Research Matters Blog
I remember very clearly the first time I heard about Housing First. I was at a community meeting and fairly new to the homeless sector. Tim Richter was presenting on Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness and suggested that we needed a Housing First approach with youth. My inside voice was screaming, “Is this guy a lunatic? We can’t just give these street kids an apartment. What happens if they get drunk, have parties, deal drugs or have all their friends stay over – he’s out of his mind!” I remained silent and listened to Tim, thinking how it was unrealistic to expect a young adult to find a job, go to school, be sober, or take their meds while they were struggling with the chaos of being homeless. I left the meeting feeling skeptical but I also had an urge to find out more about this Housing First approach.
Five years later, I’m here to tell you this crazy idea works. In 2009, Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary launched The Infinity Project, a program for homeless youth, using the principles of Housing First as its foundation. The road along the way hasn’t been easy (if it were, we probably weren’t serving the right youth); it’s been bumpy and filled with many valuable lessons and most importantly stories of young people who have successfully ended their experience with homelessness.
Our team learned a few things along the way. Although we wanted to pull our hair out at times (and still do), these experiences shaped our understanding of Housing First and why it actually works. Like the youth who spent all of his rent money on beer. Or another youth who wouldn’t get out of bed and look for a job. We had to stop ourselves from reacting and think. Developmentally, their behaviors were age-appropriate. Hadn’t we broken rules as adolescents? Hadn’t we made impulsive decisions we later regretted? The difference was, we had family to bail us out. It wasn’t the end of the world.
Since we began Infinity we have always held true to our zero discharge to homelessness policy. I remember one youth who struggled with addictions and was evicted seven times (we were getting exhausted from moving him and his oversized couch). But it was that seventh time as we stood on the sidewalk with his boxes, that he turned to us and said, “Actually, this isn’t really working for me. I need to go to treatment.”
Perhaps my fondest memory is this. I was asking Infinity youth for feedback about their experience in the program and one of them replied, “But it’s not a program. For the first time in my life I am not living a ‘program.’ I am living my life.”
For so many young people, homelessness is coupled with trauma, failed relationships, institutionalization, and addictions. Having “choice” and a “voice” is essential for them to achieve recovery and move towards self-sufficiency. From being able to decide where they want live and what goals they want to work on, youth (whether they are homeless or not) learn who they are, how to navigate the world, and how to achieve their aspirations
A few months ago I ran into one of our alumni youth, one of the first youth we served, at a shopping centre. I was there with my kids, them with theirs, both shopping for Halloween costumes. We said the usual “hi’s” and “how are you doing”. In that moment I forgot about the long journey it took to get to this place, the battle with addictions, mental health and all the moving. In that moment we were just two moms sharing the adventures of parenthood.
So am I believer in a Housing First approach for youth? My answer simply is, yes.
Republished with permission from the Speak.Share.Thrive. blog.
Street outreach involves moving outside the walls of the agency to engage people experiencing homelessness who may be disconnected and alienated not only from mainstream services and supports, but from the services targeting homeless persons as well. This is incredibly important work designed to help establish supportive relationships, give people advice and support, and hopefully enhance the possibility that they will access necessary services and supports that will help them move off the streets.
Building strong relationships is essential, because there may be legitimate barriers that prevent people from accessing services, including unsatisfying or even problematic experiences of child protection services, homeless shelters or mental health facilities. This work can take time. For many people with addictions issues, with pets, with partners they refuse to part with, or who are underage and fearful of being turned over to child protection authorities, there may be real or perceived barriers to accessing existing services. It may also be the case that the person has simply ‘slipped through the cracks’, and is unaware of the range of services and supports that are out there.
