Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 18, 2014
Categories: Solutions

"Eviction Notice" sign.Evictions prevention refers to any strategy or program designed to keep individuals and families in their home and that helps them avoid entering into homelessness. Usually eviction prevention programs are geared at renters but the same programs are often effective for homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Eviction prevention is seen as an ‘upstream’ solution to homelessness by reducing the number of people who become homeless.

There are a variety of homelessness prevention or eviction prevention strategies. A few program options include:

  • Rent Banks that provide short-term or temporary loans or payments of outstanding rental arrears.
  • Energy assistance payments to help with the costs of utilities such as electric, water or gas. This often frees up a household’s income to make their rental or mortgage payment.
  • Community legal clinics or credit counselling agencies that work with a tenant/landlord or home owner/mortgage company to address outstanding financial or legal issues.
  • Supports to help tenants with notices of eviction to understand the eviction process and their rights and obligations concerning the notice.

Image by Flickr/aazamthefilmmaker

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 15, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

We received this tweet from Jordan Dawe on Twitter. He asks where donations can best be used to help people experiencing homelessness.

Thanks for an interesting question Jordan.

Donations are interesting. There has been some great research/stories about how post-disasters (especially big ones) resources of community organizations get swamped just managing donations. The same can be true for community organizations working with homeless folks.

Have a garage sale and donate the funds raised instead.Donating clothing means that someone needs to open the donations, clean it, mend it, sort it etc. etc. etc. Much of what is donated is inappropriate – dirty, ripped, worn, out of fashion or not appropriate (i.e. children’s clothes to a single, adult men’s shelter). When I worked at a shelter in Oshawa in the mid-90s we had access to a lot of suits from the 60s/70s. In today’s environment of limited space and resources, the additional complication of bed bugs means many shelters just refuse to accept clothing or only purchase new clothing for their clients. The latter also speaks to the worth and dignity of the individual. A job search isn’t going to be helped by showing up in an outfit that is 30 years out of date, stained and ill fitting. Instead of donating clothes -- have a garage sale and sell what is appropriate and donate the funds raised. You can also look at donating to an organization like Dress for Success which provides professional attire for disadvantaged women who need it. You can donate money or your nearly new suit.

Donating food can also present challenges including the sorting, reviewing, distributing issues listed above. Many people who are homeless are immune-compromised so it is important that any food they receive from a shelter, drop-in or meal program be nutritious and healthy. This is particularly true for prepared food; many shelters will not accept it because there is no way of knowing what it contains, cooking/storage conditions etc. For canned goods, central food banks are better set up to manage large-scale food collection and will then funnel food to food pantries and organizations as needed. When you’re donating pick new or non-expired items. See what is listed as most needed by the food bank. Remember, if you want to give ONLY to people who are homeless, you need to know that a large percentage of people who use food banks are housed and a great number are working. For them, food banks are a response to a financial emergency, ensuring there is access to food when money has to go to larger expenditures, such as rent, medical bills, or something otherwise unforeseen. To learn more about the way food assistance programs are accessed by youth who are experiencing homelessness see this chapter of our Youth Homelessness in Canada book.

We wrote about giving to people on the streets asking for money last year in one of our most popular blog posts: Should I Give Money to Panhandlers? As we discussed then this is completely a personal decision. We also suggested a few options for those who were worried about how the money would be spent:

  • Give the money to an organization working with people experiencing homelessness.
  • Buy a street newspaper.
  • Buy a small gift card – i.e. for a local coffee shop or fast food restaurant.
  • Use the money to donate food to a food bank.

Jordan, your question about what kind of organizations help the most is a good follow-up for our first suggestion of donating directly to an organization.

