Research Matters Blog
Today—as all eyes turn toward the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing Ministers’ meeting and the Super Intent City court decision in Victoria, BC—a network of lived experience leaders from across the country is calling for the leadership and inclusion of poor and homeless people in all efforts to end homelessness in Canada.
Determined to claim space for voices of lived experience in the upcoming National Housing Strategy (NHS) consultations, the Lived Experience Advisory Council is today launching Nothing About Us Without Us: Seven principles for leadership and inclusion of people with lived experience of homelessness.
We believe it is critical that the NHS consultations include meaningful input and direction from diverse people facing homelessness, because the usual decision makers are not living our realities. Researchers, politicians, and service providers may be coming from good intentions, but most lack first-hand knowledge of what it is like to have insecure housing. In order to be effective, the NHS must be inclusive to and led by those directly affected by poverty and homelessness, including Indigenous people, women, families, single men, survivors of violence, people with disabilities, people who have been criminalized, and illicit drug users.
Super Intent City (SIC)—the autonomous homeless community that has been thriving in Victoria since last spring—is an amazing example of leadership by people facing homelessness. The success of SIC demonstrates that, like anyone else, homeless people need and want community, choices, and the freedom to access supports that respect their rights and dignity. The input of lived experts will strengthen Canada’s long-awaited National Housing Strategy with effective, outside-the-box solutions, such as micro-housing villages, for people who can’t afford the housing market to set up their own self-governing, healthy communities.
LEAC members know from experience that inclusion and leadership of people facing homelessness can contribute to world-changing solutions. We are each involved in initiatives in our own communities that have created meaningful, lasting change through the engagement of people directly affected by homelessness, poverty, and violence. These include Ottawa’s Alliance to End Homelessness; Waterloo’s STEP Home Participant Advisory Group; Winnipeg’s Lived Experience Circle; the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry; Vancouver’s Carnegie Community Action Project and the Committee to End Homelessness in Victoria. We have pushed for change through social media campaigns, music, blogging, court challenges, United Nations reports, and national advocacy organizations.
We first brought our web of networks together in 2014, at the National Conference to End Homelessness in Vancouver, B.C. The Conference included a myriad of lived experience folks, all there to advocate for grassroots voices to be heard at a national setting. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) had awarded 20 scholarships to Lived Experience advocates, panelists, and workshop facilitators from across the country, and 20 more to local lived experts, to be included at every level of input during the conference.
This was not my first time being invited to attend a conference or meeting as an expert of lived experience. Often throughout my life as a single Inuk parent, I have been invited to speak at events and share my story to policy makers and folks who generally don't get to hear much about what happens at ground level with the programs they design to help the impoverished and marginalized populations of this country. I've always taken this responsibility very seriously and I was delighted to know that this CAEH National Conference valued lived experience input enough to make space and accommodations for more than just a handful. We were represented at this conference by many well deserving and successful members of lived experience from across the country, all willing to tell their personal story to help with the processes of inclusivity at policy making levels.
On the way to the conference, I and other delegates received a heads up from some front line folks that there would be a protest happening at the Wall Centre—the prestigious hotel complex hosting the conference that year—in which homeless folks from Downtown Eastside and all over the Vancouver area would organize and protest the conference. Many of us joined the protest, marching and wheeling in solidarity with the protestors and homeless of Vancouver. We were defying protocol and polite etiquette, in protesting the very meeting that we had been invited, and paid for, to attend.
You can imagine the tension created in those hours of protest. It was surreal. Indigenous land rights activist Audrey Siegl was among the organizers of the protest and we quickly met with her and let her know that we were lived experience folks standing in solidarity with the homeless. We walked in the rain as they chanted and we chanted with them. A few lived experience folks marched on either side of the group through the streets of Vancouver, and when we caught each other’s attention, we stared in a way that acknowledged that we understood why we were here.
