Research Matters Blog
BUILD HOMES NOW! the virtual flyer proclaimed. The text below decried the medical and police control of poor and Indigenous people’s lives and bodies via state and NGO responses to homelessness. The “elite class of managers” attending CAEH14 was complicit in this régime of control, the flyer declared. It concluded:
“The Social Housing Alliance calls for a major mobilization to confront, expose, and oppose the government policies and NGO industries that manage homeless, low-income, and Indigenous people without challenging or disrupting the systems and social conditions that cause homelessness and poverty.”
Even though the call-out positioned me, as a conference attendee, firmly on the “them” side in its us-versus-them divide, I was glad to be invited. I can’t really deny being part of an “elite class of managers” – after all, “manager” is in my job title, and being a white, salaried university researcher who owns a house in downtown Toronto positions me as elite in comparison with most Canadians. But I believe that makes it all the more important that I refuse to be complicit in the management and perpetuation of homelessness. Like many of my colleagues, I have dedicated my professional work to challenging the systems and social conditions that cause homelessness, and I am also an activist on my own time. Besides, I enjoy sitting around and talking as much as the next academic, but let’s face it: conferences will not end homelessness. I looked forward to being part of something more direct.
That was how I came to find myself, the next evening, locked outside the conference hotel in the rain. It was a surreal scene: outside in the courtyard, dozens of homeless people and allies, waving red banners and chanting; inside the glass causeway above, hundreds of conference delegates, enjoying wine and salmon skewers. And between us, a line of police and hotel security, barricading the lobby. Two groups of people working to end homelessness, one being “protected” by armed police from the other.
Things heated up quickly. A guard crushed a protestor’s hand in a revolving door as he tried to push his way in, and the mood turned angry, with some activists pounding on the lobby windows. More CAEH14 attendees came down to join the demonstration but were prevented from exiting by guards who told them that the doors must be kept locked. Eventually, after some speeches, the demonstrators dispersed, leaving behind a wet stack of real and satirical research reports. Like the “house” I once saw in Toronto made of reports on homelessness, all that paper melting in the rain was a poignant reminder of how little positive change has come from decades of committed research and policy advocacy. Small wonder that it looks like a waste of time and money to people struggling for survival.
One could easily imagine that in some penthouse restaurant nearby, the real architects of the fiscal policies responsible for homelessness—development industry lobbyists and the elected officials whose policies protect their interests—were looking over the kerfuffle below and raising a toast that, yet again, they had managed to get us fighting amongst ourselves instead of against their agenda.
This was as close as Canadian conferences on homelessness have gotten to the 1989 International Conference on AIDS in Montréal, at which 300 AIDS activists stormed in uninvited and seized the mic at the opening plenary to (un)officially open the conference on behalf of people with AIDS, receiving a standing ovation even from many of the scientists present. That demonstration and the changes that followed it radically altered research and practice on HIV/AIDS. In claiming their place at the table, the protestors ushered in a new era in which people with AIDS and the organizations that represent them are included in framing policies and programs, defining research priorities and ethics, and providing services. The inclusion, leadership, and unique perspectives of those directly affected have been critical to global progress in this sector, and have influenced other sectors as well.
In comparison, input and leadership by people facing homelessness have been almost absent at homelessness conferences I’ve attended in the past. At previous national conferences in Calgary in 2009, Montréal in 2010, and Ottawa in 2013, there was little formal representation of people facing homelessness. These conferences hosted hundreds of attendees and offered dozens of workshops, but few were from the perspective of lived experience. A handful of people facing homelessness and anti-poverty activists were present as delegates, but there was no space in which to connect with each other and formulate demands to bring to the conference as a whole. Meanwhile, elected officials whose policies are directly responsible for homelessness were received at plenaries with polite applause and a disheartening absence of jeering, banner-unfurling, fake-blood-squirting, or other forms of direct action. Overall, at these gatherings, people facing homelessness were talked about, not with, and for the most part this talk lacked the urgency of direct engagement with a life-threatening catastrophe. Many of the academics, policy makers, and service providers in attendance were staunch anti-homelessness advocates, but our discussions took place in the absence of an organized, visible collectivity of people living in poverty to challenge our analyses and investments.
