Research Matters Blog
Today, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness have once again teamed up to deliver a national report card on homelessness – State of Homelessness in Canada: 2014. In this ground-breaking report we look at updated statistics on homelessness and housing, as well as provide a detailed cost estimate on reducing the state of the crisis. It’s backed up by solid research Housing Policy Targeting Homelessness from real estate scholar Jane Londerville and economist Marion Steele.
The infographic is based on research in the report and highlights just how severe the housing and homelessness crisis is in this country. It includes new numbers that increase last year’s estimate of the number of people homeless by 5,000 a day or 35,000 a year. This means that every day about 35,000 people experience homelessness and over 235,000 people experience it annually. It also increased the estimate of number of people who experience chronic and episodic homelessness to 13,000 to 33,000 annually.
This report also delves into the crisis in housing in Canada. As Cushing Dolbeare said in 1996, “Homelessness may not be only a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem; housing is necessary, although sometimes not sufficient, to solve the problem of homelessness.”
As a result this report draws the links between housing and homelessness and points out that we will likely never solve the homelessness crisis if we don’t address the issue of the lack of affordable housing. Nearly 1 in 5 households experience extreme housing affordability problems. In the past 20 years nearly 100,000 housing units have not been built because of the cancellation of funding programs for affordable housing.
The report also highlights the discrepancy between homeowners and renters – both in terms of government expenditure but also in terms of wealth and housing affordability. At a tax expenditure level the government contributes $8.6 billion annually to homeowners through imputed rent and capital gains exemptions, compared to just $2.1 billion for renters. Nearly half of renters pay more than 30% of their income on housing compared to less than 1 in 5 homeowners. The median family income for homeowners is $74, 540. Not only do renter families earn significantly less - $37,100 – but this number has actually decreased since 1991 (after being adjusted for inflation).
It’s time for change. Over the past 25 years – and particularly following the withdrawal of the federal government from most housing development in 1993 – Canada’s population has increased by almost 30% and our national investment in housing has decreased by over 46%. Per capita spending on low-income housing has dropped from $115 to $60.
The report suggests several areas of change including a new federal/provincial/territorial affordable housing framework agreement, investments to target chronically and episodically homeless people, a new affordable housing tax credit and a housing benefit program, as well as investments in Aboriginal housing both on and off reserve.
All of these recommendations have been costed out. In this report we propose a different way of doing things including a housing investment strategy that in the long run would cost the economy much less than the current costs of homelessness. The proposed investments represent an increase in spending from the projected commitments of $2.019 billion to $3.752 billion in 2015/16 with a total investment of about $44 billion over ten years.
For just an additional 88 cents a week ($2.04 total), we can contribute to a realistic solution to homelessness and the affordable housing crisis. This is a small investment to make in the face of the hardships faced by people experiencing homelessness. On Friday we’ll explore what you might be able to do to free up this amount of money every week.
Early Intervention/Secondary prevention is intended to identify and address a problem or condition at an early stage. In thinking about homelessness, this typically means strategies that target people who are clearly at risk of, or who have recently become homeless. This includes systems prevention, meaning working with mainstream institutions so we can stop the flow of individuals from mental health care, child protection and corrections into homelessness.
Early intervention is a means of “preventing escalation”. We want to stop someone from becoming so entrenched in homelessness that it becomes almost impossible for them to leave and is targeted at those in the early stages of homelessness.
Early intervention strategies are designed to work quickly to support individuals and families to either retain their housing, or if that is not possible, to use rapid rehousing strategies to ensure people move into safe and appropriate accommodation with the supports that they need. Elements of effective early intervention include: coordinated assessment, case management, and shelter diversion strategies such as host homes. For youth who have become homeless family reconnection – a client-driven case-management approach to help resolve conflicts between young people who leave home and their caregivers – is important. Key supports can include family mediation, rent banks, landlord-tenant mediation.
Technology, with all its rapid growth and innovation, has long been considered an indicator of status. Perhaps this is why some people think of cell phones as luxury items, despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians have them. (83% of households had at least one active cell phone in 2013, according to the last Statistics Canada survey.)
As you probably know from carrying around your own iPhone, Blackberry or Android device, cell phones have become a necessity for many. With texting, emailing and mobile-exclusive phone use rising, cell phones are often the only devices with which people can adequately manage their communications. We use our phones to stay in touch with friends and family, find and apply to jobs, feel safe and more.
This is also true for people experiencing homelessness. They tend to face more barriers—stigma and financial difficulties, just to name a few—to technology, but many manage to overcome them.
Most people experiencing homelessness have cell phones
Research shows that many homeless people have cell phones. In Karin M. Eyrich-Garg’s study of homeless people in Philadelphia, 44% of the adult participants already had their own cell phones. (Amongst those participants, 80% owned, 18% borrowed long-term, and 2% rented.)
In another study, 70.7% of homeless patients visiting emergency departments had cell phones, compared to 85.9% of people who were stably housed.
Similarly, in Melody Kim, Melissa Cameron and Alex Fung’s study in San Diego, 8 out of 11 participants had cell phones and the other 2 were seeking replacements.
Evidently, people with cell phones are a significant portion of the overall homeless population and tend to be more the norm than the exception.
They can be more affordable than you think
As noted in our Homelessness 101 section, most people experiencing homeless do so for less than a month. During such short periods of homelessness, it is entirely possible for people to keep their phones in service.
