm animals were treated better, according to Joe, because at least they could rest and they weren’t beaten.Joe’s painful life story begins on March 6, 1949, in Saint Boniface, Manitoba. Joe never knew his father; unfortunately, he would not know his mother either. She rejected him, as his father had, leaving him abandoned to the care of the Children’s Aid Society. This tragic beginning took on much darker tones when sexual abuse, perpetrated by a babysitter, began at his first foster home at the age of four. Stripped of his innocence at such a young age, Joe’s life seemed perhaps doomed before it really ever began. Unfortunately and sadly, this was not a one-time incident. At nine years of age, while living at his second foster home, Joe was again sexually abused, however this time it was inflicted by a Catholic priest at Bible camp. What little remnants of Joe’s broken heart were left to him after this horrendous incident were completely crushed by the ogres at his third foster home. They did this by subjecting Joe to a grinding regimen of forced labour. Day in and day out, Joe was working by 4 in the morning, followed by school, dinner and farm work until 11 at night. This was all much more than any grown man should bear; let alone an 11-year-old boy. The dehumanizing, near slave-like environment did not end there: vicious beatings were inflicted with predictable regularity and forced confinement in the basement was frequent. Even the farm animals were treated better, according to Joe, because at least they could rest and they weren’t beaten. Finally, after enduring three years of this constant torture, Joe was placed in a home where he was at last given a chance to recover from his traumatic childhood. He was 14 years old. 

The elderly woman at his fourth foster home took good care of him. She was a warm and loving soul who was keen to treat the damaged adolescent like a human being. She did this by rebuilding his health and nurturing his confidence. Despite this, Joe still yearned to know his family of origin. He needed to meet the mother he never knew. The kind old lady who cared for him, as nice as she was, just couldn’t give him the pieces to the puzzle of his past. So at 17, Joe decided to look for his mother. Mustering up all his youthful courage, Joe bravely set out to get answers to the questions that had burned inside him all his young life, and in doing so left the foster care system once and for all.

Joe found his mother in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The reception his mother gave him was not the reception he’d expected. She wasn’t interested in knowing him like he was in knowing her. In fact, she outright rejected him, just like she had done years earlier. It was more than Joe could handle. His mother’s reaction, coupled with the years of abuse in foster care, culminated in a severe nervous breakdown. His mind had buckled, his heart had imploded and Joe’s life went from bad to worse. 

He was committed to Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital. Joe spent four years there, and the treatment he received was typical of a Canadian mental institution of that time. A combination of shock therapy and psychotropic medication were administered to help Joe ‘rehabilitate.’ It was a futile effort. The treatments did nothing to heal the deep wounds of sexual abuse and abandonment, they only numbed and contorted young Joe’s shattered mind. Patient reintegration into society is something modern psychiatric institutions struggle with today. In the late sixties and early seventies, the concept of aftercare was almost non-existent. 

Joe’s early manhood is a testament to this deficiency in the mental health system. At 21, Joe, being declared of sound mind, was cast out into the world with no support mechanisms. Figuratively, he was as naked as the day he was born, but this time he was even more vulnerable as he no longer had institutional help, family, friends, hope or a home. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did—he was the product of two broken institutional systems.

