Research Matters Blog
Young people living in critical housing situations face stressors that most youth never have to face. For example, the stress associated with finding a shelter is overwhelming. The below infographic, published by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, takes a look at what keeps students living in homelessness out of class. Data in the infographic is drawn from a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Education that reviewed state and district implementation of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, as part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The survey asked districts across the United States to identify the significant barriers for students experiencing homelessness to school success, enrollment and attendance. The most frequently identified reason for not attending class was family or student preoccupation with survival needs. Additionally, 42% of the district liaisons reported that lack of an appropriate study area to do homework was a significant barrier to school attendance. A similar number was noted for access to transportation to get students to and from school.
For programs targeting homeless youth to be effective, systems thinking may be required. The term ‘systems thinking’ refers to an approach to thinking and understanding complex problems by “illuminating the dynamic and often non-obvious interdependencies among multiple elements that create such problems”. In this context, systems thinking may mean recognizing that barriers to student success need to be identified and addressed in order for schools and educational programs for homeless youth to have their desired impact.
Living in homelessness without adequate supports opens up children and youth to enormous vulnerability and difficulty. For example, let’s consider the role that inadequate nutrition may play in a child’s life. A recent study conducted in Canada found only 4% of youth interviewed had access to enough food over the past month. Food options were especially limited for homeless youth on weekends. Poor nutrition increases the likelihood of obtaining infectious diseases, and is also a cause of impaired functioning. The absence of adequate nutritious community food assistance programs means that homeless youth are unlikely to function at a high level even if they are enrolled and attending class.
It is also important to consider how the stigma associated with being homeless may function as a disincentive for homeless children who should be attending school. While homelessness may have a very visible presence in urban areas, misunderstandings about causes of homelessness often pervade discussions about the issue. Examples of stereotypes include the belief that youth leave home for the streets just because they don’t like the rules at home, or that everyone living in homelessness chooses to be homeless. Learning about homelessness in the classroom setting can play a vital role in dispelling these myths. The Homeless Hub provides a number of resources that can be used to help educators and students interested in undertaking homelessness as a topic in their classroom.
Prolonged homelessness impacts dental and oral health. Homeless people cannot easily access basic dental services due to a lack of money or insurance to cover the cost and the inability to make and meet appointments. As a result, they have unmet restorative needs and poor hygienic care. The longer an individual is homeless the greater the number of missing or decayed teeth and the higher the presence of periodontal disease.
The homeless population is a special needs group characterized by an increased prevalence of ill-health, chaotic lifestyles, deprivation and social exclusion. Dental fears and anxieties about the appearance of their teeth are real concerns for this client group and must be incorporated into planning health care services.
To be effective, an oral care program has dental care professionals collaborating with community care workers to understand and meet the needs of marginalized individuals. Unfortunately, in many instances, such programs rely on volunteers and are not able to meet the demand for dental care. There is a strong need for proper and accessible dental and oral treatment for marginalized people in Canada.
This question came from Barbara V. via our latest website survey: “What is the best and most respectful way to handle someone who is asking for spare change? I am often approached by someone asking for spare change while I sit at a red light and I find it awkward to say “No.” I want to help people in need, and wondered if you have any advice on this.”
This is a common question and one Tanya has answered before (Steve too!) but I thought it was worth discussing again. As she says, ultimately the decision is yours. Do you have the change spare and if so, do you want to give it away? Personally, I only give when I have change in a small bag or pocket because like Tanya, I don’t like taking my wallet out on the street.
Some people think they can dictate what a person then spends the given change on. In our neoliberal capitalist society, we tend to equate worth with wealth – anyone performing some kind of service is deserving of money, while those who ask or “beg” are not and should feel lucky to get anything at all/follow instructions. (In other words, people tend to ask questions like: “Why should I give away my hard earned money while they do nothing?” instead of: “Wait, why does this person need help?”) Furthermore, people tend to assume panhandlers are swindlers or that they’ll spend money on alcohol or drugs, so they try to tell people they can only spend change on food or transportation.
This is, in my opinion, pointless. Giving with strings attached comes with a hefty amount of judgment, which people who are panhandling get enough of already. We simply cannot control what happens once that change leaves our pockets, and if we’re truly giving, we have to be at peace with that.
Regardless of what you decide, Tanya suggests that you:
…have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them. That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.
If you decide to not give someone money, simply make eye contact and say something like:
- “I’m sorry, but I can’t”
- “No, I don’t/can’t”
- “I don’t have change, sorry.”
Those are just some options. Pick one you’re most comfortable with leave it at that. Alternatively, if you want to help in another direct way without giving money, you can simply ask the person if you can get them something else, like food or tokens, but asking is key. For example, sometimes people are given food that they are allergic to or can’t eat – so never assume that “anything goes."
In my experience when I do not give change, most people simply say something like: “Ok thanks, have a nice day.” The whole interaction is often only a few seconds long, yet panhandling, busking and squeegeeing have become a source of outrage and discomfort. What is it about panhandling that makes us so uncomfortable?
Our society assumes all kinds of ideas about people experiencing homelessness – that they’re worthless, undeserving, unproductive, all substance abusers (and even if they are, do they not also deserve to live decently?), etc. – and these ideas lead to extremely negative reactions to activities which, in many ways, make homelessness and poverty unavoidable and very visible. This is uncomfortable on its own, never mind in combination with the multitude of negative stereotypes about people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
It is highly criminalized
Generally, we housed and privileged folks do not like being faced with these hardships and because we feel entitled to what we have, we tend to blame people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness for their troubles. This leads to scapegoating and creating laws that prohibit panhandling in the name of “street safety” despite the fact that the vast majority of people who panhandle are not violent. These are often referred to as the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.
