Research Matters Blog
This question came from Denise C. via our latest website survey: “What are some suggestions around best practices in finding relevant (and applying) research/resources/models in rural and remote areas of Canada?”
When we think and talk about homelessness, we tend to view it as a big-city issue. There are a few different reasons for this, including larger population sizes – most Canadians live very close to the American border – and the sheer number of shelters and non-profit organizations that tend to exist in cities. Because of this focus, there is little research that is specific to rural and remote homelessness, but it is a problem – one that is now recognized by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. When looking for research, resources and potential models of service delivery or approaches to homelessness in these areas, here are a few things to keep in mind.
There are key differences
According to a literature review by Employment and Social Development Canada, homelessness in rural and northern areas tends to be less visible, a.k.a. hidden homelessness. Dee Ann Benard was recently quoted in a Western Producer article describing a common homelessness situation:
They may look like they’re housed, but they’re living in substandard housing, or old houses with no heat, no electricity or running water or too many people in one house. Or they’re living in a tent in the bush or they’re couch surfing, going from one place to another until people get sick of you and kick you out and you go to the next one.
While poverty and affordable housing are countrywide problems, people experiencing homelessness in these communities are less likely to have mental health or substance-related issues – though the prevalence of these factors vary; for example, one study from Wellington county found substance use (along with poverty) to be a significant factor in youth homelessness. There are fewer job prospects, opportunities for new or rental housing, and levels of income and education. The Homeless Hub’s Gaining Ground research found that participants faced four primary barriers to overcoming homelessness and mental health issues: social ties, social services, transportation and relocation.
In northern areas, the weather makes living without shelter downright impossible. The close-knit nature of small communities means that people either have much difficulty leaving conflicted or abusive situations, or have a strong local support network to help them – all depending on the individual’s social resources. As noted in our rural and northern communities information section, rural and remote communities tend to “lack the resources – and in some cases the will – to invest in infrastructure and services that may prevent or reduce the worst outcomes of homelessness.” These issues and more are further complicated in Indigenous communities, where residents are more likely to have lower quality housing and higher rates of poverty.
In short, keeping specific contexts in mind when approaching homelessness is key to properly adapting or undertaking research/solution models. For more key differences, read Alina Turner's Why rural homelessness is different, and Nick Falvo’s 10 things to know about homelessness in Canada’s north.
With so much of homelessness research focused on urban issues and participants, the vast majority of models presented are based on this research – so it’s good to look for research based in rural and remote communities. Though they might not be immediately applicable to rural or remote areas, it is possible that they can be adapted and tested in pilot programs in these communities.
Rural- and remote-specific researchers are already doing this. In 2008, the National Alliance to End Homelessness developed a tool to help rural communities adapt point-in-time counts. In their study on rural homelessness in Alberta, Waegemakers-Schliff and Turner (2014) recommended exploring innovative alternatives to shelters and adaptations of Housing First approaches. In determining the feasibility of Housing First in 22 rural Canadian communities, they surmised that while aspects of the approach can be used in some areas, the various barriers (like lack of available housing or staff support) to direct implementation means we must be creative and flexible in how we create Housing First programs in rural communities.
Despite the growing-but-still-small research base on rural and remote homelessness, other practices identified by Robertson (2007; Rural Homelessness symposium paper) as promising included regionalized services, development of community collaboration and coalitions, rural service teams, the housing-plus-services model, and employment initiatives. For youth, specialized services like Youth Reconnect have been shown to be quite effective in several areas: remaining housed, becoming employed and doing better in school.
Build or join a network/coalition
Many communities look to each other for solutions that work better in rural and remote contexts. The Alberta Rural Development Network, inspired by the Safe Couch program in Victoria, British Columbia, began funding the program in Cochrane, Alberta.
Effective information sharing can be improved by creating a network, as suggested by the authors of a 2012 report on homelessness in rural Newfoundland and Labrador:
There is a high level of interest from the participants in the study to learn from peers in similar rural contexts and connect with others facing similar issues. ... Developing a network on rural homelessness would enable mutual support and the sharing of learnings for hundreds of small communities grappling with similar challenges nationwide.
If there is no established network in your community of interest, get grassroots! Start small: look at communities roughly the size of the one you’re considering and learn how they are or aren’t addressing homelessness. How are the issues in that community different from or similar to yours? Asking these kinds of questions can point you towards existing research, resources or models that might work for your community.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
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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.