This was not a stance in defiance of the CAEH, but a civil action through which we could assist in creating some sense of inclusion and solidarity. We wanted to allow the people who were making the decisions to see first hand the people that they were representing and aimed to help. We intended to show that we would stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who were now going through the actual lived experience, the school of hard knocks. We knew that we could be connectors, bringing activists and managers together to challenge homelessness.
And so we marched. We marched and wheeled to the Wall Centre where we were met with security guards locking us out of the hotel. We were met by lineups of police at the opening of the hotel doors. It was a disheartening process to watch, and very hard to navigate through, but we all did it, civilly, peacefully, and respectfully. The attendees of the conference hadn't seen anything like this before: participants in the event that was the target of the protest actually standing alongside and in agreement with the people protesting, who had some very valid input and direction to give to the professionals filling the seats in the workshops and speaking events. This was a momentous time, and the energy filling the air that evening and for the rest of the conference was buzzing with new possibilities.
The next morning, the allies in lived experience who joined the protest would unite and gather in a meeting room provided by the conference to talk about our experiences. That conversation was the beginning of the Lived Experience Advisory Council, a dynamic group of amazing advocates and voices from across the country, coast to coast to coast, who have created a constant ally-activist dialogue to ensure that grassroots voices are included and have full participation in processes that implement change in ending homelessness across Canada. We are a great intersectional voice with combined years and years of professional, academic and lived experience knowledge, and we pull together the threads of vibrant networks and visionary projects from our local organizing across the country. We know that sometimes, we need to step outside protocol and etiquette to ensure all voices are heard.
We left Vancouver determined to continue working together. In spite of distance, lack of access to technology, precarious housing, poverty, and the complications and crises that beset our daily lives, we stayed connected. In 2015, thanks to funding from CAEH and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, we would find our way to the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Montréal where we presented several workshops: a session on autonomous housing options with Take Back the Land Movement leader Rob Robinson; an activist-ally dialogue in which we connected with lived experience activists and professional allies from across Canada; and a session focused on the Nothing About Us Without Us principles that are being published today.
Out of our experiences as invited guests to CAEH conferences and many other such meetings, we have also created a Checklist for Planning Inclusive and Accessible Events, to alert event organizers to the big questions and little details that make the difference for us and members of our communities.
These documents provide the blueprint for meaningful engagement of people with lived experience in the National Housing Strategy consultations. The consultations must include lived experts at the table at every stage, and the NHS must incorporate mechanisms for ongoing participation of people facing poverty and homelessness at every level: in service delivery, program planning, policy making, and monitoring and evaluation of the Strategy.
Homelessness and poverty are not just about inadequate housing and incomes. More fundamentally, they are about exclusion. Members of our communities have been silenced, disregarded, and shut out for too long. It is only by opening the doors to equal participation by all that we can finally put an end to homelessness in Canada.
Securing reliable employment and having access to adequate and affordable housing are critical first steps in the immigration settlement process. Newcomers, including immigrants and refugees, often face increasing barriers to affordable housing. This puts many newcomers at risk of homelessness because of various factors, including poverty, discrimination, racism, cuts to social programs, unrecognized foreign employment and educational credentials, delays in work permits and/or health related issues. As a result, more immigrants and refugees are requiring shelter, drop-in and housing assistance in addition to settlement services.
The vast majority of foreign-born population live in larger urban centres in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. However, it is important to note that homelessness among newcomers is not exclusively an urban, inner-city phenomenon. Research studies focusing on homelessness in rural and northern communities highlight the importance of recognizing the distinct needs of newcomers in these settings. However, the high prevalence of hidden homelessness, precarious housing and overcrowding adds complexity to the issue, making it difficult to properly measure its extent. Although the total number of newcomers experiencing homelessness is unknown, communities across Canada are including questions in their point-in-time counts to get a greater sense of the figures.