What we do know is that ending homelessness requires a multi-faceted response. All sorts of organizations are needed and they can’t be rated. Shelters, drop-ins, food banks, support programs, counselling, literacy classes, job or life skills training, recreational programs and housing services are all a piece of the puzzle. We won’t suggest that one program be selected over another. However, we will give you a couple pieces of advice:

  • Give from your heart. Did you see an ad on transit or in a newspaper that spoke to you? Are you more interested in youth concerns than adult issues? Do you want to help people get housing? Get food? Find a job? Pick the charity or non-profit that most fits with your desires and interests.
  • Do your research. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Larger organizations will have a fundraiser or development officer whom you can ask questions. Many websites will list annual reports or you can request one. Ask how your money will be spent. Find out how they stand with the Canada Revenue Agency (understanding that there is a lot of controversy about that these days).

Finally, if you don’t have the resources to donate, maybe you have the time to volunteer. Remember some organizations will require a specific skill set, training and/or a vulnerable sectors/police check. You can look for both short and long-term volunteer opportunities. When I worked frontline, the favourite volunteers were those who knew how to cut hair and those who played guitar and could lead a sing-song. Being awesome at cribbage never seemed to hurt either. Overall, just being a sympathetic ear and a friendly face can go a long way.

Image from Flickr/colros

York University; The Homeless Hub
August 13, 2014

Homeless Health Check Infographic

The definition of health has changed greatly over the last century. While ideas of health used to define only biological illnesses or disorders, today the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  The infographic above, published in the United Kingdom by Homeless Link, provides the reader with a brief snapshot of the health problems suffered by homeless populations with the modern definition of health in mind; a definition that goes far beyond an individual’s physical health to include mental health and lifestyle factors.

The percentages in the infographic tell a story. 80% reported struggling with some form of mental health issue. 73% of those surveyed reported physical health problems. 39% take drugs or are in the process of recovering from a drug problem. These are all alarming figures. However, comparing figures between the homeless population and the general population provides us with proof of the incredible discrepancy that exists between both groups. Compared to the general population, health issues are experienced at much higher levels by homeless people. This discrepancy is most striking when considering the drug consumption - in the UK homeless people are 7 times more likely to have used drugs in the past month compared to the general population. Factors contributing to increased drug use among homeless populations include pre-existing mental health issues, alcoholism, and lack of access to healthcare.

There are barriers across all the stages of the healthcare delivery process when Canadians who are homeless try to receive treatment. Difficulties arise even before a homeless person enters a clinic. Patients usually have to place an appointment prior to a consultation, and those affected by homelessness are unlikely to have a phone or a permanent address. Even once when being treated, homeless individuals may receive a diminished quality of care because of how a healthcare service provider judges their situation. Gaps in healthcare provision can also end up causing financial worries, as accessing provincial and federal healthcare reimbursements is more difficult to access for homeless people compared to the general population. For example, an individual may not have the necessary documentation to obtain a Canadian health card or provincial healthcare coverage.  The 2007 Street Health Report’s findings showed that more than a quarter of those surveyed had been refused healthcare because they didn’t have a health card.

Following a hospital visit, homeless people run into problems when it comes to accessing follow-up healthcare on their condition. In most cities, healthcare provision for homeless people is managed entirely by emergency departments. Both chronic and acute conditions are unlikely to receive treatment under such a delivery model - until they become emergencies. A system in place that only addresses emergency situations is unfit to meet the everyday healthcare needs of Canada’s homeless population. Chronic health conditions that require regular check-ups, mental health issues, and substance abuse are threats to health and well being that are all poorly mitigated under such a model. When we compare the current status of care provided to homeless populations with the WHO’s holistic definition of healthcare, it’s evident that current provisions in place for homeless populations are inadequate.

Accordingly, health outreach for homeless populations is of critical importance when we consider how Canada can provide proper healthcare. In the past, hostel outreach programs for homeless clients with a history of mental illness have shown promise, and have been associated with decreased symptoms and an increase in social functioning. Managed Alcohol Programs, built around a harm reduction approach, have been carried out in cities across Canada, and participants in those programs report reduction in alcohol-related harms and improvements in mental health.

