Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
January 30, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

Last week, a reader alerted us to this 2013 story, in which BBH Labs paid 13 homeless people to walk around Austin, Texas carrying 4G wireless hotspots during South by Southwest—an annual music, film, and technology festival. The project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” faced a lot of criticism from people who thought it was exploitative.

The homeless employees were paid $20 upfront and $50 a day, and got to keep additional proceeds from wireless usage sales. Many critics noted the per diem was less than minimum wage, and would barely make a decent payday. Tim Carmody at Wired argued that: “…turning Austin’s homeless into Wi-Fi hotspots symbolizes everything that’s awful about both South by Southwest and living in America in the 21st century.” He also expressed serious concerns about the program being more about marketing than helping a cause:

“This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.”

According to ABC News, 11 out of 13 of the people—recruited from Front Steps Shelter— used the money they earned to put deposits on apartments. Jennifer Denton, a worker at the shelter, said: “There was a lot of discussion at the outset, when the program began, about whether it was taking advantage of the individuals. But the individuals participating were really grateful for the opportunity to be productive and earn a wage, and it had this sustainable result.”

Clarence working as a 4G hotspot in AustinExploitation and dehumanization

Certainly having people walk around supplying Internet seems like a trivial service, and a temporary, pay-what-you-want model isn’t the most stable or lucrative. Does any of this matter if the people involved secured housing?

Having been in Austin while the Homeless Hotspots program was running, I must admit that it made me uncomfortable. It contrasted people’s desires for constant connectivity with the stark reality of homelessness, which could have been a good thing in terms of raising awareness if it wasn’t for the objectification.

To me, a person wearing a sign stating they were a hotspot looked dehumanizing, something that already happens to all people experiencing homelessness. Often considered inferior to people who are housed, many housed people have difficulty empathizing with those who are not. And because we live in a culture that believes poverty is always an individual’s problem of his or her own doing, this difficulty continues.

Examples of ongoing dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness are everywhere: the #Fitchthehomeless campaign, which used homeless people as pawns in a political statement; people paying homeless people to recite lines for celebrity weddings; the popularity of the 2002 video series, Bumfights, which pitted homeless people against each other. In each of these examples, people experiencing homelessness are considered “lesser than” others and deserving of manipulation and exploitation.

Beyond evoking feelings of shame, inferiority and embarrassment, dehumanization can be dangerous and sometimes, fatal. According to a post by the National Coalition for the Homeless, there has been 1400 acts of violence against people experiencing homelessness reported in 47 U.S. states and Puerto Rico since 1999. In the same post, it’s noted that: “Homeless hate crimes leading to death have been greater in number than all other deadly hate crimes combined in 14 out of the last 15 years across all of the US.”

Canada has seen its share of violence against the homeless as well, with deaths and beatings recorded in Berwick NS, Calgary AB, and Burnaby BC. In many reports on violence against homeless people, few details regarding the victims are even reported.

Humour, tests and pranks 

Given the reality of violence, most blatantly violent or dehumanizing acts against homeless people are considered unacceptable, yet more subtle forms continue. A simple search of “homeless” on YouTube reveals all kinds of judgments, “honesty” tests and pranks. One recent and prominent example is How Does a Homeless Man Spend $100, in which the creator gave Thomas, a homeless man, $100 and followed him with a camera to see what he spent it on—which was presumably going to be something irresponsible, like drugs or alcohol. (The assumption being that all homeless people are assumed to be there due to various character flaws and need to be judged.) Instead, Thomas used money to buy food for other homeless people—prompting the creator to apologize and crowdfund over $140,000 for Thomas.  

While Thomas is sure in for a fantastic surprise, I worry about the direction these “awareness” efforts take us in creating a dichotomy of people experiencing homeless. We already judge people experiencing homelessness by far stricter standards than people who are not. There’s the “good” homeless people who shatter negative stereotypes (like Thomas), or do menial or questionable work to “honestly” make a living; and the bad, who won’t do that work or occasionally cope with alcohol and drugs. We’re left with the message that as long as someone does everything “right” they deserve compassion and will be rewarded. It’s my personal belief that housing is a basic human right, that everyone deserves compassion, and the way we talk about homeless people goes a long way in making real change—which takes a lot more than a few temp jobs and fundraisers.

What do you think? Is giving homeless people menial or marketing tasks for money exploitative or helpful? Do the means justify the ends? 

