Research Matters Blog
Six years ago we started offering a youth homelessness prevention program called Youth Reconnect. This was a large undertaking for us as it represented a completely new strategic direction for our services and was being piloted in a largely rural community approximately 50 kilometers away. Since then, we have successfully scaled the pilot from one municipality to twelve municipalities; serving the entire Niagara region and transcending both rural and urban communities. Over the last few months we have been analysing the data for this program and I’m very excited to see the release of the Youth Reconnect Works report. It shows the program’s impact as a successful model to end youth homelessness as well as providing an accounting of savings accumulated by various government ministries.
It is my hope that other communities and regions can benefit from what we’ve learned and apply it to ending youth homelessness in their communities. I recognize the difficulties inherent in making this happen and how daunting any change is for agencies. Given this I thought it might be useful to outline how we were able to overcome some early barriers. Two fundamental barriers were: 1) making the switch from primarily emergency to prevention and 2) a lack of resources and infrastructure to operate in an underserved rural community.
Making the Switch from Primarily Emergency to Prevention Focus
The majority of social service agencies were created as a response to crisis and developed their programs toward managing the crisis. In our case a number of citizens became concerned by the increasing number of youth who were sleeping rough on our streets. This crisis led to the creation of the RAFT which offered drop-in programs and ultimately a hostel. Shortly after I started here we expanded our shelter capacity from 10 beds to 24 beds with the anticipation that we’d soon need even more beds. It was this realization that forced us to ask some tough questions about what is our mission. Are we managers of homeless youth or are we looking to end youth homelessness? Answering this question required us to examine what data we had about who was using our services. I was quite surprised when it came to light that over 50% of the youth sleeping in our beds were from communities outside of St. Catharines, the city where our hostel is located. A number of other interesting facts also became apparent: 99% of youth were in high school immediately before they became homeless and youth from outside of St. Catharines took longer to be housed. Once we had reviewed our data and learned what we could of the youth who were using our beds, it became apparent that simply managing the crisis of youth homeless would in no way end the crisis. A prevention focus, moving upstream, was the only option which might allow us to stem the flow of new youth into our beds.
A Lack of Resources and Infrastructure
With our new found knowledge and focus we set out to determine how to implement a prevention program. We knew that in order to achieve our goals we needed to provide support pre-crisis or at the moment of homelessness. However, a lack of resources and infrastructure seemed an almost insurmountable obstacle; the drop-in/hostel already required us to fundraise just to maintain the status quo. Again our review of the data proved invaluable. The cost of creating the infrastructure in all of the communities, which were feeding youth into our beds was a non-starter. It was realized that the infrastructure already existed but for another purpose: education. All of our communities, large or small, urban or rural, were all served by high schools. Further, given that nearly all youth were in one of these high schools immediately prior to their homelessness gave us our prevention moment. In addition to the physical space offered by these schools we were also able to capitalize on the teacher-student relationship to help predict which students were near or in a housing crisis. With all of this infrastructure and staffing already in place, grafting a prevention program onto it became affordable; with just one of our workers able to cover two smaller rural communities.
- Ask the hard question: does our work achieve our goal?
- Examine the data to understand the youth being served.
- Look to community partners with resources that can be re-directed or supplemented.
Join us for a tweet chat today at 1PM (ET) to talk about youth homelessness and the role of schools, family and community with Michael Lethby. Use #HHChat to participate.
There is a popular parable, especially in healthcare, that explores the benefits of “upstream thinking” —the need to look at prevention, rather than just solutions—if we want to end social ills. Each telling of the story varies but essentially:
“Two people are standing at the edge of a river. All of a sudden a drowning child floats by and one person jumps in to save her. Then another child comes floating by and the other individual jumps in to pluck him from the water. But soon, more and more children are in the river and drowning. People cannot keep up with the demand. Eventually, someone decides to go upstream to figure out why kids keep falling/being thrown in the river in the first place.”