The oblivion that drugs and alcohol provide can soothe a torn and homeless soul. They can suture and mend the deep emotional lacerations of a traumatic life that won’t heal. They can also induce a kind of amnesia, helping one forget who they are and the pain they bear. Drugs and alcohol are thus attractive remedies to the downtrodden and injured, alas, their effects are temporary and they come at a great cost. This was something that Joe was soon to find out. Crime, jail, overdoses, short-term memory loss, epilepsy, police beatings, gang muggings, street violence and years of homelessness became the debts that Joe paid to the twin overlords of addictions and hopelessness. As his appetite for the numbing effects of narcotics and booze increased, so too did the seriousness of his crimes: from petty theft to shoplifting, to break-and-entering, all the way up to armed robbery. Young Joe was becoming a professional criminal, one who consorted with heavy criminal elements and, just like all serious thugs, started doing serious time. His behind-bars initiation began when he got pinched for armed robbery, which landed him in Toronto’s infamous Don Jail. He did six months of dead time [1] there, which is no small feat. Comparatively speaking, doing six months at the old Don in the seventies is roughly equivalent to doing three years in Kingston Penitentiary today. Luckily for Joe, his brother George was a bailiff who understood the risks of the Don and bailed him out. Surprisingly, at the robbery sentencing Joe only received probation, a slap on the wrist. The judge’s leniency did nothing to faze Joe nor did his incarceration in the ‘Don-ster.’ Quite the opposite happened. You see, Joe had graduated from common thief to full-fledged hardened criminal. He no longer cared about the world that had taken so much from him, leaving him with nothing. He lived by a new code now, the criminal’s creed: live for today, forget the past and damn the future. 

Joe had grown accustomed to the concrete in jail cells, the dark back alleys and cool side-street doorways. He also learned to trust his instincts, becoming wild and street smart, tough and lean. The frozen earth he slept on every night matched perfectly against the hard-boiled countenance of his heart. But the life Joe had grown used to was beginning to take a toll on his body. Over time, the rugged desolation of street life slowly ebbed away at his constitution. A steady diet of drug and drink had been working silently in tandem with neglect to sap Joe of his most valuable asset: health. Joe knew that The Reaper was near, the lack of strength in his malnourished body proved it. He could feel its pull. Death followed him from campsite to campsite, from rooftop to rooftop. It even followed him to a garbage bin where he woke up covered in noodles after a blistering night of inebriation. Everywhere he went, so too did death’s icy grip. According to Joe, death did indeed catch hold of him—more than once, in fact—as he received last rites from a priest five times. But death, by Joe’s testament, did nothing to slow him down or scare him off the streets. Quite fittingly, the one element that would resuscitate Joe from the depths of his homeless despair would not be death at all, but life, heralded by the birth of his fifth child in 1982.

His fifth child’s birth shifted something within Joe, something monumental. It was as though the rusted gears within his heart began to churn after being seized up for so many frosted years. Living on the streets, Joe had tried to love many times. The proof was in four failed marriages that produced four children, none of whom had the same effect his fifth child had—they hadn’t thawed his frozen soul. Not that they meant any less to Joe or that he loved them any different, just that he wasn’t ready to change with them in their turn. His fifth child was different. It came at the perfect time. It reminded him what a precious gift life was. It also reminded him that there was love in the dark, cruel world. All at once Joe was deeply invigorated. The mental and emotional chains that had bound Joe to misery his whole life had been obliterated by the coming of his infant child. He no longer needed to drink or do drugs, or wander—his mind was finally free. The cries of his newborn baby had released him from his life of bondage. The physical addiction, however, remained. This was of no concern for Joe though; he marched undeterred and steadfast into withdrawal and later recovery.

After he made up his mind to get sober and lift himself off the streets, it seemed nothing could stop him. Joe stoically decided to go cold turkey. Following his decision came the violent effects of an abrupt withdrawal. The chicken skin, the vomit, the diarrhea, the aching, the restlessness, the shaking, the hypersensitivity to light, the hot and cold sweats—all were uncomfortable and all were painful beyond belief. Notwithstanding their terrible effects, perhaps the most dangerous side effects to Joe’s instant and herculean sobriety were the alcohol DTs [2]. They caused him to black out, vibrate constantly and thrash about unconscious in grand mal seizures. For five, seemingly never-ending days, Joe endured all kinds of physical excruciation, and even though the chemical demons screamed in his bones and gnashed at his flesh, Joe remained obstinate. Joe held on. This is something that Joe still does to this day. But, as he will tell you himself, sobriety wasn’t an event: it was more like a lifelong process.