The needs of newcomers experiencing homelessness are often different than of those who are Canadian-born. Many are adjusting to a new language and culture, lacking in social capital and/or facing unique challenges with respect to housing, employment, health and legal issues. Newcomers struggling to secure employment and housing often adopt survival strategies to navigate their new host society. Should these coping systems fail, they may not only feel an intensified loss of their home but also anxiety, isolation and/or separation from their limited networks, culture, family and history.
In terms of service provision, a study in Toronto found that in general, clients felt that the settlement agencies were supportive and sufficient in numbers. Many, offer a range of programs including housing assistance, youth programming, employment counseling, language training and/or health services. Despite also offering one-on-one counseling, employment services and life-skills programs, a study in Vancouver concluded that shelter providers and their staff tend not to have the necessary skills and/or resources to effectively serve newcomers. On the other hand, rural communities not only lack rental housing, emergency shelters and other essential services for people experiencing homelessness, but may not have settlement agencies to effectively support them. Although there have been no broad systemic attempts to develop accessible and responsive shelter and drop-in services, this is increasing, especially in urban areas.
As part of our multicultural Canadian identity, it is in Canada’s best interest to welcome, support and learn from newcomers, rather than expect them to learn from Canadian society.
Homelessness can be tough to discuss with children because it can lead to conversations about many other complex topics, but it is possible. How we talk to children about homelessness depends on their age and how they best learn, as well as the discussion context (home with family or caregivers; or at school with teachers).
Talking with children as parents/caregivers
Of course, the “best” tactic here is the one that the parents/caregivers are most comfortable with – they know the kids best! That said, these early talks have a profound effect on how kids understand homelessness and people experiencing it. As Betsy Brown Braun wrote for The Huffington Post blog last year, many kids haven’t yet formed opinions about homelessness, so these conversations are crucial:
It is important to understand that homelessness is not a “loaded” issue for the child... yet. His questions about a homeless person usually stem from genuine curiosity. That person doesn’t fall into any of the categories of people with whom he is familiar. He is not passing judgment; he is wondering. The young child’s initial impression is heavily influenced by the parent’s affect, actions, and responses to his questions. And it is by observation of the parent that the child first gets his cues about how to react and feel. So, as you answer your child’s questions, be aware of the attitude you may be projecting.
Further on in the post, she states that we should aim to convey compassion and empathy in our responses. Given the immense degree of stigma and discrimination that people experiencing homelessness face every day, I completely agree. So what might those kinds of responses look like?
With younger children, I’ve been told that the simpler the answer is, the better. For example, here is how my sister responded to my six-year-old niece when she first asked why someone was sleeping on the sidewalk:
I explained to her that they are just like us but things have happened in their lives that have brought them to this point. I told her that we are lucky to have the resources and support we have; and that they sometimes need support, so that’s why we give them money or food when we have it. I didn’t have to go much further than that, but more questions tend to come later.
My niece probably isn’t fully ready to understand concepts like poverty, family conflict, class inequality, trauma, and all the other major pathways to homelessness; but she is able to understand the need to help people and not blame them for their circumstances. In a few sentences, my sister conveyed that homelessness isn’t caused by any one thing, that it can happen to anyone, and that housing in our society is a privilege. As children get older and ask deeper questions, responses can grow accordingly.
Talking to kids as educators
The Homeless Hub’s Education section has a number of lesson plans and suggested activities for children of all ages. (Many of these resources will be helpful to parents and other caregivers as well.) In 2009, the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG) created a number of resources for educators in the Waterloo, Ontario region. Though some of the materials are area-specific, they can be customized for any municipality. Similarly, its general guidelines for classroom discussions about homelessness are appropriate for any education context:
Encourage open discussion about what students know about homelessness and about any questions they might have.
Address stereotypes as they arise with facts (i.e., The Truth about Homelessness, p.6-8).
Help students become more aware of what their home means to them. Link what their home means to them to how they might feel if they did not have a home.
Explain that being homeless means that one does not have a place to call home. It might be for a day or two or for many weeks or months. Talk about how difficult it is.