Just recently, “aggressive panhandling” – which is illegal in Toronto under the Safe Streets Act (SSA) – was covered on 680 News and comes up frequently here and elsewhere as a concern for tourism and local businesses. Legislation like the SSA does little to improve street safety and it actually often makes situations worse for people who are already in precarious financial situations by giving them unnecessary fines. This criminalization does not help end homelessness; rather, it aims to make it less visible.
It isn’t lucrative
Despite what some media stories would have us believe, panhandling is rarely a get-rich scheme or a first choice. In Calgary, people usually choose to pick bottles well before panhandling. Usually, people who panhandle face significant barriers to traditional employment, like: inadequate education, need for immediate money, poor physical and mental health, and/or disabilities. (Read our backgrounder on why street youth panhandle for more information about barriers.) And despite popular belief, few people experiencing homelessness receive government benefits. If someone is panhandling, chances are they are doing it as a last resort.
A 2007 study in Winnipeg found that most people (40%) who panhandled made only an average of $30 to $40 a day, with only 22% making over $50 a day. For over half of the participants, they indicated they either wouldn’t know what to do for income if panhandling wasn’t an option or that they would go hungry. Another study based in Toronto with youth experiencing homelessness found that many youth participate in panhandling and other illegal activities because it better meets their income needs than the low-paying, usually temporary jobs available to them.
It isn’t just for alcohol/drugs
Substance use among people experiencing poverty and homelessness is a polarizing topic, especially when we factor in charitable acts like giving money. As I wrote above, I don’t think we should judge what people spend their money on – that said, according to a 2002 Toronto study, most people who panhandle say that they spend the vast majority of their earnings on food.
So what else can I do?
I completely understand why someone might not want to give change, so here are some other ideas on how you can help people in need:
- Donate money or resources to a local organization that helps people experiencing homelessness. Call ahead to see where the greatest need is.
- Volunteer your time with organizations working to alleviate poverty and homelessness in your community.
- Become an advocate. Demand that Canada move towards a preventative strategy on homelessness, and support ideas like a mandatory minimum income.
There are also several suggestions in some of my past posts:
- How can I help people experiencing homelessness during winter?
- How can I raise awareness about hidden homelessness?
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.
In towns and cities across North America, individuals living in homelessness interact with more than just the local emergency shelters. They also interact with healthcare service providers, the justice system, and social services. It can be difficult to keep track of what services are most commonly used, and what the costs associated with services for people who are homeless might be. Accordingly, cost studies of homelessness are a tool of critical importance if we want to learn more about the cost of homelessness. Recently, the largest and most comprehensive cost study of homelessness in the USA was completed in Santa Clara County, California. Santa Clara is home to both the “extreme wealth of Silicon Valley and the highest percentage of homelessness in the USA.” This week’s infographic, produced by Destination: Home program of The Health Trust, takes a look at some important findings from a report published on the six-year study.
Together, the costs per year of providing services for homeless residents in the county amounted to $520 million a year. Over a third of the study’s participants were involved with the criminal justice system; common charges included felonies, infractions, misdemeanors and drug offences. Over half of all costs associated with the county’s services for those experiencing homelessness came from healthcare. Healthcare services used most often were outpatient healthcare, emergency room services and mental health services.
The report and the infographic establish that the costs of homelessness in the country were heavily skewed towards a small number of frequent service users. Homeless residents with costs in the top 10% had average costs of $67,199 per year, accounting for 61% of all costs. (For comparison, the average cost per county resident experiencing homelessness was a little over $5,000.) All individuals belonging to this top decile, who were housed through a permanent supportive housing initiative, had post-housing costs of just $19,767. This amounts to savings of over 70% when we compare the cost of pre-housing with post-housing!
Geography plays an important role for municipalities in determining the cost of homelessness. Resources, political willpower, local infrastructure all play into experiences of individuals struggling to find housing. Accordingly, the cost-savings in Santa Clara County may not be congruent with other communities in the USA and Canada that opt for a similar approach. It should be noted, however, that recent research suggests that the cost associated with homelessness remains high in Canada: an estimated $7 billion annually.
The study does contribute to a large body of research that identifies homeless prevention and permanent supportive housing as two cost-efficient approaches we have at our disposal in the fight against homelessness. This body of research includes several studies focused on homelessness prevention that were completed in Canada. Providing individuals living in homelessness with permanent housing and wrap-around supports is sustainable and leads to improved short-term and long-term outcomes.
Discrimination refers to intentional or unintentional actions that negatively affect people, based on biases and prejudices. People may experience discrimination because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age and/or income. Discrimination is linked to homelessness in several ways. The experience of discrimination in employment, housing and access to services can result in inadequate opportunities, education, income and compromised health, all of which can increase the risk of homelessness.
Research shows that certain marginalized populations (racial minorities, Aboriginal Peoples, sexual minorities) are overrepresented amongst the homeless. At the same time, the very experience of homelessness and extreme poverty can result in discrimination through restricting people’s access to necessary services and supports, and to housing and employment. People who are homeless and who are racial minorities, Aboriginal or sexual minorities face multiple forms of discrimination.
In addition, people who are homeless often experience restricted access to many of the spaces and places that domiciled individuals typically enjoy, including both public (parks, streets, etc.) and private spaces (restaurants, stores and malls, for instance). One negative consequence is that many homeless people are forced, then, to live in dangerous and undesirable environments, which further impairs their ability to move forward with their lives.
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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.