Yet with some of us buying brand new smartphones and paying more than $100 in talk and data services, one might wonder how a cell phone bill gets paid when money is tight. The answer is that monthly costs depend on the kind of cell phone, the carrier and the kind of service.
A report by Wall Communications tracked four levels of monthly talk, data and text packages. They found that the average cell phone bill is between $34 and $80 a month. In Eyrich-Garg’s study, about half the participants had a monthly plan, with various costs and strategies for paying them.
In Canada, we have some companies that provide cheaper monthly plans, many of which have a mix of talk minutes and text messages. Here’s a few of them, with some of their low- to mid-range plan price ranges: Wind ($25-$35), Koodo ($35-$40), MobilCity ($25-$35), PC Mobile ($29-$39), Virgin Mobile Canada ($35-$40) and Public ($19-$25).
Pay-as-you go cell phones are a much more affordable option that allows users to pay in advance and only for what they use. In the San Diego study, this was the most popular kind of cell phone service that homeless people used.
When it comes to phones themselves, people experiencing homelessness don’t always have phones from when they were stably housed. Some use models from friends or family, while others find affordable devices at pawn shops, secondhand stores and even some dollar stores. Using prepaid minute cards, having a cell phone can cost less than $20 a month.
Some shelters and community programs, like Lifeline in California, even give phones away for free. In Vancouver, the P.H.S. Community Services Society collected used cell phones without SIM cards for seniors living in poverty, so they could still dial 911 in an emergency.
Why do homeless people need cell phones?
As I mentioned above, people experiencing homelessness need cell phones for many of the same reasons that people who are stably housed do. In an article for Mobledia, Kat Aschayara wrote about how important one homeless man’s Blackberry is to him:
“His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules. E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough.”
One participant in Kim, Cameron and Feng’s study said: “The amount of help they can be is substantial. [Cellphones are] a way to communicate with others to learn where resources are, when opportunities present themselves.”
Safety is also a factor. Another participant in the same study pointed out that without a landline and with fewer and fewer payphones available, he simply had to get his own phone.
Finally, simply being connected to other people is important not only for sharing resources and employment opportunities, but also for health and well being. As Euryich-Garg’s study found, social connectedness was one of the primary reasons that homeless individuals used computers. She wrote: “Mobile phones offer a connection to others without the physical constraints of landlines and may make communication and, therefore, access to one’s social support network more feasible for homeless individuals. This, in turn, could lead toward better health outcomes.”
Stephen Hwang et al. came to similar conclusions in their study of multidimensional social support and the health of homeless individuals, writing: “…perceived access to specific types of social support derived from social networks of friends, family, and/or neighbors can have a protective influence on multiple health outcomes among homeless individuals.”
Even social connections with strangers have value. As Margaret Rock wrote in an article on 2machines:
“Homeless bloggers, for instance, are a godsend for those who find themselves in similar circumstances. Those on the brink are increasingly reaching out on Twitter, using homelessness-related hashtags or topics. One name that comes up often is Mark Horvath, who goes by the Twitter handle, @hardlynormal. His dedication to providing a forum for homeless to share resources, advice and tips gives others a much-needed path to navigate their new, scary world.”
For many people experiencing homelessness, cell phones aren’t a luxury. They’re a necessity.
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.
Photo by Faye Bayko.
The Peak Group of Companies is one of Canada’s fastest-growing home improvement products and installation companies. We are also a proud and long-standing partner of Home Depot Canada. Our partnership extends to the work of the Foundation, which last year launched its three-year $10-million dollar commitment to support an end to youth homelessness.
Over the last few months, we’ve asked ourselves: “How can we do more?” Ultimately we’ve landed on an issue that we believe requires greater corporate leadership: improving the employability of youth, housed through the foundation, who have previously faced very challenging circumstances.
As a first step in our commitment, we sought to build a partnership with a community agency that provides support to youth who face barriers to employment.
Next, we drafted a job description and began looking for our pilot partner. Building on the advice in Raising the Roof’s Employer Toolkit, we looked for a partner who could support both our company and a youth to be successful in this joint endeavor. We asked our potential partners the following:
- Who are the youth that you serve? What types of circumstances do they face?
- How do you support youth to be successful?
- How do you assess the job readiness of youth?
- How do you support youth and their employers at the outset of the program?
- Are there procedures in place to anticipate or respond to difficulties a youth may have during employment?
- What are your expectations of us?
In the end, we partnered with 360 Kids, an organization based in Markham, Ontario. We were impressed by their holistic approach to youth unemployment and the support they offered to employers. We’re pleased to say that through our partnership we’ve hired a fantastic new employee who is a welcome and valuable addition to our team.
As employers, we ask other employers to join us in focusing on underemployed youth for two reasons:
- In a challenging job market, youth face a number of barriers to employment. And not all youth have equal access to employment. Youth without housing can face unemployment due to additional barriers such discrimination, housing instability, limited work experience, transportation barriers, or even a lack of confidence.
- It’s a smart business decision. We’re not solving a social problem; we’re accessing an untapped resource. By engaging underemployed youth we’re able to hire from a pool of dedicated, enthusiastic employees with a range of experiences, skills and knowledge.
Although we hope to further our commitment to this issue, we don’t expect to address the needs of underemployed youth alone. Other employers have committed to this issue, but collectively, we’re still not doing enough. Too many youth face discrimination and a lack of access to meaningful job opportunities. Our advice to other employers, both large and small, is simple. First, commit to this issue with an open mind. Second, find a strong community partner with a proven track record. The rest will follow.
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.
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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.