The All Our Sisters conferences on women and homelessness in London, Ontario in 2011 and 2014 have offered an alternative model, grounded in feminist praxis. Both conferences included a critical mass of delegates facing homelessness—about one in four attendees—whose registration fees and travel costs were covered by the conference. Workshops and plenary sessions included a balance of expertise from research, services, activism, and lived experience. There was a room set aside for delegates facing homelessness to connect with each other and take a break from the sometimes-alienating conference culture. In 2014, the conference was co-chaired by a group of women facing homelessness, and even included a demonstration that was organized from within the conference.
I had the good fortune to be involved with two research teams at All Our Sisters 2011 that built on the theme of inclusion and leadership of women with lived experience. One, which we dubbed the Good Practices Project, presented the findings of participatory research examining organizational practices that support leadership and inclusion. The second was an initiative sponsored by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to bring together women facing homelessness who had been involved in community-based participatory research. A Homeless Hub report summarizes the insights shared by this group over the course of several meetings and workshops during the conference.
The good news is, many of the lessons from the All Our Sisters model were brought forward successfully into this year’s conference in Vancouver. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and Canadian Observatory on Homelessness sponsored the attendance of more than 40 delegates with lived experience, including some local activists who had also helped organize the protest. Two workshops focused on inclusion, several others featured presenters with lived experience, and a convening space was made available for people facing homelessness and allies to re-charge and collaborate.
Delegates facing homelessness seized these opportunities. One group developed a declaration of principles for inclusion of people with lived experience, while a second brought forward ideas for connecting with local activists at future conferences. Several key leaders in these discussions were women who had participated in the inclusion initiatives at All Our Sisters, demonstrating that leadership opportunities make future innovations possible. In response to the interventions of these groups, the CAEH announced the implementation of a Lived Experience Advisory Council. This body will, no doubt, further improve representation of people facing homelessness, and communication with local activist networks, at CAEH15 in Montréal. Which is good, since you don’t want to land on the wrong side of Montréal activists.
This is a promising beginning that I hope will unleash the hybrid power of researchers, policy advocates, and service providers making common cause with people facing homelessness and activists. While no one can say whether this will bring an end to homelessness, I believe it’s the only thing that could.
Much of the research on youth homelessness is conducted in larger cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. But youth homelessness occurs across the country, in communities of every size. Is the experience of being homeless substantially different for youth in non-urban areas? Over the last year, I – along with a group of other researchers - had the opportunity to investigate just that in York Region. Today, we’re excited to share our findings in the launch of our report, Leaving Home: Youth Homelessness in York Region.
The report, led by the United Way York Region and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, is the culmination of a community engagement process designed to raise awareness of youth homelessness and to explore potential solutions that work for the Region.
In an effort to better understand homelessness in York Region, we interviewed those who know it best – youth living, working and accessing services in the region. 60 youth experiencing homelessness generously gave their time and candidly shared their stories with us.
While many factors in youth homelessness in York Region are consistent with those found anywhere else, including reasons for becoming homeless, a shortage of shelter beds, and limited access to jobs and long-term housing, York Region faces some specific challenges. Our research team heard about these frequently during our interviews with youth and service providers in York Region. Specific challenges include a geographically large region, limited public transportation and rental housing, few emergency shelter beds and fragmented and limited services overall.
York Region has nine municipalities – everything from highly populated suburbs to small towns to rural communities – spread out over 1762 square kilometers, an area about three times larger than Toronto. While some of these communities have business districts and community hubs, there is no central downtown to house a collection of services, which can make it challenging for youth to find and access services. Most youth we interviewed had grown up in York Region. Some, like [Chris] had lived in various parts of the region:
I honestly lived all over. When I was living with my mom I lived in Richmond Hill and she also moved to Newmarket at one point and then…I lived up in Keswick and Aurora.
Transportation in the region is primarily by private vehicle, and roads are set up to accommodate this reality, making travel through the region difficult for those who cycle, walk or use public transit. With a large area and relatively smaller population, public transit is also limited, both in terms of routes and frequency and costly. This increases the difficulties for service providers and youth to connect and for youth to get to school and work, as described by one 25-year-old [Rob]:
It’s hard to get around. Like, even when you get accepted to a job, how the fuck you gonna work every day if you don’t have bus fare? You gotta work two weeks before you get paid. How you gonna buy lunch and get on the bus?