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.

Photo credit:

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
January 28, 2015

Today is Bell’s Let’s Talk day. Bell’s campaign focuses on creating awareness, and engaging Canadians in public conversations about mental health issues. There continues to be a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness. The below infographic, published by the Mental Health Commission of Canada as part of their Informing the Future: Mental Health Indicators of Canada report, addresses some of the unmet needs for mental health care among individuals.

11.5% of people aged 15 and over in 2013 readmitted to hospital within 30 days of hospital discharge for a stay related to a mental illness.

Just over 10% of people discharged from hospital after a stay related to a mental illness are readmitted within 30 days.

Over one tenth of individuals admitted for poor mental health were readmitted within 30 days of their release. This indicates that a sizeable portion of individuals either received inadequate treatment, or were released into a system that is not equipped with adequate resources to prevent readmission. The term discharge planning is used to refer to the procedures in place designed to ensure that patients, when leaving a phase of care, are provided with the necessary supports and care for continued well-being. Aspects of discharge planning include everything from making sure that patients have the necessary medical equipment, medications, and access to care following their release.

Individuals are often discharged from the hospital straight into critical housing situations, or even homelessness. Stress associated with being homeless can cause, and even exacerbate, existing problems for those with poor mental health. Many emergency shelters are not sufficiently equipped to treat individuals suffering from mental illness. There needs to be more services available for homeless individuals suffering from mental illness, and the nature of care provided to these individuals needs to be more comprehensive.

Research has shown that releasing people with poor mental health into communities that have the necessary supports and interventions results in a drop in readmission rates. Unfortunately, few communities have the kinds of supports and interventions in place that can lead to a drop in readmissions. Targeted supports, even those brief in duration, can have a lasting impact on individuals suffering from mental health problems. These supports act as a preventative measure against both homelessness and hospital readmission. Having these supports in place is more cost-efficient and effective than keeping individuals in a continuous cycle of hospital readmission and release.  

People who have a severe mental illness are overrepresented among homeless populations partially because of poor discharge planning and the absence of supports. Rather than designing programs from the top-down, it would be highly beneficial to consider how the lived experiences of homeless individuals living with poor mental health can be used to inform existing practices and programs. This can allow for the development and expansion of policies and procedures that are effective in addressing the mental health needs of homeless Canadians.

While public knowledge and awareness has improved in recent years, there remain barriers to accessing and receiving adequate mental health treatment across Canada. It’s critical that we continue to move beyond conversation to action on issues surrounding mental health.

January 26, 2015
Categories: Topics

Concurrent Disorders (also described as dual diagnosis orco-morbitity) describes a condition in which a person has both a mental illness and a substance use problem. This term is a general one that refers to a wide range of mental illnesses and addictions. For example, someone with schizophrenia who is addicted to crack has a concurrent disorder, as does an individual who suffers from chronic depression and who is also an alcoholic. Treatment approaches for each case could be quite different. 

""People diagnosed with a concurrent disorder generally have shorter life expectancies, are more likely to be homeless, have more frequent acute psychiatric admissions, and spend less time in hospital per admission than those without (e.g. either substance use or mental health problems, not co-occurring). Research also suggests that the prognosis of schizophrenia in individuals with a concurrent disorder is considerably more severe than in individuals who have schizophrenia only. 

People with concurrent disorders are frequently misdiagnosed, as one disorder can mimic another. Relapse rates for substance use are higher for people with a concurrent mental disorder, as are the chances that symptoms of mental illness will return for those with a concurrent substance use problem. 

Mental illnesses and substance use is more prevalent among homeless and incarcerated populations than in the general population. Those with concurrent disorders need help and services from several sectors – mental health, addiction, health care, education, and social services. Improving access to the services and supports these individuals need requires a targeted, holistic, multi-disciplinary approach of complementary mental health and addictions services designed to work specifically with concurrent disorders. 

Common program elements include comprehensive assessment, intensive case management, supported housing, peer groups for support and therapy, training in independent living skills, and mental health and substance use treatment. Program philosophies typically include acceptance and tolerance of relapses, an emphasis on structured approaches, clear expectations within residential programs, and a commitment to long-term care.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
January 23, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

When we have so many social services in a city like Hamilton, ON, how is it possible that homelessness is still so prominent?

We received this question from Kathleen M., who passed it on from a student.