It’s been 30 years since 63-year-old Joseph ‘Old Eagle Eyes’ Motuz, the Métis Elder, gave up drugs and alcohol. He attributes his miraculous rise out of homelessness and liberation from addiction to three things: a return back to nature, a reconnection to his spiritual past through First Nations and Métis Elders and spirituality. All of these culminated in 1990 when Joe underwent an intense period of introspective learning whereby he accepted the idea of a higher power/Creator, understood the power of healing, began to appreciate the power of prayer and incorporated the importance of sharing into his life. He also credits the Canadian Mental Health Association as a secret to his transition from homeless addict to housed citizen. 

Today ‘Old Eagle Eyes,’ the man who walks with soft moccasins, can be seen making and selling jewelry on the streets of Victoria, British Columbia. This is also where he sells copies of The Victoria Street Newz to people who walk by. It should be known that any earnings Joe makes is faithfully, and honestly, declared on his monthly welfare statements. Joe is politically active and has participated on the Action Committee of People with Disabilities (ACPD) for four years, where he serves as both a board member and the Vice President. The ACPD’s mandate seeks to assist and/or advocate for people with disabilities. 

Nature, the Creator and service to his fellow street family keep Joe vibrant and alive. He is not afraid of spreading his wallet thin so that his homeless brothers and sisters can eat or avoid end-of-the-month binds. He is also not averse to sharing whatever clothes, food or household supplies he has. Generosity comes naturally to Joe because he believes, in his core, that the Creator made all men, women and children equal regardless of nationality, race, colour or creed. When one bears in mind that the crucible of fire that was Joe’s life could have very easily turned him into an apathetic monster, the quality of Joe’s empathetic heart becomes apparent. By choosing to rise above it all and love, Joe shows other homeless people, and the world, how to triumph in the face of colossal adversity. It is often said that the meaning of life is to give life meaning. Many in life never figure that out, but it’s safe to say that Joe has. Ask anyone who knows him.

In Joe’s words:

“The Homeless are my brothers and sisters. We are all equal in the Creator’s eyes. I accept them the way they are. They have been part of me for many, many moons. I always look for their good side, their humour, their qualities and their personalities. Until we walk a mile in their moccasins, we have no right to judge. I am an outdoors individual. I love the woods, the lakes and streams.  Anywhere there is wildlife there is beauty, peace and tranquility. I love to watch wild animals, birds, and insects; make a campfire and breathe fresh air. Surviving all these years by your wits, street knowledge is a feat in itself. It will take all I have to survive till my journey ends. I have many challenges ahead. In the future I hope to live peacefully with humankind and myself. I want to remain independent and keep my dignity. I count all my blessings, because there are people worse off than me.”

[1] Time spent before a bail hearing or after an unsuccessful bail hearing.

[2] 'DT’ is short for ‘delirium tremens:’ an acute episode of delirium that is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol.

Homelessness in only one piece of my puzzle book Read more stories in the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Download it for free at:
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
November 27, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

In our latest website survey, Sergi L. asked: "What is the opinion of people experiencing homelessness about the different services available to them? Are their needs and opinion taken into account? Are there any services built up from their own opinion and/or participation?"

This is a great question, as it encourages us to consider how often people experiencing homelessness are actually involved in developing services meant for them. There are, however, many people experiencing homelessness with many different identities, backgrounds, and circumstances; so there’s no single opinion that I can point to as “the homeless opinion” of services. Opinions on service effectiveness and quality would vary greatly, depending who you asked and about which services.

But are these opinions included from the very beginning? Not often enough. Our e-book, Homelessness is Just One Piece of My Puzzle, includes stories from many people with lived experience of homelessness; many of which reference various services that the person accessed. Key themes that emerged included the need for more early engagement and more coordinated services. As Richard Henry wrote:

I would like to see a facility that would have people come in one door and have everything they need under one roof—like one-stop shopping. To the left we have doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and mental health care; on the right we have addiction counsellors, personal care workers for housing, etc. So at the end, when you walk out the last door, you’re ready for a new start.

This is, of course, rarely how services are structured. Although this is just one person’s opinion, it is easy to see how a system that would work best for people experiencing homelessness – with so many barriers making life difficult, integrated services would be much more effective for them – is not taken up in the same way by the organizations funding and running the services.

