Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
September 30, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question was asked anonymously via our latest website survey: “What are the latest policy developments on housing in Toronto and GTA? Any signs of improvements on affordable housing and supportive housing?”

We’ve written extensively about the lack of affordable housing in Canada, and this is a very acute problem in Toronto. In October 2014, I wrote a post about the state of housing and poverty in Toronto, and highlighted a number of issues that are unfortunately still relevant, including: significant shelter and food bank use; and being home to Canada’s largest income gap.

The situation is dire. For homebuyers, the city is the third least affordable behind Vancouver and Victoria, with average homes costing about 6.7 times beyond the median income (Global News). According to recent studies summarized in the Globe and Mail, part of the problem is demand: there’s simply more people seeking housing in Toronto than what’s currently available. Because Toronto’s rental stock relies so heavily on private ownership, as the price of property ownership rises, so do rents. This combined with the municipality’s long backlog of repairs on subsidized housing and snail-like pace of building new housing hasn’t improved the situation.

According to Housing Connections’ latest report, there are 171,309 people currently waiting for affordable housing in Toronto—that’s a lot of people. The good news is that there have been some developments towards improving affordable housing in this city, and I’ve highlighted some of the most promising.

Legislation and policies

Co-operation and commitment between governments will be crucial in addressing the need for affordable housing, so here’s a quick rundown of some positive movements in policies and legislation at all three levels that could mean good things for Toronto’s housing stock.

Federal government

This year, the federal government promised a $2.5 billion boost spread over 2016 and 2017 under The Affordable Housing Initiative. There’s also money dedicated to repairing old and building new, affordable housing ($504 million) and for energy-saving retrofits in existing social housing buildings ($573.9 million). That’s a lot of money Toronto desperately needs—I look forward to seeing what gets done with it. (For more housing budget details related to homelessness and affordability, check out Raising the Roof’s summary.)

Participate in the National Housing SurveyThe Liberal party had also promised to develop a new national housing strategy, something Canada hasn’t had since 1993. I’m heartened to see movement on this: Consultations opened this year through the website Let’s Talk Housing, where people can upload written statements or take surveys to share their housing ideas. The deadline for these is October 21, so get yours in!

Though the strategy will surely take a lot of time to complete, it’s extremely important that it be done well. Since operating agreements—federal funds sent to social housing providers to subsidize rents—with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation are set to end in 2020, a new plan must be put in place to help keep units affordable.


In March 2016, three important updates were added to the Ontario Long-Term Affordable Housing strategy. One was the inclusion of funding and focus on a supportive housing framework to better connect necessary services (mental health, substance use, accommodations and other supports) with housing. Another was a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) subsidy, which is important, but also requires more modifications. As Greg Sutton pointed out in a post about the strategy changes:

Ontario has a system of RGI in social housing that – although an essential social program – is a frozen legacy of a 30 to 50 year old policy. In a province with almost half a million low-income renter households struggling to avoid arrears, RGI helps about 200,000 of them while most of the rest receive no assistance. The current system prevents income mix in older municipal social housing, prevents social housing tenants from taking their RGI subsidy to live elsewhere, and prevents the City from sharing these dollars around more fairly. While we need an augmented rent subsidy system, we also need flexibility in the existing RGI funding pool to remove barriers for people who need housing assistance.

The third change involved inclusionary zoning, which was proposed as legislation In May 2016 as Bill 204, the Promoting Affordable Housing Act. The bill has been read once (details of what was proposed can be found on the Ministry of Housing website), and will likely be back for another reading in the fall. Mayor John Tory claimed the municipal government will use Bill 204 to get developers to include affordable housing in future residential projects, but as John Michael McGrath pointed out in a post on TVO, there’s nothing in the bill itself that forces municipalities to use it. Even so, simply having the ability to enforce inclusionary zoning is more power than the city currently has.


In 2009, city council passed an affordable housing action plan, which outlined steps to improve affordable housing stock between 2010 and 2020. In the latest update, council has committed funding to refurbish 806 affordable units and rental houses, and consulted stakeholders on a rooming house strategy.

In November 2015, council passed the Open Door program to fast track the building of more affordable housing. According to a City of Toronto news brief, the program includes:

• activating five surplus City sites for the construction of 389 affordable rental and ownership homes

• releasing an inventory of 13 other City sites with affordable housing potential

• encouraging the private sector to build more affordable housing by offering City financial incentives currently limited to non-profit groups

• supporting the creation of 200 affordable ownership homes annually through a development charges deferral initiative, and

• providing a minimum of 500 housing allowances to increase affordability in buildings constructed under Open Door.

