Research Matters Blog
In towns and cities across Canada, shelters are the primary response communities have to homelessness. Emergency shelters provide homeless people with temporary housing and access to much needed resources. These resources may include food, informal counselling, and some form of healthcare. Shelters provide homeless individuals with access to a network of resources that alleviate some of the difficulties they face. Today, shelters are the cornerstones of service provision in most communities. The below infographic, published by the Saint John Human Development Council, provides us with some details regarding emergency shelter availability and use in Saint John in 2012 and 2013.
In February 2014, the Salvation Army announced that they would be closing down the Centre of Hope, a men's shelter – New Brunswick’s largest and oldest emergency shelter. The main reason for closing down was a lack of funding available to continue the shelter operations. At the time of the publication of the infographic, it remained unclear as to how the same services would be made available to those who had been previously served by the shelter. Fortunately, a new homeless shelter, Outflow, has been operating in place of the Centre of Hope. Outflow is a ‘damp shelter’. This means that it keeps it doors open to men who may be intoxicated, by alcohol or other drugs.
While news about the closing of a shelter is often alarming, it does present us with the opportunity to take a step back and consider alternate methods to ending homelessness, as well as ways that previous barriers can be addressed through new programs. Emergency responses to homelessness, such as shelters, are temporary solutions, best understood as a means through which existing risks can be mitigated. Homelessness in Canada is usually addressed in a treatment first approach, where individuals living in homelessness wait till housing is available, or are ‘treated’ before being deemed fit for living in housing. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Housing First is an example of an alternative to the status quo, combining immediate access to permanent housing with wrap-around supports. The presence of supports, in the form of health care, employment and education are all essential for the Housing First approach. There are several causes of homelessness and in order to become solutions, approaches towards solving homelessness need to be multifaceted.
Research has shown that Housing First is affordable, sustainable and effective. While emergency shelters provide individuals with immediate relief in the short-term, Housing First is solution that focuses on long-term gains and helping individuals become independent again. When adopting this approach in communities like Saint John where there is a lack of affordable housing, there needs to be support from other sectors. Housing can become affordable through rent support, or through investing in the construction of affordable housing units. It’s important then to view Housing First as more than just a program by seeing it as part of a more prudent approach to ending homelessness.
Unemployment rates are relatively high for homeless persons. “In a study of at risk homeless people, 21% reported being unemployed. Among surveyed shelter users, 38% had no current income and only 20% were receiving any welfare support.” Youth unemployment rates are substantially higher – as high as 77%, as one study revealed.
Supports and services are needed to help homeless people find work, such as job training and apprenticeship programs (Raising the Roof). These programs should be tailored to the specific needs of the individual and the obstacles he/she faces in acquiring employment. Traditional training programs that fail to take individual needs into account are often unsuccessful with some homeless populations such as youth, for instance, who experience a unique set of challenges. Social enterprise projects often take into account these unique needs and may form a good entry point into the workforce.
Training programs are intended to provide homeless persons with the skills necessary to attain and maintain employment. In other words, they aim to supply attendees with “human capital” in order to make themselves a marketable member of the workforce. This training often involves an enhancement of both hard skills – specific capabilities required for particular jobs, as well as soft skills – communication skills, navigating through the workplace, etc. When employers participate in these training programs, supports can also take the form of “job shadowing, coaching and/or mentoring.”
The Social Research and Demonstration Corporation just released a new report about “motivational interviewing” for welfare recipients. The link to the full report is here, and the link to the executive summary is here.
Authored by Reuben Ford, Jenn Dixon, Shek-wai Hui, Isaac Kwakye and Danielle Patry, the study reports on a recent randomized controlled trial done on long-term recipients of social assistance in British Columbia. The research took place between September 2012 and March 2013. There were a total of 154 research participants; 76 of the individuals were in the “treatment group,” while 78 were in the “control group.”
Earlier this year, I was invited to be a discussant on the study at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association. Here are 10 things I think you should know about this report:
- The “intervention” being studied was the Motivational Interviewing (MI) technique. MI is “a method of interacting with clients who are ambivalent about making change in their lives.” It has “wide application in behavioural change: addictions, health, behaviour wellness, chronic disease management, and most recently in the employment field.” For more on MI, see this web link.