Moving towards inclusion

Types of participation

While peer programs and participatory research studies have grown in popularity, people experiencing homelessness have historically been excluded from the research and planning of services and programs. This is a problem not only because experiencing homelessness face social exclusion in general, but also because leaving people with lived experience out of service planning creates unnecessary divisions. A quote from FEANTSA’s Participation Toolkit illustrates the negative effects that this can have:

...the main effect of putting distance between ‘providers’ and ‘users’ and neglecting human capacity is to make people weaker rather than stronger, more isolated and divided from each other, more dependent rather than more resourceful, and more at risk of ill-being and distress. (Boyle, D., Coote, A., Sherwood, C., & Slay, J. (2010)

The toolkit defines the types of participation possible (pictured right) and recommended that people with lived experience have an impact on the “person” level (meaning, someone gains something through being involved, like income, education and/or skills); as well as in policy/planning, practice and perception.

Most programs that serve people experiencing homelessness include them in the evaluation stage (or consultation) but this isn’t early enough to ensure that people feel genuinely involved or that the services will truly meet their needs. In many circumstances, people with lived experience are included only after projects have been defined – creating a power imbalance that can be difficult to change.

A 2013 study with the People with Lived Experience Caucus, who worked with the At Home/Chez Soi project, showed that participatory research and planning requires careful consideration and planning. Lessons learned regarding inclusion in a caucus model included: involving community members from the beginning, before big decisions are made; considering paying members for time and labour; and creating a transparent selection process for members. Clearly, people with lived experience need to be part of service and program development from the beginning – ideally, they are the ones proposing programs and services that they and their communities need.

Assessing inclusion in services/programs

If you’re curious about how inclusive a particular service or program is, here are some factors to consider:

  • Program/service leader (Who is organizing? Why? Where did the idea come from?)
  • Representation (Where are the people with lived experience? Is there an advisory board, a caucus, are they within the organization?)
  • Community consultations, focus groups (Was anyone with lived experience asked what they need?)
  • Exit interviews (to get feedback)
  • Jobs (are people with lived experience hired at the organization in peer or other roles?)

For more resources, check out:

The Inclusion Research Handbook

Participation Toolkit (2015): 25 Self-Assessment Tools & Tips

Participation Toolkit – Redistributing the Power (2007)

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

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
November 25, 2015

Youth form a substantial part of homeless populations, both in Canada and abroad, but they are often overlooked. For the past 15 years, this issue has become increasingly visible across communities. It is estimated that youth make up about 20% of the population that uses shelters in Canada. This week’s infographic, published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, focuses on pathways to youth homelessness in the United States. The National Coalition for the Homeless is composed of a network of service providers, community activists, service providers and even people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness. Primary goals of the coalition include (1) the prevention of homelessness and (2) ensuring access to immediate needs for those experiencing homelessness.

The Road to Youth Homelessness by the National Coalition for the Homeless

The infographic states that 500,000 unaccompanied youth experience homelessness in the U.S. yearly.  The term ‘unaccompanied youth’ is used to refer to youth who lack parental, foster or institutional care. Approximately half of these youth report that they left their home because of first-hand experiences with physical, sexual and emotional abuse. LGBTQ2 youth are significantly overrepresented in the population, comprising roughly two out of every five youth living in homelessness. The infographic also notes that youth moving out of foster care and criminal justice systems often find themselves without a home. 

There are strong similarities between the pathways to homelessness that exist for youth living in the United States and Canada. For example, a huge care gap also exists for youth leaving foster care homes in Canada. For a short introduction to the challenges facing foster youth aging out of care, I invite you to watch the video below, which briefly goes over the need for the development of a stronger support network for these youth in Canada.

Traditional responses to youth homelessness take a piece-meal approach, consisting of scattered programs and services. These responses also tend to be reactive, responding to the needs of youth only after they start living on the streets. Preventive approaches to youth homelessness have seen measured success abroad. Such an approach is more likely to have success treating the causes, rather than the symptoms, of homelessness. Early interventions into the lives of youth entering homelessness can be understood as a preventative measure against chronic homelessness. Building in stronger supports for youth leaving the foster care system in Canada can act as a form of homelessness prevention. 