Help students understand that being homeless doesn’t mean that someone has done something wrong. It isn’t an illness and it certainly isn’t anything someone wants. It can be a result of difficult times in a person’s life.
Discuss the different places people might live if they don’t have a home (i.e., shelter,car, with friends).
Explain that there are single people, families, and children who do not have a home.
Read stories and books about people from all walks of life and/or about homelessness (p.37). Help students to realize that in spite of differences, people experience many of the same feelings.
Conclude discussions of homelessness with ideas about how students and communities can help people who don’t have a home (p.37).
In terms of specific activities, primary-level students need to build a basic understanding of poverty and homelessness. This integrated unit was developed in Toronto in 2008 and can be used in a variety of classes and grades. Activities include reading picture books like Fly Away Home and reflecting on the characters and the meaning of home, true/false exercises, mock food and utility budgets, creating multimedia and/or poetry quilts, and more.
At the secondary-level, students can gain a deeper understanding of homelessness through more advanced activities. One example is this unit on learning about homelessness through drama (grades 9-12, can be modified for 6-8), which includes a simulated emergency relocation and other exercises that have students imagine what it might be like to be homeless. These activities all encourage empathy through experience. To see how some Markham, Ontario students responded to learning through drama, check out their five Street Stories.
Do you have any suggestions or favourite resources on addressing homelessness with children that you’d like to share? Leave us a comment here or post them in our Community Workspace.
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.
Photo: "Home" drawn by Eleanor in 2003 at Edmunds Elementary School, Unsheltered Lives: An Interdiscplinary Resource and Activity Guide for Teaching About Homelessness in Grades K-12
Housing stability is a complicated topic. There is very little agreement on what stability actually means. For some, supportive housing stability might mean that people with historically erratic tenancy and eviction patterns come to remain housed in one place for a longer period of time; for others it might mean that their quality of life in housing has improved sufficiently to begin to work again, regain lost relationships or successfully manage health. Regardless of what stability might ideally mean, we can all agree that stability is a good thing and we want to make it the common experience for people. If this does not happen, the result is pretty simple: people come to live in precarious housing situations and we know that many of these people will end up in some kind of homelessness.
One of the most serious threats to housing stability is a phenomenon called “Cuckooing” in the U.K., and involves the commandeering of a home by unwanted parties, often for the purpose of drug trafficking. There is surprisingly little in the way of research directly linked to this phenomenon anywhere that I could find. In fact, in Canada, only Crime Prevention Ottawa (2013) has produced a study for the rest of us to look at.
In the CPO study, the problem is discussed as Housing Unit Takeovers (CPO, 2013:1). In the Ottawa study, it was discovered that approximately ¾ of front line workers surveyed had encountered the problem with their clients, some as often as ten times. No one actually knows how many takeovers have occurred in Ottawa or anywhere else because this data is particularly difficult to obtain, yet the CPO study and preliminary research for a similar study in Toronto suggest that the problem is not restricted to social or supportive housing, but occurs frequently in regular market and privately owned housing as well. In fact, in the latter categories, we have fairly little chance of really knowing how vast the problem might be. There is more urgency to address the issue in publicly supported housing because, for the most part, the most vulnerable tenants are found in this sector.
Housing Unit takeovers occur when housing predators use drugs, violence, sex, economic and social supports to manipulate tenants into accommodating unwanted occupations of their housing space. Takeovers are widespread in Toronto where The Dream Team, partly funded by the City of Toronto Community Safety Initiative, has begun exploratory research into the problem. “The Dream Team began as a group of consumer/survivors and family members dedicated to demonstrating the life-altering benefits of supportive housing for people living with mental illness, while reducing mental health stigma". Today, the Dream Team is a consumer/survivor group and they operate out of their sponsoring agency, Houselink Community Homes.
The current project is called the Safe At Home Project (SAH). They are currently looking for resident and non-resident participants for their surveys and interviews. In pre-study discussions with frontline staff and staff focus groups, 100% (N=approximately 15) admitted to experiencing takeovers in the lives of their clients, and additionally, more troubling, to feeling absolutely helpless about how to deal with the problem.