Outreach strategies require the development of an understanding of the individual circumstances and needs of each individual, as well as cultural barriers that may prevent people from accessing either mainstream services or those that target people who experience homelessness (Aboriginal people, for instance). This means a personalized assessment of risk behaviours and circumstances. Through the development of positive relationships, the attainment of the larger goal of helping people access the services and supports they need in order to help them move forward with their lives can be achieved. Outreach that merely helps support people who are living independently but without any shelter may be a necessary and important first step in relationship building, but the overall goal of street outreach should be tied to the larger goal of helping people move off the streets as quickly as possible. In order to achieve this goal, outreach workers need to be familiar with, and have access to, a range of mainstream and community services. Outreach services that are run by an agency whose goal is simply to link the person to that agency, are not seen as effective. Workers need to be seen as doing the work of the sector, and not simply of the agency they work for. This requires a higher degree of interagency collaboration.
There are several key challenges to successful outreach. First, street outreach involves working with visibly homeless youth living on the streets – there needs to be outreach strategies for the invisible homeless, that is, people who are couch surfing or living without shelter in hard to reach and remote places, etc. Second, outreach can be challenging because people being approached are not obliged to talk with or otherwise engage workers, in the way they might have to within the walls of an agency. This means outreach can be slow and the results can sometimes feel ambiguous. There is some evidence that a ‘stages of change’ approach to conducting outreach is more effective, since the intervention can be tied to a person’s accepted willingness to move forward with their lives. Finally, many people will avoid going to mainstream shelters and day programs for good reasons – they are afraid, they have pets (for company and safety), and staying in shelters may mean disrupting important and close relationships they see as vital to surviving on the streets. These conditions in fact suggest that when possible, the emergency shelter system must demonstrate flexibility when it comes to maintaining important relationships, networks of support and even pets.
In many places in Canada, there is an understanding that outreach is important in order to access hard-to-reach individuals, though it is not always connected to an overt and concerted effort to end homelessness. Key features of youth outreach in the UK and Australia are useful in conceptualizing how to make this link:
- Outreach is not limited to the visibly homeless. An effort should be made to connect with ‘couch surfers’ and to get into institutional settings where people may be housed, but are still ‘at risk’.
- Outreach is often tied to more aggressive efforts to reduce ‘rough sleeping’, as they call it in the UK.
- Rather than a more passive form of engagement, outreach tends to involve ‘intake’ and case management support.
FROM: Gaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age - Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Toronto: The Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
March is International Red Cross month so it seems like a good time to examine the issue of homelessness as a disaster. The Red Cross is one of the largest providers of disaster response across the world and this section of their infographic shows just how often they respond to disasters across the world.
So what does this have to do with homelessness?
The language of disaster has been used in conjunction with homelessness for a number of years. Perhaps best known in this realm is the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) which was co-founded by street nurse Cathy Crowe, who in 1998 — after witnessing the ice storms in Eastern Ontario and Quebec — wondered why homelessness was treated so differently when the needs were the same. They released a National Disaster Declaration and a State of Emergency Statement declaring homelessness in Canada a national disaster. This was endorsed by the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of Canadian of Municipalities as well as individuals, faith groups, community organizations, labour unions and municipalities across the country. Some of the issues that TDRC addressed during its 14 year tenure included disaster-related issues such as extreme heat, pandemic flu, TB epidemic and homeless deaths.
Individuals and families are made homeless by accidents or natural and technological disasters, day-in and day-out. Sometimes these are small, single-family house fires. Other times they are large, community-wide natural disasters such as the 2011 wildfires in Slave Lake or the floods in Calgary or in Toronto this past summer or the disaster caused by the train derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac Mégantic. When we see a disaster caused by nature it is easy to sympathize with those affected because the circumstances are obviously outside of their control. It is often harder to do this with homelessness because the individual factors leading to homelessness often get more attention than the system failures or structural factors at play. We need to remember that people experiencing homelessness are also displaced in large-scale disasters and will have a harder time recovering and rebuilding their lives. They may even be some of the responders.