It’s unlikely that there will ever be a simple one-step solution towards achieving health and well-being for populations, homeless or otherwise. However, investing in research and programs directed towards the needs of homeless populations, including filling in the gaps that currently exist in healthcare delivery, surely acts as big step towards reaching that goal. Failure to account for the health needs of homeless populations is likely to perpetuate and further exacerbate existing problems. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 11, 2014
Categories: Solutions

Inadequate income, employment and education are well documented as causes of and contributing factors to people cycling in and out of homelessness. However, on the flip side they also create possibilities for moving from homelessness to housing.

A woman studying for a test.

Developing education, training and employment (ETE) programs for people experiencing homelessness is different than doing so for the housed population because of exacerbating factors such as lack of a permanent address, inability to maintain proper hygiene or nutrition in a shelter, challenges of following shelter rules while employment, physical or mental health and addictions issues etc. There is a need for skills-based training including job readiness skills and life skills training including money management and cooking/shopping.

Because the education levels of people who are homeless are lower on average than the general public, they may experience challenges with participating in the formal labour market. Programs to help improve the education levels of people experiencing homelessness need to recognize and accommodate these challenges. This is a similar situation for work programs and is one of the reasons why social enterprise programs – which focus more on community good than profit – are so successful in the homelessness sector.

Youth experiencing homelessness have their own unique set of challenges accessing income, education and employment, as do single parents. Most programs for homeless youth in Canada focus on skills development (getting them into the job market) rather than on providing them with the opportunity to finish school. Homeless families also experience challenges in getting adequate educational supports for their children.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub; York University
August 08, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

This is definitely not an easy question to answer. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter how much public education exists, people have developed stereotypes and prejudices very early on in life and it’s hard to break them. As a society we also tend to generalize and project bad experiences broadly so one negative interaction with someone experiencing homelessness becomes indicative of all homeless people.  Yet the pathways into and out of homelessness are unique for every single person.

So…what can you do?

1) Speak Up

When you hear someone making disparaging remarks or stating myths and false information it’s up to you to step in (understanding that there are times when personal or professional safety may prevent this).

But when possible say things like:

  • “I don’t believe that’s a true fact. Actually….” and then provide the truth. See Homelessness 101 for some basic info on homelessness.
  • “People don’t choose to be homeless. We should provide help for them.”
  • “Wouldn’t you want someone to help you/your sibling/your child/your parent if you/they were homeless?”
  • Housing solves homelessness. Shouldn’t we try to get people into housing instead of focusing on their ‘problems’?”
  • “It doesn’t matter what they do with the money they get from panhandling. I don’t ask how you spend your money.”

It’s important that you serve as an example and don’t let remarks go by. Just like addressing racism, sexism, homophobia etc. we need people to stand up when others might not be able to do so themselves.

2) ‘Edumacate’ Them

There are lots of resources on the Homeless Hub for people who are willing to learn about homelessness. If the person you’re trying to convince isn’t willing to put in the effort to learn you might have to do it for them.  Gather information and present it to them calmly at appropriate moments.

Some starting points on the Hub:

  • Community Profiles – if your municipality is one of the 61 “designated communities” (those places who the federal government has identified as having a significant homeless problem and provides funding to) then we have a summary of statistics and links to research just about your community. Sometimes the more personal link can help.
  • Blogs – Our blogs are super easy to read. And they’re fun. Mondays always focus on a solution, Wednesdays feature an infographic and Fridays are about asking and answering questions in ‘Ask the Hub’. Sometimes we feature guest blogs as well.
  • Homelessness 101 – as mentioned above this section is great for getting the basics down.
  • The Topics section introduces the reader to informative summaries about issues. The Solutions section does the same but is focused on the answers/solutions to homelessness. Both have links for further reading for those that want to delve deeper. 

3) Hold a Workshop

Find out if your workplace/school/faith group/service club could host a speaker on homelessness. There are researchers and community organizations across the country that would love to share their knowledge with you.  This could be open to the general public or to the broader community.