Regent Park will be hosting an Affordable Housing summit on September 30th, where government officials and other stakeholders will meet to discuss the future of affordable housing in Toronto.

Housing being built

Building housing takes an extremely long time, but some projects are currently in the works:

  • New Weston Community development is set to include 6 affordable rental units, as well as 26 affordable live/work units for artist-led households.
  • Habitat for Humanity is building 50 homes in Scarborough, which are intended to house 50 “working, low-income families.”

Preventative measures

At the Homeless Hub, we frequently talk about the importance of not just ending homelessness, but preventing it. It’s been heartening to see the city take some steps shifting away from emergency response. For example:

  • 550 families waiting for subsidized housing were given new housing allowances to help them stay in their existing homes while remaining on the waitlist. These were the first allowances given since 2012.
  • City council established a permanent, Toronto-based housing allowance reserve fund. They are also in the process of restructuring the centralized social housing waitlist, Housing Connections, to make it more responsive.
  • In 2015, the city gave over 3,400 families housing allowances and made use of funds for 150 people experiencing homelessness to find long-term housing.

According to the latest progress report, even more prevention-based measures are currently under development. An evictions prevention framework is currently underway, as is a centralized choice-based housing system. These developments combined with new funding for social housing repairs - though these funds are not enough to fully address the backlog - can ensure that the city’s existing affordable housing is improved and remains available.

Related posts

How has affordable housing been built?

How can we incentivize building low-end rental housing?

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. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
September 28, 2016

Meet John Ecker. He will be joining us in October as COH’s Director of Evaluation. Given that this is a new position at the Observatory, we thought it would be helpful for John to introduce himself and describe the skills he brings to the position. Take it away, John!

Hello! I am thrilled to join the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness as their Director of Evaluation. This is a new position at the Observatory and a very timely one, but I’ll get to that later. First things first, what led me to this position? Well, I recently received my Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology (Social-Community stream) from the University of Ottawa, where I worked under the supervision of Dr. Tim Aubry. My doctoral research focused on experiences of community integration among homeless and vulnerably housed individuals and I also developed a secondary interest in LGBTQ youth and adult homelessness.

During my time in graduate school, I was introduced to the field of program evaluation and I quickly became immersed in it. I took every course offered on program evaluation theory and methods and, most importantly, was able to apply this knowledge while working on several innovative evaluations that targeted individuals experiencing homelessness. I served as a Research Assistant on projects that spanned across local, provincial, and national jurisdictions, most notably the At Home/Chez Soi project. Throughout these projects, I was involved in the various stages of the evaluation process – stakeholder engagement, logic model development, data collection, data analysis, report writing, and dissemination – which strengthened my understanding of what a thorough and meaningful evaluation entails.

At the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, I’ll be responsible for the planning and implementation of the Observatory’s evaluation activities. This is a new position at the Observatory and it demonstrates the demand for meaningful and sound program evaluations within the homeless service sector across Canada. But what is program evaluation? The Canadian Evaluation Society defines it as, “the systematic assessment of the design, implementation or results of an initiative for the purposes of learning or decision-making.” So what does this mean for your agency? Well, the COH can help to answer evaluation questions like:

  • What is the logic or theory of our program?
  • Is the program reaching the right audience?
  • How do clients of the program feel about the services they receive?
  • What impact is the program having on the clients?
  • How do staff members feel about the services they are delivering?
  • How can the program be improved?

Answers to these questions help ensure that your program is operating in an effective and innovative matter. In fact, program evaluation is one of the pillars of innovation. New programs are often developed in response to an emerging challenge. For example, a community may conduct a needs assessment and discover an unmet need in the community. A program is then developed and implemented in the community. It is at this stage that evaluation comes in. Evaluation can help to see if the program was implemented smoothly and examine the outcomes of the program. New and innovative program will undoubtedly have challenges that they encounter and evaluation can help sort these issues out. Without utilizing these evaluation strategies, program modifications may not occur leading to the continued operation of an ineffective and inefficient program.  As such, program evaluation is one of the pillars of innovation and ensures that agencies are delivering reliable and effective programming to maximize impact.

Impact process graphic

I hope you have enjoyed getting to know a bit about me via this blog post. Now, I’d like to get to know all of you! I encourage readers of this post to contact me with any questions you may have about program evaluation and/or how we can partner on your upcoming projects. This is an exciting time for the Observatory and I look forward to engaging with agencies across Canada.