Given that homelessness isn’t always the result of individual actions or behaviours (and is very rarely a deliberate choice) it is important that people affected by homelessness are treated with dignity and respect. In our recent report, “Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada”, Steve Gaetz says (in talking about wildfires in Kelowna and Slave Lake):
“Both of these events were devastating for the communities’ residents. They lost their homes, their possessions and their communities. In the face of both tragedies a rapid crisis response was quickly implemented. People displaced by the fire were relocated to other communities and provided temporary emergency shelter in motels, school gymnasiums, local hockey arenas and, in many cases, slept on cots or mats…But, imagine for a second that the individuals and families in Kelowna or Slave Lake were still living in hockey arenas or motels all these years later. That would seem shocking and absurd and most of us would see this as the complete failure of our emergency response – that we really, really let these people down. So why are we satisfied with an emergency response to youth homelessness that allows you people to languish in shelters for years at a time, entrenching them in street life, keeping them from school and undermining their ability to move into adulthood in a health and fulfilling way?”
This difference was echoed by Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, during the release of “The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013” report in June. At the press conference releasing the report, Richter stated (as reported in the Toronto Star):
“The results paint a picture of a disaster in communities across the country. In a natural disaster, the loss of housing or life happens because of a fire or flood or something like that. In the unnatural disaster of homelessness, the same things are happening, but it's happening because of poverty, disability, addiction, mental illness and trauma. But whereas natural disasters are met with emergency response plans to get people back to their normal lives, the response to homelessness is stuck in crisis mode.”
16 years after the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee started talking about homelessness as a disaster, it is still a critical issue. 200,000 people are homeless every year; 30,000 on any given night (and up to 50,000 in hidden homelessness). We need to reframe the way we think about this issue.
Awhile back I was at the warming centre at Toronto’s Metro Hall when I saw an individual asleep underneath a Canadian flag. It instantly made me think of a seminal image from Hurricane Katrina of an elderly woman wrapped in an American flag blanket. And it made me wonder, again, why is one considered a disaster and one not?
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
The YWCA is “the oldest and largest women’s multi service organization”. The YWCA has continued to be vocal in their opposition to violence against women. This infographic is important for the community, researchers and service providers who work with people experiencing homelessness. Abuse continues to be a leading pathway to homelessness in Canada. Research found that as many as three quarters of women who use shelters have been the victims of abuse. A large majority, 2 out of 3 women, were fleeing current spouses or partners.
Emergency shelters are important resources for women leaving unsafe housing and unsafe relationships. The high numbers of individuals that still utilize the resources demonstrate the continued need for specific interventions. The needs of women and children are complex and differ from the needs of other people experiencing homelessness. Statistics Canada reported that the number of shelter beds has been increasing in the past 10 years with funding provided by municipalities and charities. Less funding is available by provincial governments.
While 100,000 women and children use shelters, this is estimated to only account for 10% of women who leave their homes due to abuse. The lack of affordable housing and other accommodations is one of the chief reasons that women and their children return to abusive relationships, exposing themselves to further violence. Almost half of the women admitted to emergency shelters were with their children. The women wanted to protect their children from witnessing the abuse they were experiencing, and protect them from psychologically or physically abusive situations. Despite these high numbers, only 25% had reported the abuse to police, and 16% had laid charges.
The YWCA published a report entitled ‘Life Beyond Shelters’, that highlights a number of important policy problems related to experiences of homelessness for women and their children. The YWCA recommended a variety of reforms that can help prevent homelessness.
Some of these include:
- Making information on safe and affordable housing easier to access, even for those who are not in shelters.
- Prioritizing intake in emergency shelters make sure that women and children who are in urgent need have access to beds.
- Amendments to eligibility criteria for subsidized housing
While this infographic is helpful, I also found additional explanations in the newly released report Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada by Stephen Gaetz. Causes of homelessness are not only individual and relational, but also the result of structural factors and system failures. It is important to continue to provide interventions that allow people to safely escape abusive relationships without risking homelessness.
Research consistently points to the high percentage of homeless youth who have had some involvement with child protection services, including foster care, group home placements or youth custodial centres. For instance, in three separate studies, the percentage of homeless youth who reported involvement with foster care or group homes ranged from 41 to 43 percent.
It is both the experience of being in child protection, and the transitions from protection to independence, that account for many of these problems. Some young people choose to leave because of bad experiences and inadequate support in group homes or in foster care. Other youth simply ‘age out’* of the foster care system and are left to fend for themselves, lacking necessary resources and never having been prepared for independent living at such a young age.