Takeovers happen because many tenants are vulnerable. Vulnerability is also a difficult concept to define. Vulnerability is most obvious in the following tenant groups: people who are poor; people with physical and mental illnesses; single working mothers; the elderly, and addicts, including alcoholics and sex addicts. The nature of these particular dependencies will be addressed in further posts about this research. But here, it is important to recognize just as CPO had suggested, that vulnerability is really a way of saying that certain people are more likely to make bad decisions about who they let into their homes and their lives when the supports to address or reduce the harm caused by having unmet real needs are not present.
Because of this propensity to “let” people in, CPO and even preliminary research for Safe At Home, imagines a “complicit victim” (CPO, 2013:2). Those optics look bad. They suggest a tenant who “wants” the takeover to happen. This is not true. Even though the tenant might knowingly let a drug dealer use his or her apartment to deal out of in exchange for drugs, this should in no way suggest that the complicit victim is to be blamed for the result. In fact, one of the reasons that so few people come forward to discuss the problem is they fear being blamed – and it is this blame the victim discourse that stands in the way of “Outting” the issue properly.
Takeovers are not simple either. In one case discussed by frontline staff in the SAH, an elderly man is a victim of takeovers because of the complex nature of his needs. First he is elderly and poor, lonely and self-medicates, and suffers a developmental issue, so he is a perfect storm of sorts where his multiple vulnerabilities make him an easy target. He had taken to letting strippers from a downtown Toronto club use his apartment after their shifts. According to this elderly man, they would provide him drugs, sex and use his apartment to entertain their “johns”. But he wanted it to stop. After some counseling and discussion, he had discussed how he wanted to stop these people from bothering him, but he had become fearful that when he left his unit they would retaliate. So he let the problem continue and to date, there really is no practical intervention available, except to perhaps involve Police Services. But I think we can all see where that might be a problem for someone who is fearful to begin with. So one of the key issues with these takeovers is that once they start, they seem impossible to end amicably.
There are more consequences than merely being afraid, CPO sites illegal activities in the home, violence, abuse, theft, financial exploitation and more. Once again the end game of most concern to me as a homelessness researcher: takeovers often lead to eviction and a return to unstable housing or homelessness. What we need to do is really understand the size and shape of the issue before throwing in the towel.
Once again, the anatomy of a takeover will be discussed in a subsequent blog. However, with this seemingly implacable problem, the only way to really address the issue is to prevent it from happening in the first place. To some degree we can try to filter out predators from entering housing spaces. But this is very problematic. So we also need to help vulnerable people understand when they are in the midst of a lifestyle that could lead to a takeover. One of the things CPO had done very well was to produce a series of practical videos and toolkits for advocates, tenants and others to use to inform and to prevent takeovers. It is this goal that drives the SAH as well.
Over the next 8 months, Safe At Home will be using interviews, surveys, public addresses and focus groups to explore the scope and types of housing unit takeovers in a sample of Toronto’s housing community. Special care has been taken to ensure the anonymity of participants. The goal is to devise a toolkit for tenants and housing providers and to help the city formally address this hidden but widespread problem. If you are interested in participating please do not hesitate to contact SAH.
Safe At Home Housing Unit Takeover Task Force
One of the challenges in understanding and responding to homelessness is that it is often framed as an urban, inner-city phenomenon. With the majority of the Canadian population living within two hundred kilometers of the United States border, most infrastructure investments have been made in larger cities. These investments include the building of shelters, drop-in centres, housing and the provision of essential services for the homeless population. To date, most research on homelessness has concentrated on urban populations, but in recent years, research from rural and northern communities has begun to emerge.
Who is Homeless?