University of Western Ontario
September 27, 2016
Tags: CAEH16, women

A woman with a sign, "Poverty is sexist."Responding to the call for support from the ONE Campaign, Prime Minister Trudeau wrote, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I am writing back to let you know that I wholeheartedly agree: Poverty is Sexist.” Evidence supporting this assertion is overwhelming: women are more likely to experience poverty, be denied education, be denied access to political systems, be food insecure, be subject to discriminatory laws, experience domestic violence, et cetera. As we explore systems responses to ending homelessness for women and girls, we wanted to explore the question, “Is homelessness sexist?”

Sexist – discrimination based on gender.

Discrimination – giving treatment in favour of or against a person or a group.

It would appear at first glance that if homelessness discriminates on gender, that it actually discriminates against men. Emergency shelter residents are more likely to be male, men have longer average stays in emergency shelter than women, the majority of Housing First program participants are male, more men than women sleep rough, and homeless men have a lower average age of death than homeless women. However, a deeper exploration of the question requires first addressing issues of quantification, and secondly considering service provision versus service utilization.


The statistical trends noted above are based on data based on service utilization (such as who accesses emergency shelter). However, quantifying homelessness based solely on utilization and using this to make assumptions on gender only works if there are no gender-based differences in access to service in the first place. That is, concluding that more men than women experience homelessness based on emergency shelter statistics assumes that the only mode of homelessness that counts is emergency shelter, and men and women are equally willing and able to enter emergency shelter. Both of these assumptions do not hold up to scrutiny. Although emergency shelter is the most easily measurable form of homelessness, we know that hidden forms of homelessness often outnumber shelter use, where somewhat reliable counts have been made. Secondly, we know that women are more likely to avoid emergency shelter based on safety issues, particularly in communities with mixed-gender shelters. Therefore, there are limits to conclusions about the service usage numbers as we have them, so what about service provision?

Service Provision:

Moving away from how many people access certain services, are there quality differences in service provision based on gender? Here we begin to see more of a picture that homelessness is indeed sexist against women, particularly in the design of systems to address homelessness. Take, for example, emergency shelters as mentioned above. Services provided as ‘gender neutral’ or presumed to be equally accessible for men and women actually put women at significant risk. Although violence is usually only considered as a pathway into homelessness, statistics on women’s experience of violence within emergency shelters are staggering, with homelessness itself being a lead predictor of experiencing violence.

The same neglect of consideration for women has been seen in some of the early Housing First programs. With limited training for safety planning and the experience of intimate-partner violence, housing stability workers have been known to place women into scattered-site living arrangements that have led to a reconnection with an abuser. A review of housing support worker skill requirements lists mental health, addictions, teamwork, knowledge of community resources, conflict resolution, and First Aid/CPR, but makes no mention of safety planning and prevention of violence. Again, by lacking a gender lens and presuming to provide services equitably to men and women, women are actually disadvantaged.

Ultimately, for homelessness not to be sexist, a gender lens needs to be applied throughout the system. Again and again we see the flaws of presuming that systems designed to be open to all subsequently serve people equitably across the gender spectrum. If we are honest about desiring to end homelessness for women and girls then we need to speak explicitly of the needs of women and girls. The National Housing Strategy under development is a perfect example and opportunity of how we can ensure that homelessness systems are not sexist. Applying a gender lens to this work can only enhance the overall quality and ensure positive outcomes across the gender spectrum.

This blog post is part of our series which highlights sessions of the 2016 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Connect with Dr. Abe Oudshoorn at the All Our Sisters Roundtable on Thursday, November 3rd at 1:30PM or hear him speak on Friday, November 4th at 10AM on research influencing and impacting system change. Learn more about this upcoming conference presented by CAEH at:

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
September 26, 2016
Categories: Topics

The first week of October marks Mental Illness Awareness Week, an initiative coordinated by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health to promote the reality of mental illness to all Canadians. The stigma against mental illness is strong, thus it is important to provide a snapshot to demonstrate what mental illness truly looks like, who it affects and how it can be addressed.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada:

  • One in five people in Canada will experience a mental illness in any given year, with a cost of over $50 billion to our economy.
  • 70% of adults living with a mental illness say their symptoms started in childhood.
  • 60% of people with a mental illness won’t seek help for fear of being labeled.
  • 500,000 Canadians, in any given week, are unable to work due to mental illness.
  • One in three workplace disability claims are related to mental illness.