- Research participants were on welfare upon enrollment in the study. By “welfare,” I mean last-resort social assistance. For most eligible residents in British Columbia, this is known as “income assistance (IA).” Upon being recruited for the study, most research participants were receiving approximately $1,000 per month to live on; this amount included “health supplements,” as well as “general supplements” for such things as transportation. Research participants had also been identified by British Colombia’s Ministry of Social Development as being “employment obligated,” which means they were expected to be actively searching for paid employment. (For more on benefit levels available under social assistance programs administered by provincial and territorial governments, see this 2013 report. Readers should be mindful that, across Canada, there are separate social assistance systems for First Nations; a 2007 evaluation of the federally-administered “income assistance” program for First Nations can be found here.)
- Research participants had been on welfare for at least one year at the study’s outset. The rationale behind this recruitment strategy was to identify social assistance recipients who were most likely to be facing motivational challenges.
- Most of the research participants reported health problems. According to the report, more than 70% of study participants “reported activity limitations that affected their ability to work.” For example, just one-quarter of members of the treatment group reported that “their health was ‘good’ or ‘very good…’” With this in mind, it’s not entirely clear to me why British Columbia’s Ministry of Social Development considers these individuals to be “employment obligated.”
- The “intervention” was provided by welfare officials (specifically, by Employment and Assistance Workers and case managers). Remarkably, each staff person received fewer than 70 hours of training before delivering the intervention (specifically, 60 hours of training in how to deliver MI and then nine hours of coaching as the intervention was being delivered). The training of staff was provided by Empowering Change Inc., a Canadian-based organization that (perhaps not surprisingly) specializes in training people on how to deliver MI. Members of the study’s control group “received the range of services and treatment which they would typically receive” as long-term recipients of social assistance.
- The results of this study suggest that Motivational Interviewing can be effective. By the end of the three-month study period, the difference in the respective employment rates of the treatment group and the control group was statistically significant. The precise size of the difference in the employment rate between the two groups was 7.8%. (For the research wonks: the level of statistical significance attained on this was 5%. Put differently, the likelihood that this finding occurred by chance is less than 5%.) This finding raises a question for me though: what would outcomes have been for members of the treatment group after 12 and 24 months respectively? Three months is not a long time.
- Fewer than half of the members of the study’s treatment group actually took in even one (hour-long) Motivational Interviewing session. Just 36 of the members of the study’s 76 treatment group members chose to go through with a Motivational Interview. And only about one in five members of the treatment group took in more than one such session. Ergo: the success of the treatment group as a whole appears to have been carried by a minority of its membership. This suggests to me that the success of the treatment group is actually being understated; had every single member of the treatment group actually received the intervention (and not merely been offered it) I suspect the treatment group as a whole would have performed even more favourably compared with the control group.
- The research was funded by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). On the one hand, I suspect that most readers will not be surprised to learn that the federal government wants most people on welfare to ‘look harder’ for work. On the other hand, it may come as a surprise to some readers (especially those who remember the Harper government’s decision to end the mandatory long-form census) that the federal government has funded research looking at what is effective in this regard.
- The study took place at a time when, throughout Canada, there were considerably more unemployed persons than job vacancies. Across Canada there are roughly six unemployed persons for every job vacancy (a ratio that varies considerably across provinces). This raises an important question: in a country where the number of unemployed persons vastly outnumbers job vacancies, why does the federal government want to study the feasibility of long-term recipients of social assistance (many of whom have serious health problems) trying harder to find low-wage work? Some readers will remember a Toronto study conducted in 2001 that followed more than 800 individuals who had left welfare within the previous year. Fewer than half of those individuals “felt things had improved financially” for them since leaving social assistance; on the whole, after leaving social assistance, individuals “reported incomes at approximately 92% of Statistics Canada’s 2001 Low Income Cut-Offs.” (Further analysis of this Toronto study can be found here.)