Some communities have speakers’ bureaus (agencies can also find past clients) with people who can speak about their own personal experiences. My personal favourite is The Dream Team who share their journey of homelessness, poverty and mental health and show how housing saved their lives.

4) Use Videos

There are a few different styles of videos that can help educate people about homelessness. Many people are attracted to this style of learning and they can easily be shared on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Start regularly sharing videos with your friends’ list and gauge their reaction to know which kind they appreciate the most. There are a few different styles…

Short and Entertaining

Short videos with funny or poignant messages often have the potential to go viral. They can then draw people in to the stories and encourage them to learn more.

A few of our favourites are:

Cardboard Stories/Homeless in Orlando by Rethink Homelessness is probably one of the most powerful videos I’ve seen in awhile. Filmmakers asked people experiencing homelessness to write down a fact about themself on a piece of cardboard.

Have the Homeless Become Invisible? In this social experiment, unsuspecting people walked by their relatives pretending to be homeless. Would they recognize their family members? Or have the homeless become invisible? This is part of a campaign called “Make Them Visible” by the New York City Rescue Mission.

The Real Homeless Man Experiment is based on a premise that I’ve used in a past course I taught at Ryerson with similar results. In this video Sandy, a homeless man, asks people for money both as “himself” in everyday wear and while dressed more formally like a business man. When do you think he receives the most money?

Homeless Veteran Timelapse Transformation  - In this video a homeless veteran is given a hair and clothing makeover. Does the way someone look influence how we respond to them? As the ending shows, it may also influence the way someone feels about himself or herself. But even that isn’t always enough.

Sharing Stories

You can share personal stories from people experiencing homelessness through videos or other media. But videos have the power to influence in a way that the written word doesn’t.

One of the most-well known storytellers for homeless people is Mark Horvath from invisiblePeople which has a tag line that reads: “Some content may be offensive. Our hope is you'll get mad enough to do something.” The invisiblePeople blog is often a vlog (video blog) featuring interviews with people across North America.

The National Coalition for the Homeless in the US has produced two videos entitled Faces of Homelessness. The first one is a multimedia slide show which features “images of America’s homeless people.” The second features interviews with members of NCH’s Speakers’ Bureau.

Justice Connect in Australia created a series of videos featuring interviews with people who “have been homeless and caught up in the fines system.”

Educational

There are also many educational videos about homelessness.

The Homeless Hub has produced several videos on various topics including Housing First, Youth Homelessness, the State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 report.

The National Center for Homeless Education: Supporting the Education of Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness has produced a variety of videos including NCHE Online Tutorials which examine both federal (US) legislation and general awareness. They also have links on their Video page to other resources and videos that have been produced including a two-part 60 Minutes documentaries The Hard Times Generation and Families Living in Cars.

5) Start At An Early Age

I’ve done education with young people and they really seem to understand the issue. We’re working on a video series that will be released in the next few months that will emphasize how kids understand issues at such a basic level – survival and human kindness.

The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness has a series of books “Home at Last” for K-5 students including activity books and a video. Priced reasonably they’re a good way for parents and educators to introduce the issue to students.

Raymond Kettel published a short article listing several children’s books that cover the topic of homelessness. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has also published a list of suggested children’s books on homelessness and poverty. It’s important for parents and teachers to read the books ahead of time to understand potentially hidden or stereotypical messages. J.L. Powers set out some recommendations for choosing Homelessness in Picture Books. Here are some other great books for kids as well:

The Runaways by Kristin Butcher explores what happens when a 12-year-old runaway befriends an elderly homeless man. Used in classrooms across North America, the website also has helpful teaching materials.

Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal examines the life of a young girl whose father has left and family has been evicted. She struggles to stay in school while her mom looks for work.

Lily and the Paper Man by Rebecca Upjohn explores the feelings of a young girl after meeting a homeless man. The Canadian Children Book’s Centre has put together questions to help kindergarten students examine the book in more detail.

We also have resources for teachers and students (both elementary and secondary) who would like to introduce the topic in more depth in their classroom.

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