These figures provide just a quick overview of the level at which mental illness affects the general population of Canada. Of particular concern, however, is the ability for individuals to access treatment and how accessibility varies across gender, race, age, sexual orientation, location and socio-economic status, such as whether an individual is facing homelessness.

Research shows that people experiencing homelessness tend to have poorer mental health and have higher prevalence of mental illnesses than the general population. For some, mental illness along with other structural issues such as a lack of adequate income, access to affordable housing, health supports and/or the experience of discrimination may result in homelessness. For others, mental illness may develop and/or worsen as a result of experiencing the stressors of homelessness, such as being at greater risk of criminal victimization, sexual exploitation and trauma. However, not all people who are homeless report a mental illness. Individuals experiencing chronic homelessness (homeless for a year or more, and most often for a long time) are usually the most affected, where 35-50% have schizophrenia, 38-48% have manic depression or bi-polar disorder and many experience concurrent conditions as well. Substance use and addiction is also highly prevalent, where one study in Calgary found that 80% of chronically homeless individuals faced issues with addiction.

Services available

Access to mental health services in Canada varies from each province and territory. Generally, seeing a psychiatrist requires referral via a family doctor and is covered by provincial and territorial health plans. Individuals may access services of other mental health professionals within the community such as counsellors, helplines, social workers, mental health services within educational institutions and psychologists. These services, however, are not covered by provincial or territorial health plans but may be offered at no cost if operated through government-funded hospitals, clinics or agencies. Mental health services delivered through private practice such as a psychologist or psychotherapist are also not covered by provincial or territorial health plans. In Ontario, for example, fees for private psychologists or psychotherapists practitioners may range from $40-$200/hour.   

Barriers to service

Despite the various service options available for mental health care, access to care for some individuals can be a significant challenge.

For instance, an Ontario study found that wait times to see a psychiatrist via family doctor referral was approximately 50 to 60 days. Furthermore, wait times may significantly impact those who face lower socio-economic status. One Toronto study found that individuals from affluent backgrounds with less severe psychiatric disorders had regular access to psychiatric treatment and often accessed treatment without a referral. On the other hand, individuals from a lower socio-economic status and experiencing more severe and persistent mental illness had longer wait times and received less treatment.

In addition to wait times, individuals who are unhoused and facing mental illness tend to face quite a few barriers to accessing the services they need:

  • People experiencing homelessness and mental illness are admitted to hospitals 5 times more than the general population, with mental illness accounting for 52% of ER visits.

  • 25% of homeless individuals cannot access health care or treatment due to missing health cards, no proof of health insurance coverage or cannot afford prescriptions for medication.

  • Only 45% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a family doctor (compared with 94% of the general population), acting as a barrier to care considering a family doctor referral is usually required to access psychiatric services.

  • When accessing the ER, studies have found that unhoused individuals with addiction issues often face stigmatization due to the criminalized status of certain illicit substances.

  • Individuals facing mental illness and homelessness might also face barriers of ageism, racism, sexism and discrimination when visiting the ER.

  • Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness in particular have found issues with accessing services due to racism and lack of cultural understanding on the part of health professionals.

  • Homophobia and transphobia are cited as barriers to care, where LGBTQ2S individuals may feel stress, anxiety or fear in disclosing their sexual orientation with their physician due to fear of being ‘treated’ for their sexual orientation, rather than their mental health needs.

  • Accessing care is particularly difficult for those in remote communities, where individuals cite long wait times, difficulty finding or booking a family doctor and an inability to afford transportation to larger cities as barriers.

  • For homeless youth, difficulty in navigating health care systems, distrust of adults, stigma associated with homelessness, fear of judgment and fear of being reported to child welfare services all act as barriers to accessing services.

What can be done

In light of the barriers to mental health care discussed, critical and effective work is being done by several community agencies to combat the issues highlighted above. For instance, organizations that utilize a Housing First approach demonstrate the most promising results in providing, addressing and alleviating mental illness among individuals experiencing homelessness.

A Housing First approach simply means providing unhoused individuals with homes without being contingent upon ‘readiness’ or sobriety. Housing First also incorporates choice and self-determination, harm reduction, social and community integration and individualized support services (such as providing mental health services), all of which are key to providing an effective and realistic response to homelessness. Indeed, evidence shows that securing stable housing is associated with reduced psychological distress among homeless individuals and plays a role in supporting individuals recovering from mental illness.