The same is true with homelessness. We understand a great deal these days about the pathways in and out of homelessness. We know a lot about how to provide services to people while they are homeless and we understand effective solutions, such as Housing First, that can end homelessness. We often fail, however, by not paying enough attention to how homelessness can be prevented in the first place.
The goal of primary prevention is to ‘work upstream’ to reduce risks, and typically involves universal interventions directed at whole communities, as well as targeted interventions for ‘at risk’ communities. With regards to homelessness, this could include information campaigns and educational programs, as well as strategic interventions designed to help address problems that may eventually contribute to homelessness, well before they arise. Poverty reduction strategies, anti-violence campaigns, early childhood supports and anti-discrimination work all can contribute to a reduction in homelessness down the road.
Eviction Prevention, including programs such as rent banks or tenant advocacy supports, is an example of primary prevention aimed at a specific population. Often the assistance of someone to help them navigate a rental tribunal or mediate with a landlord, or a loan/grant of a few hundred dollars can keep someone housed. Similarly, energy support programs for low-income households can help people facing energy poverty. In some climates the amount of money necessary to keep a home heated or cooled can mean the difference between staying housed or becoming homeless.
At-risk populations such as LGBTQ2S youth also need support: statistics show that 25-40% of homeless youth fall into this population group. By supporting families to understand sexual and gender orientation or by training/supporting foster homes to be LGBTQ2S positive, the number of youth who are homeless can be dramatically reduced.
Today, October 17, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The United Nations has focused this year’s theme on complete eradication of extreme poverty in poor countries of the global South, where—thanks to concerted global efforts led by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals—rates of extreme poverty have been cut in half since 1990.
The same cannot be said for Toronto, where rates of hunger, homelessness, and family poverty have ballooned in that same period, driven by economic and social trends of increasing inequality and polarization. Research by David Hulchanski’s Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership shows that our city is becoming so segregated by income and race that it could be seen as three cities: a booming “City #1,” well-resourced central zones of mostly white, upper-income households; the diminishing “City #2” of ethnically mixed and middle-income households; and a growing “City #3” of low-income neighbourhoods far from transit and services, where most residents are members of racialized communities.
My project, Family Homelessness in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs examined the housing conditions of families in the aging apartment buildings that are concentrated in City #3. What we found was striking: nine out of ten families have housing that fails to meet basic United Nations standards of adequacy. Their housing is unaffordable, overcrowded, unsafe, insecure, and in need of repair. Family homelessness is rampant in these neighbourhoods, but it is mostly hidden. Many families lose their housing due to violence, eviction, and unsafe conditions. When they do, they usually double-up with other families in their neighbourhoods instead of going to shelters.
In consultation with an advisory board of front-line agencies and tenant leaders in these neighbourhoods, we have produced a new research summary, released today. The flyer, which will be translated into multiple languages, aims to put this information in the hands and on the screens of tenants and front-line workers.
Toronto’s housing crisis is urgent, and it won’t be solved by research alone. Citizens need to stand up and demand that all levels of government uphold the right to adequate housing. We hope this flyer can provide evidence and information to strengthen tenants’ organizing.
At tonight’s Mayoral Debate on Housing and Homelessness, candidates will tell us where they stand. In our last election, the slogan Respect for Taxpayers won the day – and we all saw how that worked out. What about Respect for Tenants? Which candidate’s policies will improve the housing situation for low-income families in Toronto?
It’s true that the challenges Canadians face with food insecurity are different from the challenges felt by countries in the global south. However, the call to reduce hunger resonates. On this World Food Day, let’s take a look at how housing affordability and the housing market are related to food access. The below infographic, published by the Daily Bread Food Bank as part of their 2014 Who’s Hungry report, illustrates the gap that exists between social assistance and the costs of food and shelter in the Greater Toronto Area.