Rental housing in York Region tends to be scarce and expensive, with a majority of residences living in single-family suburban homes. In Canada, almost 70% of residences are owner-occupied, while that number rises to nearly 90% in York Region. In a limited rental market, many youth find themselves at a serious disadvantage, as this 19-year-old [Colby] explained:
I’ve been looking pretty hard the past two months. I’ve been to over 2 dozen appointments, open houses, talking to landlords…All the time it’s been in my budget, they’ve just been like my request is denied or they just rented to someone else because they had the money right away or they don’t want you to be on welfare or they don’t like who I am, stuff like that…
Additional services, including mental health programs, are limited in the region, with long wait times and a need to access programs and services outside the region. This is a source of frustration for both youth and service providers, who identified how important such help often was, as described by one 18-year-old [Andrew]:
[They] helped me get my feet back on the road…they stopped me from fighting, they stopped me…It’s just a reminder that I’m a person, I’m not a tool you can just yell at and talk to and throw around…I’m a person.
This represents just a fraction of what we heard from youth and services providers. On the one hand, we heard stories about family struggle, poor health outcomes, frustration, and a lack of services. But importantly, we also heard stories of great resilience, remarkable service staff, caring parents and hopeful youth.
Our report made a number of recommendations, above all to adopt a plan to end youth homelessness and an integrated system response. The good news? All signs suggest that the people of York Region are ready to act and in many ways, this has already begun. There is a growing community of individuals and organizations who recognize the challenges, but also the opportunities. In the last few years, momentum has grown. The launch of this report, and the commitment of all those that were involved, is the Region’s most recent step towards ending youth homelessness. It's safe to say, we're all excited to see what's next.
Poverty is an issue that needs to be addressed through investments in the right supports. There are common structural gaps in our social safety net that indicate the absence of adequate supports. These gaps include adequate access to healthcare and nutritious foods, educational supports and affordable housing. The infographic below, published by the Government of Ontario as part of a report on poverty reduction strategies for 2014-2019, provides details on investments being made in affordable housing.
The numbers in the infographic provide us some details on government investment in affordable housing. The province plans to invest $400 million dollars over five years to extend the Canada-Ontario Investment in Affordable Housing Agreement. The agreement was a joint investment to build new housing and renovate existing affordable housing. While these numbers provide us with a way to be optimistic about the future of affordable housing in Ontario, we have to ask two very important questions:
- What does funding for affordable housing look like in Ontario, beyond the immediate future?
- Do we have plans in place for affordable housing to be sustainable in the long-term in Ontario?
The future of affordable housing funding, even just a decade down the line, is far from clear. While the federal government’s investment in the Affordable Housing in Ontario program demonstrates an interest in alleviating Ontario’s affordable housing crisis, federal funding for the future of affordable housing in Ontario paints a stark picture. The graph below, published by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, illustrates the planned decline in federal social housing funding to the province. It remains unclear how these funds will surface without support from the federal government.
The support of the federal government is crucial if Ontario is expected to be successful in tackling its affordable housing crisis. Federal-provincial partnerships are a large reason why Ontario has been able to construct over 17,000 housing units, repair existing housing units, and provide rental and down payment assistance to over 81,000 families in need. Furthermore, affordable housing has many social and economic benefits. It prevents homelessness, and is far more cost-efficient than having individuals live in hospital beds, long-term care beds, and beds at correctional facilities.
Perhaps the primary reason why removing federal support for affordable housing is so troubling is because it ignores the urgent need for more social housing options in Ontario. Wait lists for affordable housing are only growing.
Strategies that look to address poverty and affordable housing need to have a long-term focus.
The importance of spreading awareness about the importance of continued federal funding in long-term strategies extends beyond affordable housing, to issues including health, nutrition and homelessness. The plans that the federal government has for funding are not set in stone. Public support and advocacy for affordable housing can provide the necessary political will to make changes to current plans the federal government has for dropping funding for affordable housing programs in Ontario.
One of the best methods of determining progress is through the use of Point-In-Time (PIT) Counts. Alternatively referred to as “Street Counts”, “Homeless Counts” or “Street Needs Assessments” PIT Counts are a measure of the number of homeless people on a specific day (hence the point in time reference). This type of counting is known as “taking a snapshot” of the situation. Some communities do a strict inventory of beds and occupancy rates in homeless shelters. Other communities include women and children living in Violence Against Women (VAW) shelters and people staying in hospitals or jails with no fixed address.