Not only has Housing First been successful in improving an individual’s mental health, but it is also the most cost-efficent option. One study found that the cost of ‘housing’ an individual in jail, hospital or shelter system were the most costly options, ranging anywhere from $13,000-$120,000 per person per year. Alternatively, supportive and transitional housing as well as affordable housing without supports were the most cost-efficient options, ranging from $5,000-$18,000 per person per year.

Housing First Case Study: Victoria, BC Street to Homes (S2H)

Initiatives like S2H (Street to Homes) that utilizes a Housing First framework in addressing chronic homelessness in the Greater Victoria area have had promising results. For example in 2012, 73% of their residents who went through the program are still housed and 63% of participants received increased access to mental health and addictions supports.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness today and the barriers that particularly individuals of lower socio-economic status face, several community groups and health practitioners are making great strides in addressing issues that affect a large portion of Canadians. However, like any social issue, a multi-faceted approach that includes combating the stigma around mental illness, making access to mental health services prompt and efficient as well as creating secure and stable employment and affordable housing are all critical steps that need to be taken to guarantee a high quality of life accessible to all Canadians.

Visit the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health to learn more about Mental Illness Awareness Week and what you can do to help.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
September 23, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

The following question came from Natalie D. via our latest website survey: “What is the effectiveness of non-Indigenous organizations in meaningfully supporting Indigenous people? Is there a need for the homelessness sector to support the development and delivery of programs that are culturally relevant?”

In Canada, the social services sector is known for being dominated by people who are white and middle class. (In one U.S. study, researchers found that while most social service agencies served 2/3 people who were visible minorities, the majority of staff were white and of European descent.) And according to Statistics Canada, the social service sector is 77% female. Given the country’s vast diversity, especially in major cities, many employees and service users are from non-Western cultures. So the need for employees and on a wider scale, entire organizations, to be aware of cultural differences, is absolutely necessary.

Groups that tend to be marginalized—non-English speakers, racialized communities, newcomers, and those experiencing homelessness—tend to have poorer health outcomes than others. This is also the case for Indigenous peoples in Canada, who are over-represented in the homeless population, and are more likely to live in poverty than people who aren’t Indigenous. All of these factors lead to a great need for services that are accessible and culturally relevant.

Organizations that primarily employ people who haven’t been marginalized can still serve others, but generally: the more diverse the organization, the better. In healthcare research, there’s evidence showing that: “Current prevalent models of health and social service provision, which largely reflect white, middle class values, do not effectively meet the needs of ethnically and racially diverse groups.” Indeed, Indigenous groups and organizations have been saying this for some time. This, combined with the importance of self-determination and holistic care for Indigenous people, has inspired the creation of many independent, Indigenous-led social service organizations.

When white-dominated organizations make efforts to meet cultural needs, service use tends to increase. One 1986 California study found that “…a culturally compatible approach to services was effective in increasing utilization. Several program components were identified as the best indicators of increased utilization: language and ethnic/racial match of therapists and clients, and location of services in the ethnic community.” A more recent study in three British Columbia communities concluded that more culturally appropriate services are needed for Indigenous peoples.

It makes sense that when service users can understand and access services that use would increase—but it often requires making large organizational changes and focusing on “cultural competency” or “cultural safety.”

The rise of cultural awareness and competency

In the 1980s, many academics began writing about the need for “cultural competency” in social service organizations. Betancourt, Green and Carrillo (2002) define cultural competence (in health care) as: “…the ability of systems to provide care to patients with diverse values, beliefs and behaviors, including tailoring delivery to meet patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs.” They defined the main barriers to culturally relevant care as:

  • Lack of diversity in health care’s leadership and workforce.
  • Systems of care poorly designed to meet the needs of diverse patient populations.
  • Poor communication between providers and patients of different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds.

To address these barriers, they recommend meaningful community involvement, assessments and evaluations; and adopting practices like tracking language preferences and making them available (whether through staff or interpretation services). While their work took place in the U.S., such definitions can be expanded to Canadian social services, where organizations face similar issues.

In 2016, Wong and Omori wrote that: “The purpose of cultural competency is to make healthcare services accessible, acceptable, and effective for all people, regardless of their cultural background.” Their study addressed homelessness as its own unique culture, and advocated for healthcare workers to be aware of broad trends (like higher instances of cardiovascular disease), but also to learn from each individual about what’s important to them and what matters in terms of their care.