Problems with food access are largely caused by rising housing costs in the GTA. One survey respondent recognized that “(the focus should be on) affordable housing because almost all our money goes to putting a roof over our heads.” The graph below shows how the divide between the cost of rent and shelter allowances has grown over the last two decades. Shelter allowances for single parents with two children have actually shown a net decrease; meanwhile the cost of rent has practically doubled. Rising housing costs mean that individuals are often only one accident or unexpected expense away from becoming homeless.
The average monthly income of a Daily Bread Food Bank client was reported to be $750 per month. This number “falls far below any standard of income or poverty measure”. After paying for rent, an individual has an average of $6.13 remaining for additional expenses. That’s $6.13 to cover three meals a day, transportation, necessities and any unexpected expenses. It’s no wonder over 40% of survey respondents receiving social assistance stated that there were times when they didn’t eat for an entire day. People in the GTA don’t go hungry because there is no food available. Their hunger is caused by a lack of funds to purchase food. Services provided by food banks, employment services and shelters are absolutely essential in lessening the burden on families and individuals.
As affordable housing becomes increasingly scarce, more funds need to be allocated to subsidize the cost of renting to bridge the above gap. Alternatively, governments can take a systems-based approach towards the issue and get involved in coupling a Housing First policy with constructing affordable housing units. Opting for the latter shows a long-term commitment to providing affordable housing, and can prove to be cost-efficient in the long run. The Calgary Homeless Foundation has taken this approach in the past, building 3,000 housing units over the course of a three-year project to respond to rising rental costs.
This trend of rising housing costs and the growing gap that exists between access to affordable housing and shelter allowances is not unique to the GTA. Similar trends can be observed in the US and other urban centres across Canada. It’s no wonder that food bank use has shown an overall increase over the past decade across the country. It’s unrealistic to attempt solving problems associated with food access in Canada without first talking about the need for more affordable housing. While we would like to think of Canada as being a country with a strong social safety net in place, these infographics illustrate that current efforts and funding for existing programs fall short of providing struggling individuals and families with their basic needs.
This week, 27 Canadian community foundations released their Vital Signs for 2013/2014. These reports gather statistics on how various communities are faring in key quality-of-life areas, such as housing, economic health, wellness, education and more.
The report on our largest city, Toronto, is particularly noteworthy. While there are plenty of statistics to celebrate, like the city’s low rate of police-reported crime and vibrant arts and culture scene; several very serious issues were also highlighted. Unsurprising to many of our regular readers, two of these issues were affordable housing and income disparity.
Toronto is Canada’s second most unaffordable housing market
Toronto received its worst affordable housing rating ever, and was the only market in Canada “that saw deterioration (albeit mild) in affordability at the end of 2013 in all housing markets.”
One reason is that the city simply hasn’t built much new affordable housing. There were only 260 rental units opened in 2013—a 77% decrease from 2012 (and 66% from 2011)—and only 7 units built for affordable ownership were made available in 2013, 98% less than in 2012.
The city will be getting more affordable housing after the Pan Am Games—787 market value housing units and 253 affordable rental units—but Toronto’s commitment to building 1,000 new units every year between 2010 and 2020 is clearly not being met.
For most people living in Toronto, home ownership is becoming more difficult to achieve. A standard two-story home required a qualifying household income of more than $139,400! And while overall incomes have increased in the GTA by 18% (in 2012), housing costs have grown by 80%.
- According to the report: “The average price of a standard (1,500 square-foot) 2-storey house in the Region was $691,300 at the end of 2013, meaning that 65.3% of a household’s average income would be spent on housing.”
- Moving to the suburbs may not actually be cheaper, according to one mortgage broker. The cost of commuting offsets mortgage savings.
- As such, homebuyers are being “priced out” of the desirable “location-efficient” areas of Toronto. 70% of GTA residents live where they do because they can afford it, not because it’s where they truly want to live.
- Population growth means there’s more demand for housing. Vacancy in Toronto remained at 1.7%, and rates under 3% have been linked with rental price increases.
- Renting is particularly hard for young full-time workers between 15 and 24. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto requires more than 40% of the average wages earned. (Affordable housing is considered to be less than 30%.)
