Research Matters Blog

York University; The Homeless Hub
August 27, 2014

Shelters are the cornerstones of service provision to the homeless in many communities across Canada. The below infographic, published by Inn From the Cold, details some information about services offered by this family shelter in Calgary. It's commonly thought that it’s only single men and women that experience homelessness, however this is simply untrue. Single-parent families and children form a substantial part of Canada's homeless population.

While there is a great deal of diversity in the types of families living in homelessness, many of these families are headed by a single parent (usually female). The National Shelter Study, conducted between 2005 and 2009, showed that while the number of individuals using shelters did not change significantly, demographic changes had occurred. These changes included an increase in the number of children and families using shelters. The average length of a family stay went from being 33.4 days in 2005, to 50.2 days in 2009, an increase of over 50%.

The causes of family homelessness include unemployment, low wages and a lack of affordable housing options. Factors predicting homelessness include food insecurity and rising housing costs. These forces work together in developing a precarious situation for struggling families, who often find themselves only one illness, accident, or unexpected expense away from homelessness.

As families are experiencing increased homelessness, it is important that shelters are equipped with the necessary services to meet the needs of both adults and children. This means counselling for families that have been through domestic abuse, training and education, as well as playrooms and toys for children to play with during their stay. Shelters are often placed at the center of a wide network of resources, networks that may include specialized child services, healthcare options, counsellors, and other resources to help these individuals with their unique needs.

Not all communities have the same needs. The infographic states that on any given night, children staying at the Inn made up 54% of occupants. This is in contrast to the National Shelter Study, which states that children made up only 6.5% of all shelter users in 2009. Shelters are often population-specific, which allows them to focus and be efficient in meeting the needs of subgroups that are overrepresented among homeless populations, including shelters for women leaving abusive situations.

LGBTQ2 youth are another example of a subpopulation that is overrepresented among the homeless population in Canada. Many youth are persecuted because of their orientation and may be kicked out of their homes, or elect to leave home because of the discrimination they’ve had to face. 1 in 5 youth in Toronto's shelter system identify as being LGBTQ2, that's more that twice as many identified LGBTQ2 than the area's general population. To date, there are no specialized housing initiatives for LGBTQ2 in Canada. This is despite data that shows LGBTQ2 youth are at higher risk for substance abuse, more likely to be victims of sexual assault and that that shelter workers need training for working with LGBTQ2 youth. Funding, to meet the unmet needs of underserved homeless populations and to continue to provide services to currently funded groups, is largely dependent on community support and committed advocacy.

Claire's campaign infographic

August 25, 2014
Categories: Solutions

The Ten Year Plan is a planning framework that is widely used in different sectors (environment, health care etc.), is used by industry and government as a strategic planning practice with clear targets and measurable outcomes. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness model was pioneered in the United States, first by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, when they released A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years in 2000.  This document, which drew heavily on emerging evidence regarding how to effectively reduce and end homelessness, was meant to inspire communities across the country to change their focus from ‘managing’ homelessness to ‘ending’ it through strategic shift towards prevention and rehousing. Part of this strategy has been the promotion of the Housing First approach, which identifies the importance of moving people into some form of housing regardless of their problems. The newest plan shifts the focus of ending homelessness to recognize the role of prevention and a retooling of the emergency sector to support that objective and to move people out of homelessness as quickly as possible.  The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness strategy was eventually adopted in over 300 communities in the US.  In 2010, the Ten Year Plan approach has become official government policy, with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness releasing Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010.

A Plan, Not a Dream report cover imageBased on the success of American Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, many Canadian communities began to adapt the approach to their own contexts.  In particular, communities in Alberta have adopted this approach, beginning with Calgary. Eventually the Province of Alberta followed suit, as did other communities across the country. Finally, the newly formed Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness released a national strategy in 2012 titled, A Plan Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in 10 Years.

A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in 10 Years - See more at:
A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in 10 Years - See more at:

Plans to End Homelessness in Canada:

York University; The Homeless Hub
August 20, 2014

Despite the advances in treatment and awareness surrounding mental health issues in recent years, mental illness still carries an enormous amount of stigma. The infographic below, published by Homeless Link UK, provides some details about the complex relationship that exists between mental health and homelessness.

Diagnosed Mental Health Issues

Individuals with mental health issues are more likely to be homeless, as mental illness has a detrimental impact on all aspects of their life. People suffering from poor mental health find it more difficult to maintain close relationships with family and friends. Their cognitive abilities may be affected; making them more likely to misunderstand others and question the motives of members of their support network. Difficulties are also likely to arise at work, as individuals may be unable to deal with workplace stresses. Many ultimately find themselves unable to maintain employment. After looking at how having mental health issues can poorly impact an individual’s life, and understanding that these stressors can pile up, it’s clear why individuals suffering with mental health issues are more likely to be living in critical housing situations.

Homelessness on its own can cause issues in mental health. Transitioning from housing to living on the streets is an enormously stressful and difficult situation. Individuals trying to get off the streets may find that there are few employment, educational, and housing supports in place to help them with their goals. Impediments in the journey from being homeless to living in an adequate housing situation can be demoralizing and depressing. In circumstances where an individual's mental health issues have acted as a precursor to their homelessness, homelessness often only further amplifies their condition. Increased exposure to harmful drugs, poor nutrition, and difficulty accessing appropriate medical care because of homelessness are all factors that directly impact mental health. It doesn’t come as a surprise when the above infographic shows that all of the mental health illnesses represented have greater representation among the homeless than among the general population.

The discrepancy between the mental health of the general population compared to the homeless population is most pronounced when considering the incidence of depression. The survey conducted by Homeless Link revealed that homeless individuals are thirteen times more likely to suffer from depression. Although the UK was the site of this survey, these sorts of discrepancies extend beyond geographic borders. In a survey conducted by St. Michael's Hospital, 31% of the homeless population was shown to suffer from depression. This is opposed to 4.8% of the general population who suffer from depression according to figures provided by the Canadian government.

In the absence of care and support, many homeless individuals suffering with mental health issues turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 41% of those surveyed by Homeless Link reported such behaviour. This leads to increasing instability in their lives and may ultimately lead to concurrent disorders, a condition representing 12% of the homeless population surveyed. The term concurrent disorder refers to being diagnosed with both mental illness and a substance abuse problem. Over the course of treatment, it’s difficult for specialists to determine if mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or both are causing symptoms and behavioural problems. There is an evident need for specialized, coordinated programs and services that address this specific subgroup.

Perhaps, rather than viewing this issue from a numbers-oriented perspective, it would help us to focus on individual stories.

Martin was professionally educated and employed before his mental health issues resulted in him becoming homeless. Martin was fortunate to find the help he needed at the Mustard Seed shelter in Calgary. Like in Martin’s experience, to meet the needs of people experiencing mental health problems, a number of services are required.

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


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