Concept map of issues discussed in the Our Health Counts study: poverty, housing, impacts of colonization, government responsibilityMaking services culturally safe

More recently, many academics and reports are using the term “cultural safety.” According to the Nursing Council of New Zealand (2005):

Cultural safety is defined as effective practice determined by the individual and family. “Unsafe cultural practice comprises any action which diminishes, demeans or disempowers the cultural identity and well-being of an individual (From: Understanding Cultural Safety: Traditional and Client Perspectives).

Most literature on cultural safety focuses on its importance with Indigenous peoples, who face unique challenges due to ongoing colonization. In a 2016 study, Oelke, Thurston and Turner proposed a framework to address structural violence against Indigenous peoples. They found that best practices included:

...ensuring cultural safety, fostering partnerships among agencies, implementing Aboriginal governance, ensuring adequate and sustainable funding, equitable employment of Aboriginal staff, incorporating cultural reconnection, and undertaking research and evaluation to guide policy and practices related to homelessness among Aboriginal peoples.

The Our Health Counts study from Hamilton, Ontario, was conducted by Indigenous organizations and also cited cultural safety as an important factor in healthcare. The writers also recommended emphasis be placed on Indigenous-specific services, as well as support for self determination. (The concept map from that study is pictured right, illustrating the different topics connected to social and healthcare services.)

In terms of housing services, challenges go way beyond policies and structures. In her article on cultural safety, housing and health, Christensen (2016) points out that the concept of “home” is different for many Indigenous people:

While ‘home’ is conceived of and experienced in different ways between and within the ethnic and cultural bounds of the Dene, Métis and Inuit, certain elements, like the land and the family, thread them together. Keeping in mind these shared components in Indigenous senses of home reveals the broader significance and meaning of Indigenous experiences of ‘homelessness’. Attacks on the family and on Indigenous homelands through colonial processes of domination and dispossession are therefore deeply implicit in Indigenous experiences of homelessness. In interviews and focus group discussions, the concept of ‘home’ was never limited to four walls and a roof: home was also closely linked to positive, healthy relationships with family and friends, physical and mental health and wellbeing, strong cultural ties, and self-determination.

Furthermore, public housing policies also contribute to homelessness for Indigenous people. Those wishing to stay with family or friends in public housing are often forced to leave after two weeks, else the original tenant(s) may get evicted. Another policy that causes issues is that when children are apprehended by the child welfare system, parents are no longer eligible to stay in family units. In Christensen’s words: “Due to the dismal numbers of single-adult dwellings in public housing in the NWT, the apprehension of children into child welfare often leads directly to the homelessness of parents.” Other interviewees from her work include women who move from their rural communities to Yellowknife, where their children live in foster care, in hopes of remaining close and regaining custody—which also often leads to homelessness.

Christensen proposes the following changes (and more) to make housing services more culturally appropriate:

  • Flexible housing policies that let tenants self determine their needs.
  • Services that not only address physical homelessness, but also spiritual homelessness.
  • A focus on integrated approaches to rebuilding parental-child relationships.
  • Meaningful and continuing involvement of Indigenous governments, ensuring a better emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and practices being included in policies

In other words: acknowledging cultural differences and the consequences of colonization, and changing housing services accordingly, are an important step in improving housing outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

“Nothing about us without us”

Being aware of cultural and historical differences is important, but not as crucial as including service users (in this case, Indigenous peoples) in design, delivery and assessment of services. A lot of the work I do as a social worker in-training is in harm reduction, where “nothing about us without us” is a cornerstone of how we build and run various programs. This message is applicable to any group of people in need of such services, like newcomers, Indigenous people, drug users, and people experiencing homelessness in general. Homelessness itself is a culture, one that includes survival tactics and other strategies/practices that people who haven’t experienced it may not know much about—so it’s important to get input from and employ people with that experience.

The Homelessness Resource Center (HRC) makes similar recommendations in its guide on building culturally competent services for LGBTQI2-S youth. As Youth on Fire is quoted:

Hiring staff who identify as GLBT sets a positive tone for the space. When almost half our members are queer, it is really important to have staff that identifies the same way. You can put up a poster or change the rules, but the best way to signal that you’re a safe space is to have someone on staff who is GLBT. It also helps the young people trust the rest of the staff, because acceptance is now signalled as a genuine priority.

Along with hiring staff from within communities, the HRC recommends seeking staff who are open-minded and willing to learn. Not everyone will have the same lived experience, but a true commitment to learning and growth can go a long way to ensure services are accessible and safe.

Inclusion not only allows service users to find employment and be involved in how programs and services are run, it gives organizations the required lived experience and input they need to make said programs and services more effective.

More resources on cultural competence

Image: Our Health Counts

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.


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