Furthermore, there should be a visible difference in how services and supports are designed and delivered for youth living in homelessness compared to adults living in homelessness. Increasing funding for specialized supports, tailored to the needs of youth, is a step in the right direction.

While public knowledge and awareness has improved in recent years, there remain barriers to accessing and receiving adequate services and supports for homeless youth. Awareness about the issue, by sharing infographics like this one, can play a role in addressing youth homelessness, both in Canada and abroad. Youth living in homelessness need guidance and opportunities like any other young people transitioning to adulthood. Accordingly, we need to be doing a lot more for youth living in homelessness, this means investing more into supports and committing to long-term solutions.

November 23, 2015

This is an excerpt from the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book.

I would like to share my story, my shortcomings and strengths, my experience on the streets and what I think can be done to make change.

You just never know when or where you might be able to make a difference in someone’s life.

My journey from Nova Scotia to Ottawa was not without incident. After 18 months on the reserve, drinking a 26 oz. a day and a 40 oz. on Fridays and Saturdays, there was no way to stop drinking without a series of consequences.

So before jumping on the bus, I stopped at the liquor store for a quart of beer and a 26 oz. of whiskey. On the way out of town on the highway, where my kids lived, I said good-bye as I looked out the window. I took a deep breath and a big swig of my whiskey. I was all choked up and sad to leave them behind, but I knew they would be coming soon—their mother’s boyfriend was in the military and was being transferred to Ottawa.

Let the first leg of my journey begin  

I told my kids I was going to Ottawa to get a place and would see them there. I was looking forward to a time when I would have overnight visits with my kids again; this was my lifeline to staying focused and on track. This is what prevented me from staying on the streets forever. 

Well, it didn’t take me long to become stranded in the next province, Fredericton, New Brunswick. What I thought was going to be a quick refuel, turned out to be the end of the road for me on that bus. The bus driver checked the plastic cup I had my booze in, sensed I was under the influence and asked me to get off the bus.

I was stranded. It was cold and wet, so sleeping outside was not an option. I only had $40. A motel room was out of the question, so off to the police station I went. When I arrived I had to ring a buzzer, and after signing a release form, they gave me a blanket, a pillow and a cell for the night. I slept like a baby.

The next morning when I woke up, they told me the next bus doesn’t leave until 7pm and that there’s a men shelter a couple of streets over. I went for breakfast and hung out with the boys. I still had my big beer left so I shared it with them. It wasn’t long before we made our way to the liquor store. 

The role of homeless supports in my life

I think, for the most part, the major contributor to my ending up on the streets was the lack of addiction treatment programs available.I think, for the most part, the major contributor to my ending up on the streets was the lack of addiction treatment programs available. Any long-term treatment has a six- to eight-month minimum wait time. Shelters become an easy option with free meals and a roof over your head; and you’re close to downtown, which leaves no need for a bus pass for transportation.

Unlike ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program), people on social assistance have to pay full price for their bus pass. This comes out of a $365 shelter allowance, which leaves them with $220 for the month. In many cases, the money allocated for your bus pass is spent on housing or daily living. This leaves people helpless to get around to food banks.  

Living in the shelters pays you a PNA (Personal Needs Allowance), and in many cases that is more than you would end up with if you had your own place. Someone who has their own place would have a bunch of bills to pay, along with paying full price for their bus pass. They have little money left for food, clothing, hygiene items, etc. In having your own place, you can’t afford a phone, cable TV, laundry, clothing, etc.

With our current two-tier medical system for those who can pay and those who can’t, people on assistance do not have the coverage to pay for medications they may need. This forces people to get creative in order to get the things they need.

There are just so many ways to make money. When a good scam comes out, people ‘jump on the bandwagon,’ as they say. If someone is making good money selling their medication, it’s not long before the word gets out on how and what to say to the doctors to get what you need.