The factors that lead to homelessness in cities can also lead to homelessness in rural areas and small communities of northern Canada. These factors include a lack of rental housing, poverty, discrimination, violence, mental health and substance use. However, the literature is limited and further research is required to better understand the distinct needs of women and their children, youth, immigrants, refugees and seniors in rural settings.
In Canada, Indigenous Peoples are over-represented in the homeless population. However, the extent of this is unknown in rural communities (not including the North). The literature frequently reports Indigenous Peoples’ housing and homelessness as a separate issue that requires examination within the context of colonialism and its legacies. In addition, researchers have reported on regional migration patterns, the need for affordable housing and the role of mental health and substance use, violence, unemployment, and the child welfare system in perpetuating homelessness. Research points to the need to recognize the factors and needs of Indigenous Peoples on and off reserves in rural and northern settings.
Homelessness in the North is a complex issue. First, the high costs of the region and the severe lack of social infrastructure makes homelessness difficult to address without significant financial commitment. Second, the high level of poverty in the North means that there are increased pressures on individuals and families to be able to provide for themselves. Third, the cold experienced during the winter makes surviving without shelter impossible, often forcing people to live in spaces unfit for human habitation.
When people in rural areas or northern communities face homelessness, they may choose to couch surf or even endure unbearable situations including abuse or living in overcrowded homes. Referred to as being hidden homeless, this population doesn’t access homeless supports and services even though they are improperly housed, thus hindering the further development and funding of these services. The lack of services and supports means that many are otherwise forced to leave their community and migrate to a larger urban area in order to access services. Relocating may mean escaping one set of problems, but can lead to others including isolation and/or unemployment. Additionally, service providers in larger towns close-by are stretched thin by the influx of rural residents seeking services.
Other challenges in rural and northern homelessness:
- Non-existent public transportation makes it difficult to access everyday services and get to and from work without a car.
- The lack of privacy may lead to the stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness as “problem individuals”. This reduces their already limited options in finding a landlord who will rent to them as well as an employer who will hire them.
- A study found that the boom and bust cycles of the energy and mineral sector increase the living costs beyond affordability for vulnerable local residents in communities reliant on these sectors for economic prosperity.
- Relationship breakdowns may lead to additional challenges for partners who depend on each other for the maintenance and income generating activities of the farm.
- The lack of information from some areas makes it difficult to assess the specific nuances of some regions. Without evidence-based solutions at the policy levels, the responses to rural and northern homelessness will remain limited.
The unique context of rural and northern communities requires specific approaches meeting the local dynamics and environment. Ending homelessness in rural and northern communities is absolutely possible, and a number of them have stepped up their leadership to make this happen:
- In Banff, Alberta, the Homelessness to Housing Coalition has been providing longer stays for those in need in the past few years. With new funding, they have been able to support clients with job search assistance as well as create a bridging and loan program assisting clients secure long-term housing.
- Youth in Seabird Island Band in British Columbia are benefiting from their Youth Job Readiness Program. The program supports on-reserve youth ages 18 to 24 with skills training and finding meaningful jobs that fit with their long-term goals.
- Since 2008, the Small Communities Homelessness Fund in the Northwest Territories has been helping northern communities create their own solutions to homelessness and build capacity at the local level. A number of Indigenous-led organizations have been able to provide meal programs, food vouchers and renovate their shelters over the years.
- A number of rural communities in Newfoundland have each hired an outreach worker whose main focus is to liaise with landlords to ensure clients remain housed.
- And in 2012, the community of Steinbach, Manitoba, pooled funds to open a shelter in a single family residential home. Longer term, single family homes could be operated as affordable housing.
These are just a few examples of the many rural and northern initiatives addressing homelessness.
As we mark National Aboriginal Day, communities across Canada are sharing Indigenous and northern success stories in reducing poverty, fostering education and preventing violence through community-led projects while celebrating the outstanding contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples. It is an important time to discuss the concerted efforts required to best meet the needs of Indigenous communities while acknowledging their leadership in improving the health and social wellbeing of rural and northern communities across Canada.
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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.