Some municipalities go even further by developing a questionnaire to ask people experiencing homelessness about their history, background and needs. This includes demographic questions such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation and veteran status. It also asks what services people need or use, whether they would like housing and how long they have been homeless.
See our section on "How to conduct counts" to find resources on methods, challenges, and best practices in conducting a homeless count.
You can also find the latest homeless count reports for your community in our "Community Profiles" section.
“When you see injustice – do something about it” (Robert Moses)
We recently returned from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ National Conference on Ending Homelessness. What an amazing week! Surrounded by enthusiastic, smart, committed people – people with lived experience, researchers, politicians, practitioners, community members - all working together to do something about homelessness. This isn’t a celebration of just how wonderful we all are, of course, but rather a chance to move the agenda forward because we all understand that there is still so much to do.
Nevertheless, we want to comment on some of the highlights of the conference.
- Research presentations – There were so many outstanding papers and sessions focusing on research that has real implications for policy and practice. One that stands out was the session on “Homelessness Prevention” (the new frontier, as far as we are concerned), with great presentations from Kathy Kovacs-Burns, Amanda Noble, Cordelia Abankwa, and Deborah Rutman. Another session I enjoyed was one on “Measuring Progress to End Homelessness”, with Abra Adamo, Ron Kneebone and Jill Atkey. Who knew economists could be so funny (Ron) and interesting? There were many more great sessions, but we couldn’t get to them all of course. The point is that the research community is showing its value by contributing conceptual and evaluative research that will make a difference.
- Focus on Youth Homelessness – One gets a real sense that we are at an important turning point in how we can and should deal with youth homelessness. The special conference focus on youth homelessness (both the pre-conference session plus the panels during the conference) emphasized the degree to which we need solutions to youth homelessness that take account of the special needs of adolescents and young adults. The sessions highlighted what we know about effective plans to end youth homelessness, the adaptation of Housing First to meet the needs of young people, and important innovations that are happening across the country. There was also a call to take on youth homelessness at the national, regional and local levels through a new “Coalition to End Youth Homelessness”. The enthusiasm for all of this was best expressed through the packed rooms (standing room only, people watching from the hallways) for virtually all of the youth sessions. People are ready for action – we know what we need to do, now lets do it!
- People with Lived Experience – There was a real effort to include people with lived experience in this conference, in a way that was both respectful and meaningful. The pre-conference session entitled “Nothing about us, without us: People with lived experience taking leadership to end homelessness” explored ways of bringing lived expertise to the center of service delivery, research and advocacy. The great group of people involved in this session are holding everyone in the sector to account to ensure that the voices of those who are too often marginalized and ignored are heard and respected. Specifically, the group came up with 7 principles to guide the work of the sector.
a. Bring the perspectives of our lived experience to the forefront;
b. Include people with lived experience at all levels of the organization;
c. Value our time and provide appropriate supports;
d. Challenge stigma, confront oppression and promote dignity;
e. Recognize our expertise and engage us un decision-making;
f. Work towards our equitable representation;
g. Build authentic relationships between people with lived experience and without lived experience.
Stay tuned, because this group has plans to expand on these principles over the coming year!
- Relationship building – One of the things that is going to help move things forward in ending homelessness is the opportunity to share and collaborate. The large and diverse group of conference attendees included a cross section of service providers, people with lived experience, researchers, policy makers and community members. The presentations, workshops and even private conversations demonstrate the great work that is taking place in the sector. As we move forward, we will need to consider strategies of inclusion to ensure that more Aboriginal people, racialized minorities and members of other marginalized groups play a leading role in setting the agenda and participate in this relationship building.
- Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub table – This next one might only be a highlight for us, but we’re going to mention it nonetheless: the Homeless Hub booth was a huge success! We had so many visitors and received so much positive feedback about the work we do…plus we sold a ton of books! As a result, we have to thank all of you for making the conference so worthwhile and memorable for us!
A fantastic week! It’s clear to everyone, however, that no matter how great this conference was, we’re nowhere near done. Homelessness continues to be a crisis in Canada. The silver lining was very visible at the conference: there is a bright, committed and tireless group of people working towards the solutions that will bring an end to homelessness in this country. We are honoured to be a part of that circle and to work closely with many of you.
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.