- This study took place at the same time that the federal government is aggressively bringing in more temporary migrant workers. As Jim Stanford has recently noted: “Migrant employment [in Canada] rose 140 per cent between 2005 and 2012.” Further, “[o]ne in every five net new paid jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2012 was filled by a migrant worker.” This raises yet another question for me: why is the federal government interested in exploring how to encourage more welfare recipients to look harder for low-wage jobs while (simultaneously) ‘importing’ competition for many of those same jobs at an aggressive pace? Don’t the two objectives work at cross purposes?
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at email@example.com and we will provide a research-based answer.
This post was republished with permission from The Progressive Economics Forum.
People who are homeless are often viewed as being threats to public safety. It's assumed that homeless individuals are inherently harmful and prone to violence. This harsh generalization of all homeless individuals has direct implications on laws, enforcement of law and the criminal justice system's treatment of homeless individuals. In the absence of affordable shelter and housing options, many individuals are forced to live outdoors in areas such as public parks. The below infographic, published by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (US), states that 74% of homeless people do not know of a place where it's safe for them to sleep. A recent report by the organization, titled No Safe Place, states that of cities surveyed, 18% had bans in place against sleeping in public and more than half of cities surveyed had laws banning sitting or lying down in public.
The relationship between homelessness and crime is far more complicated than homeless individuals causing crime. Homelessness is often the result of crime, and homeless individuals and individuals living in critical housing situations are often victims of crime. An approach to the issue that entirely blames homeless people is one that violates the rights of these individuals and perpetuates myths. The rights of law-abiding homeless people should be no different than the rights of law-abiding members of the general population, criminalizing homelessness changes this paradigm. We also have to consider one of the primary problems with criminalizing homelessness: the contentious relationship between law enforcement and homeless people that arises from the presence of such policies.
Policies that criminalize or frame homeless people as grave threats to the public's wellbeing effectively target homeless individuals, and erode whatever trust homeless people have with law enforcement authorities. As it stands, homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime compared to the general public; yet it’s these same individuals who are often targeted by police. A 2010 report by the National Coalition for Homelessness states "violent attacks on homeless Americans now outnumber all other categories of hate crime combined". These trends don't disappear when we consider the relationship between violence, policing and homeless people in Canada.
For example, let's consider homeless youth in Toronto and how their experiences tie into this issue. Over three quarters of youth surveyed in a 2010 study stated that they had been a victim of crime in the previous 12 months. Unlike the general population's experience of crime, participants surveyed stated that it was more likely for them to be victims of violent crime than property crime. Living in these circumstances, one would expect a police presence that successfully curbs existing problems rather than further exacerbating already difficult living conditions. Youth stated that interactions with police were usually ones where the youth were implicated as perpetrators of crime. This provides clarity as to why only 20% of youth surveyed stated that they had ever contacted police after crime-related incidents.
So how do we reverse this predicament and go about enacting policies that protect, rather than harm, homeless people? The most obvious step that comes to mind is enacting research-informed policies. Time and time again, studies have shown that housing solutions, rather than jailing homeless individuals or placing them into hospitals, are far more cost-efficient and effective solutions. Just as shelter workers receive training on how to interact with homeless individuals, there should also be informed police protocol on the issue. Criminality is not a synonym for the word homeless, supporting and enacting research-informed practices and policies is surely a step in the right direction.
People experiencing homelessness face many obstacles in attempting to locate employment, and few services exist to help them overcome these barriers.
- no or limited access to a phone and no permanent address to give to potential employers,
- not having work-appropriate (or interview-appropriate) attire,
- problems with resume creation and distribution (including printing and mailing costs and computer access for online applications),
- gaps in and/or inadequate employment history to include on an application,
- transportation issues (inability to afford a vehicle or public transit fares) to get to interviews and/or employment,
- difficulties with obtaining identification and access to financial institutions,
- conflict between hours of work and hours of operation of homeless services including shelter access and meal programs.
Homeless people also struggle to meet their basic needs, which is crucial for obtaining and maintaining employment. Health issues can interfere with work, and lack of food, sleep and rest can make maintaining employment difficult, if not impossible. Social support is also an important component of navigating the workplace and at times, for providing the connections needed to secure employment. Many homeless persons lack these social ties.
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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.