- 77,109 families were waiting for affordable housing at the end of 2013, 4,413 more than in 2012.
More people are frequenting shelters
“An average of 3,017 single people and 948 members of families occupied shelter beds in Toronto every night in 2013 (an increase from 2,952 and 925 respectively, in 2012 and 2,879 and 856 respectively, in 2011).”
In terms of solutions, the report discussed the positive results of the At Home/Chez Soi project; and highlighted the importance of moving away from dependence on emergency services and toward the Housing First approach.
Toronto has the second-largest income gap in Canada
Of course, no discussion about affordable housing and homelessness is complete without addressing poverty, which continues to be an epidemic in Toronto (and across Canada, as Tanya wrote back in August).
Family poverty is on the rise, and housing quality is poor
The authors of the report note that: “After a six-year decline between 2004 and 2010, Toronto’s child poverty rates were on the rise in 2012. Almost 1 in 3 children (17 and under) were living in poverty in 2012. In 14 Toronto communities, the rate was over 40%.”
They also reference Emily Paradis’ research on Toronto’s aging high-rise buildings, which found that many families live in unaffordable, overcrowded and unsafe apartment high-rises in the inner suburbs, and are at risk of homelessness and other housing issues. According to her study, 9 out of 10 families in rental high-rise buildings live in apartments that are unaffordable, unsafe, overcrowded, insecure, or in bad condition.
New research from the Alliance for a Poverty-Free Toronto, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change, Ontario Campaign 2000, and Social Planning Toronto confirms that poverty in Toronto is racialized. Residents of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Latin American background are more likely to live in poverty.
Food bank use is on the rise
The report highlights research from The Daily Bread Food Bank, which found: “For the 6th year in a row GTA food banks have seen over one million visits, with an increase of nearly 40 per cent in Toronto’s inner suburbs since 2008.” Here are some more statistics about our city’s food bank visitors:
- 49% have a disability (in the core, this number is closer to 60%)
- 49% were born outside of Canada
- 45% are single-person households
- 31% are children
- On average, they spend 71% of their income on rent and utilities
- 59% gave up a meal to pay for something else in the last 3 months
Furthermore, people are using food banks longer: 1.5 years in 2014 , as compared to 10 months in 2012.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s 1% richest residents have more than ever
Statistics Canada used voluntary data to capture information about Toronto’s richest citizens (rather than in quintiles from the census) so the data’s quality is not comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is reported that “the average incomes of Toronto’s richest 1% have risen by over 80% since the 1980s—faster than the Canadian rate.”
In Toronto, the 1% holds 18.1% of the total declared income. (In Calgary, the city with the largest gap, the top 1% shares 26%!)
You might be wondering how such a gap could be created. The authors of the report state: “Increasingly regressive taxation policy at all levels of government has been a significant cause of growing income disparity since the early 1990s when the federal tax-benefit system offset about 70% of inequalities in the market place. That offset is now less than 40%.”
As the authors of Vital Signs noted on page 89, we have seen some progress in Ontario in reducing some rates of poverty: the number of families living under the low-income cutoff decreased by 10.5% in the first three years (2008-2011) of the government’s first Poverty Reduction Plan. And in 2013, the government invested in a number of education, social assistance and nutrition initiatives. We have yet to see any concrete evidence that these changes have been effective.
The Ontario government recently announced its new poverty reduction plan, Realizing Our Potential, which showed commitment to ending poverty and described a promising, comprehensive approach; but as Raising the Roof pointed out, the strategy lacks any solid timelines or targets, and is missing some crucial information.
When it comes to Toronto, the city clearly has a long way to go when it comes to affordable housing and poverty. Fortunately, Toronto City Council plans to develop its own poverty reduction strategy in the 2015 budget. We’ll share information as soon as it’s available, along with our latest report on the state of homelessness in Canada.
Read the full report on income inequality. (Page 102 has a list of community agencies working to reduce poverty.)
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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.