Others that need medication and can’t get it from their doctor, or who are not covered, turn to the streets. Often, street drugs are not regulated and are dangerous. These drugs can be very addictive, and it’s a slippery slope into homelessness.

No matter what kind of scam you’re into, it is likely illegal, and eventually you will get caught. Having a criminal record, like bad credit, does nothing but further put people at a loss, and makes getting a good job or an apartment almost hopeless.

Working under the table becomes a good option for those affected by past wrong doings. You get the security of having your rent covered by welfare or disability benefits, and are able to supplement your income in a more socially acceptable way. This is why handyman services are so popular.

Many people become frustrated with the system, and the only escape from the torment of reality and the stigma that we live in when we are down and out is drugs (including alcohol and prescriptions).  

It’s likely that you’ll become socially depressed. We are sad due to the way we see the world around us. It is circumstances that bring us to an emotional depression. We don’t see the help that’s around us, and we dwell on what we think we are powerless over.

The second leg of my journey: Still stranded in Fredericton

At the liquor store, my regular routine was to buy a big beer and steal a mickey. It was easy for me, being a new face in the town of Fredericton.  By the time 7pm rolled around, I was too drunk to get on the bus heading to Ottawa.

Partying is all part of that life, and I showed those boys how to have a good time. The only problem was we were all too drunk to get back into the shelter, so six or seven of us went to the police station. This time we were all charged with public intoxication, and we were put in the drunk tank with no blanket or pillow.

The next morning at the liquor store, it was evident that police already alerted them because all eyes were on me. I knew it was time to leave town, so I drank just enough of my 26 oz. of whiskey so I wasn’t sick, and off to the bus stop I headed. The boys didn’t want me to go, but Ottawa was my destination.

Finally I got on the bus without incident. I held my breath as I showed my ticket to the bus driver. I arrived in Ottawa with two big duffel bags, my knapsack, $7 in my pocket, a half bottle of whiskey and a big beer. In a short time, I polished off the bottle of whiskey. With nowhere to go again, it was off to the police station.

The police phoned ahead and secured me a bed at the local men’s shelter. There I met a whole bunch of new friends. I knew I had time to find a place before my kids moved to Ottawa, so I hung out with the boys. What I thought was going to be a short time ended up being almost four months on the streets.

For many, living on the streets or in the shelters is the end of the road; when things seem hopeless, it’s all the roadblocks that you run into that make you give up the fight and settle for survival. Survival becomes a way of life, a freedom, a comfort, where you have friends. Having your own place often leads to confinement, depression and loneliness. I envision a community-living environment where everyone works together doing laundry, cooking and cleaning. It becomes a big family; a group of people who share common interests, and can set some goals for independent living.  It’s a place where you have friends, where before you had none. We all need a home, not just housing.

But many just give up. It becomes too hard to fight the system, so you just live within in it: can’t get it, steal it, and get caught, good! Put me in jail—free meal, free drugs, a doctor, clean clothes, etc. It becomes a revolving door.

The end to my life on the streets

It was time to sober up; my kids would be coming soon, so off to detox I went. After spending seven days in detox, I went back to the shelter where I met up with one of my buddies who managed to get a place in a rooming house. I spent a couple of nights and decided this could become my way off the streets.

Soon after, I got my own room and took the position of superintendent. Becoming a superintendent supplemented my income by $150, just enough to get me through the month.   

It wasn’t long before my heavy drinking and tough guy image was challenged one too many times. I ended up with assault charges and was sent back to jail for three months. Coming out of jail with a determination to turn my life around, I got another room and a superintendent position in a quiet building. I also got on the wait list for subsidized housing. To get on an urgent list, I pretended I was still homeless and put my son on the list with me to get housing quicker.

It took three months, and even once they found out my son didn’t qualify, they still had a bachelor apartment for me. Things were looking up. I managed to get a new I.D through a community centre where I was seeing a doctor and applied for ODSP

When I moved into my new bachelor apartment, I was still addicted to alcohol. I thought I could help other street people. I would invite them into my house to shower and do their drugs, but this soon turned into a new business opportunity for me.