Difficult transitions from care often result in a range of negative outcomes, such as homelessness, unemployment, lack of educational engagement and achievement, involvement in corrections, lack of skills and potentially, a life of poverty. Many young people who leave care fail to make the transition to independent living because of underdeveloped living skills, inadequate education, lower levels of physical and emotional well-being and lack of supports and resources that most young people rely on when moving into adulthood.
It is also important to note that in many jurisdictions, child protection legislation has not kept pace with the social and economic changes that make it much more difficult for young people to live independently at an early age. Over 40% of young Canadians (between the ages of 20 and 29) live with their parents because of the high cost of housing, poor labour market prospects and the need for additional educational qualifications. Child protection services that cut off support for young people at the age of 18, or even 21, leave young people in jeopardy and at risk of homelessness.
Different countries have addressed these challenges in different ways. The US government enacted the Independent Living Program in 1986 and Title I of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999. These programs are designed to help older youth who are leaving care develop the life skills and habits necessary for independent living. States are required to fund follow-up services for young people who have aged out of care; of those funds up to 30% are earmarked for supportive housing. These acts have been very successful and resulted in the implementation of independent living programs across the country. In addition, the American Bar Association has also produced examples of Model Reforms to Child Protection laws that can be adapted at the State level.
The UK has also attempted to address the problematic discharge of children and youth from care to homelessness through legislation and key reforms to child welfare. After extensive review child welfare services were mandated to provide support for young people up to the age of 18, and in some cases up to 21, in order to support a smooth transition from care. A key piece of legislation was the Children (Leaving Care) Act of 2000, which was further reinforced by the Homelessness Act of 2002 and the Children’s Act of 2004, which prioritized the need for services and support for young people exiting the child welfare system. The Children (Leaving Care) Act ensured that local governments were directly responsible for youth aged 16 and older (up to the age of 18) who left care. Three key supports included: 1) benefits – young people living independently are entitled to income supplements, 2) assessment – to be done when the young person reaches 16, to aid with the transition process and 3) planning – young people are to be assigned personal advisors, who would help establish a ‘pathway plan’ that lasted until the young person reached 21 years of age (to be reviewed with the young person at least every six months). In commenting on the legislation in the context of an international review of best practices, Reid suggests:
“This legislation is effective because it targets core concerns for youth leaving care such as housing, education and employment, finances, and social support with flexible approaches to engage youth in the decision-making processes. The legislation also requires agencies to work cooperatively with each other to meet the needs of youth”.
In Australia, child protection legislation, policies and practices are the responsibility of community services in each state and territory. Different jurisdictions have different programs, and some are supported at the national level. Young people at risk of leaving care, either because they ‘aged out’ or left due to problems with their foster care experience, are offered a more intensive form of support, which is often referred to as the ‘Lead Tenant’ program. This model incorporates elements of treatment foster care, where specially trained caregivers are recruited (and receive higher than usual remuneration) to provide intensive placement support and wrap-around services. Youth are able to stay in the program from 12 months to 24 months. Finally, The Transition to Independent Living Allowance is a national program that provides particularly vulnerable youth who have left care up to $1,000 a month in support for an additional year.
In Canada, child protection is a provincial responsibility, with legislation and practice varying from province to province. Indeed, many provinces continually update their legislation. The recent Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System outlined a number of key recommendations from former crown wards for updating provincial legislation. Irwin Elman, director of the Office for the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, argues that effective reforms, including extending the age of child welfare support to 25, would cost about 26 million dollars, but see a savings of 132 million dollars over 40 years.
Reforming Child Protection
An effective response to youth homelessness must necessarily incorporate reforms to child protection legislation and services. In considering what is known about reforming child protection internationally, and in light of the recommendations of the Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth it is proposed that effective reforms should include the following elements.
Child protection legislation and policy should:
Child protection services should:
FROM: Gaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Homeless Hub Research Report Series.