Many Canadian cities have agencies and programs that try to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness, yet homelessness continues to be a problem. The vast majority of such services fall in the emergency services category, which do little to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. In the words of the Homeless Hub’s State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report: “For years we have been investing in a response to homelessness that, while meeting the immediate needs of people in crisis, has arguably had no impact in reducing the scale and scope of the problem.” 

Strategy framework for ending homelessness

This isn’t to say we haven’t been making progress, because we certainly have. The At Home/Chez Soi project showed that with the right interventions (housing people quickly with appropriate supports), people who are chronically homeless can be and remain housed. As more municipalities adopt housing first models we will see improvements, but not complete eradication, of homelessness. The reasons why are numerous and complicated, but the two most pressing are as follows:

Reductions in housing funding in CanadaLack of affordable housing

Over the past few decades, federal funding for affordable housing has slowed. In 1982 20,450 new affordable units were built; in 1995 less than 1,000; and in 2006, 4,393. The increase in 2006 was due the efforts of Jack Layton and the NDP, who secured $4.6 billion for affordable housing and mass transit. (This is considered one of Layton's biggest triumphs.)

All in all, over 100,000 units were not built due to funding cuts and cancellations.

This has left Canadians overwhelmingly dependent on skyrocketing private rental markets. According to the latest annual housing affordability survey, Vancouver, is the second most unaffordable city in the world, with Toronto, Victoria, Kelowna, and the Fraser River Valley areas also deemed unaffordable.

As a result, many cities have hundreds of thousands on waiting lists for subsidized housing. An estimated 18% of Canadians spend more than half of their income on housing, which places them at risk for homelessness.


In Canada, minimum wage has not kept up with the rate of inflation, nor have social assistance rates. This, combined with decreasing numbers of long-term, well-paying jobs with benefits, has left people less financially secure. As Vineeth wrote back in November, Canada now ranks 24th out of 35 countries when it comes to child and family poverty. And the income gap between the rich and poor is widening, with the wealthiest 10% of Canadians seeing a median net worth increase of 42% since 2005.

The real solution to homelessness

It isn’t just more shelters, beds, or emergency services—it’s a real commitment to building affordable housing as soon as we can.

Recommendations for ending homelessness in Canada

To learn more about what we can do to end homelessness, read our State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report.

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.

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
January 21, 2015

Youth represent the fastest growing segment of Canada's homeless population, and a large proportion of these homeless youth are newcomers. Data from a recent survey conducted with homeless youth in Toronto shows that 22.3% of those surveyed had been born outside of Canada. The below infographic, created by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto for their report on homeless newcomer youth in Toronto, looks into the experiences newcomer youth have with homelessness and provides recommendations to change the status quo. When I looked at the snapshot of survey participants, two things jumped out at me.

In the study, over one third of participants identified as LGBTTIQ. LGBTTIQ youth, because of their gender identity, are far more likely than straight youth to be the victim of further discrimination and physical violence within the shelter system. This highlights the urgent need for specialized services for LGBTTIQ youth in major urban centres like Toronto. To date, there are zero specialized initiatives directed at the needs of LGBTTIQ homeless youth in Canada.

The infographic also states over half of youth participants had a level of education of grade 12 or higher. It says youth who have credentials that do not match Canadian school systems may be told that they have to repeat high school in Canada. As well, work experience that youth may have is often discredited as being 'not up to Canadian standards.' Rather than being told that they need to start over from scratch, the presence of bridging programs and supports that would help link these youth up with other educational supports could do a great deal to help these youth.

Despite the high proportion of homelessness youth who are also newcomers, data about the needs and experiences of these youth is hard to come by. Engaging these youth in decision-making processes about how services are structured and designed will go a long way towards creating informed changes to how we provide supports to this group. This means including youth in the design of targeted action plans, identifying which tailored supports are most needed and developing safe spaces in which these youth can voice their ideas and concerns. Advocating for, and supporting, specialized programs that demonstrate commitment to newcomer youth living in critical housing situations is one way to bridge the gaps present in their social safety net.

A Research Study on Homeless Newcomer Youth in Toronto increases our understanding of newcomer youth and those born outside of Canada who have experienced homelessness.

One-fifth of participants who had previously been in the care of Children’s Aid Society reported they have moved to a shelter once they transitioned out of the care system.

There is a mismatch between the support services that are needed, and those that newcomer youth are receiving.

Access the PDF version of the above infographic.


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