I was able to get off the booze but became a full-blown crack addict. Selling crack became a way of supporting my habit as well as supplementing my income. It took about six months of dealing crack to 30 or 40 people a day to catch the eyes of the law, and I was off to jail again, losing everything.

You could say I had been left in the cold. My discharge worker never did confirm housing before my release from jail.  A visit to the ODSP office left me no hope of receiving any money for shelter, food or clothing. I was released 36 pounds heavier after 107 days of confinement. I had no clothes that fit.

If not for a friend, I would be forced back to the streets. Like most people coming out of jail, I would have had to resort back to shelters, where the game never changes and you are always at ‘rock bottom’. Being forced into survival mode has its setbacks—for me, it pushed the limits on my ability to remain sober. 

I was not able to secure any financial support until 12 days after my release. All the old feelings and the high of being free came back to haunt me. When you’re left with nothing, many are forced back into the same old routine they were in before they got arrested. Unfortunately, most of the time, you’re sucked right back in the game. It’s quick, it’s an easy fix, and for some, this is the only life they know.

What I think could have made a difference

My frustration and disappointment in the system were setting in. I feel people just give up the fight. Help is scattered all over the place, with too many barriers, too many hurdles and too much red tape. Today, again forced to work within the system, I am left frustrated. I had a fire back in May 2012, and struggled to find a new place to call home.

I would like to see a facility that would have people come in one door and have everything they need under one roof—like one-stop shopping. To the left we have doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and mental health care; on the right we have addiction counsellors, personal care workers for housing, etc. So at the end, when you walk out the last door, you’re ready for a new start.

Shelters, community centres, etc., are also a lifeline, and in my opinion could be the perfect place to try this out. Funding needs to be allocated for services and facilities in order to accommodate long-term treatment programs, rather than a long-term waiting list for these services. When someone hits that ‘rock bottom,’ or finally realizes they need help, we need to have the help for them, then and there. For most it’s their last chance: if they don’t get help, they may never come out of it. 

My addictions came at a heavy cost to all those around me. But today, I can share the love that was lost for so many years. All the programs I took on addictions in the past, and writing a transcript of my book, Life in the Game of Addiction while in jail, helped turn my life around. If not for this, my time would have been wasted, and the cycle would have continued.

My hope is that people live without addictions in their life, and that others realize that people do change. Don’t judge a homeless person, because you don’t know what led them to homelessness. 

I lowered myself to the streets where I had lost everything, but learned so much. I learned that the world is not all about the riches of the flesh, but the love for life and helping the needs of one another. Living on the streets in total surrender of life’s challenges has led me to the life I live today, and to my belief system.

Life in mainstream society revolves around seeing personal wealth as success. I was a very successful general contractor for years, and then succumbed to the greed of wanting the bigger, the better and the more the merrier. My goal was to become a millionaire. But now, after all my experiences, I see wealth in love of family, friends and faith in God. I am truly blessed with ‘happy thoughts’ today.

Many times when I was on the streets, I looked at all the people going by, and thought, “You poor bastards. You’re like a bunch of robots programmed to do the same thing day in, day out, stuck in debt to greed of the materialistic world.” 

Although I had many great times on the streets, the reality is if you miss a meal, you go hungry; if your shoes are wet and worn, you suffer. The threat of violence is all around. The loss of my family is ultimately what led me to get off the streets. It was the pain—the hurt inside—that could have kept me on the streets and using until the end, like many before me who have lost their lives, or have taken their own lives. Giving up, thinking this is the end of the road, nobody cares anyway.

I am by no means perfect, and still have minor flirtations with past addictions, but today I am no longer trapped by any outside influences in my everyday life. Sometimes in life it takes the loss of everything to really appreciate what you have. 

God bless everyone for He has blessed me.

Homelessness in only one piece of my puzzle book Read more stories in the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Download it for free at:


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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.