Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
May 06, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Celidh W. via our latest website survey: “With the extremely long waitlist for social housing, it seems almost impossible for individuals facing homelessness to gain access to affordable housing. What policies/procedures/changes could be implemented to help ensure more people can actually obtain housing when they need it most?”

As Celidh pointed out, the waitlists for social housing in most Canadian cities are extraordinarily long, leaving many people waiting for years. As the following graphic illustrates, demand exceeds supply in almost every major urban area:

 Affordable housing waitlists across Canada

Waiting isn’t a luxury that many people experiencing homelessness have, so what can we do to make sure they can find affordable housing when they need it? 

Engage the private market

One way to help rapidly re-house people is to form partnerships with other non-profit organizations, private landlords and/or property management companies. In tight rental markets, focusing on social housing alone will yield only more waitlists, so it’s crucial to add privately owned housing to the list of potential shelter for folks. (For more information, check out my post on ways some organizations have engaged with private landlords.)

Reduce barriers 

Using a Housing First approach – which doesn’t place any restrictions about housing “readiness” – is a key component in reducing barriers faced by people who have mental health, substance or other issues. For example, many (although not all) people at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness use substances and are often asked to be abstinent before they can apply for housing. This is simply not a realistic goal for everyone, and most people who use substances are able to retain housing.

There are other more systematic barriers that many people face as well. A 2011 study of housing services in Edmonton found that documentation (such as photo ID) and eligibility restrictions (criminal records, age, etc.) present significant challenges to securing social housing for many people. Changing policies at this level to make it easier for people to access housing – or employing more people to help applicants with the process – could help reduce these barriers.

Connect with other services

On our website, we often write about the systems approach, which is a “strengths-based, culturally relevant, participatory framework for working with individuals with complex needs.” Most services related to homelessness are fragmented – existing in different areas with different mandates, and they don’t always work well together. People are left to navigate a sea of bureaucratic organizations that they may not understand. Streamlining services and making them easy to access – like offering onsite identification clinics, counselling, or help with social assistance applications – can make a big difference to someone looking for housing. Furthermore, connecting with organizations that do master leasing, help with damage/security deposits, or run Housing First programs could present more options for people in need.

Supporting preventative funding and measures

Rent supplements and other forms of financial assistance are often crucial to helping people avoid homelessness in the first place. Knowing how to help people access these funds and advocating for more of them can not only help people secure new housing, but it can prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.

Social assistance rates are woefully behind costs of living and do not provide most people with enough money to pay rent and cover other basic expenses. Supporting changes proposed in poverty reduction strategies is an important part of ending homelessness altogether.

Advocating for more affordable housing

This is the most difficult to achieve, but also the most important in terms of looking at homelessness on a grand scale: we simply need more housing (emergency, transitional, supportive and permanent) that is decent, appropriate and affordable. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report recommended that 88,000 new units be built over the next ten years.

In order to meet that number or one near it, all levels of government (as well as housing developers) must be held accountable for housing strategies and promises. Many of these declarations and budgets contain policies that can help increase the affordable housing stock. For example, Ontario has recently proposed inclusionary zoning, which would mandate that developments over a certain size include a certain percentage of affordable units. If we are committed to ending homelessness, we need to ensure that people have appropriate and affordable places to go. 

Photo credit: Affordable Housing in Canada - Citizens for Public Justice

Homeless Hub
May 04, 2016
Categories: Topics

As part of the Canadian Mental Health Association 65th Mental Health Week running from May 2nd-8th, this blog covers some of the latest findings about the connection between mental health and homelessness. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is “GET LOUD”, encouraging people to speak up against mental illness discrimination and stigma, reflect on the advances in mental health, and share stories to promote public awareness, mobilization and action.

The relationship between mental health and homelessness is well documented. Considerable studies show that people experiencing homelessness are more susceptible to poorer mental health than the general population. The stressful environmental conditions and the difficult situations that homeless people experience daily can trigger mental illnesses or aggravate existing conditions. However, for some, compromised mental health can also precede the onset of homelessness. It is important to note that not all homeless people have a mental illness or concurrent disorders, and not all people who experience mental health issues are homeless or ever at-risk of homelessness.

The connections between mental health and homelessness are complex and further research into the subject is critical. Research provides information on the types of resources, programs, services and public education campaigns needed for policy development. With this in mind, below are some of the known statistics supporting the links between mental health and homelessness and some proposed recommendations for national policy to address some of the systemic problems. 

Findings:

These figures provide just a quick overview of the links between homelessness and mental health. Further research is required to better understand the needs of diverse people such as population specific studies that focus on the intersecting social identities of women, men, youth, newcomers, racialized people, those who identify as LGBTQ2S, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and those living in urban or rural settings.

Most importantly, Cheryl Forchuk emphasizes the need of the health, housing, and homelessness sectors to connect with each other to support homeless individuals with mental illness.  This is an essential step in uncovering the system gaps while addressing the systemic issues, rather than solely focusing on individual-based problems and solutions. Below are a few federal policy recommendations commonly discussed among stakeholders:

Federal Policy Recommendations:

1. National Mental Health Supportive Housing Strategy

The creation of a National Mental Health Supportive Housing Strategy in partnership with The Mental Health Commission of Canada, provinces/territories, the federal government, First Nations, municipalities and service providers to ensure optimal health outcomes for people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. 

2. National Youth Homeless Strategy

The need for a national youth homelessness strategy to support youth-focused programs and services via a $16.5 million proposed annual financial investment through the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy that would include mental health and addictions supports.

3. Housing First

Investments in Housing First approaches have demonstrated to reduce costs of serving individuals with mental health conditions.  Housing First in Canada: Supporting Communities to End Homelessness explores Housing First as an effective and realistic response in serving the homeless population including those with acute and chronic mental health needs. 

By “getting loud”, mental health and homelessness advocates are increasing public awareness on the links between mental health and homelessness. However, more work is required and this year’s Mental Health Week “GET LOUD” is one step towards the collective efforts required to best serve people experiencing homelessness and mental health. 

To join the conversation on social media, use the hashtags #GETLOUD and #MHW2016.  You can also follow the Canadian Mental Health Association on Twitter (@CMHA_NTL) or visit their website (www.mentalhealthweek.cmha.ca) for updates and further information on the campaign.

Mental Health Week - #GetLoud 

Photo credit: Canadian Mental Health Association

May 02, 2016

Crossing Canada for a charitable cause is as much a part of our Canadian culture as hockey and maple syrup. So why not do it to raise awareness for homelessness?

That was the question Dr. Sean Richardson and I pondered four years ago. How could we raise awareness and support a national conversation on what is needed to prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness?

I had just returned from a corporate social responsibility event in Montreal, where I shared my personal experience with youth homelessness. During the event we led a team of 350 leaders through immersion exercise, where they experienced different aspects of homelessness. The impact was incredible and I left that event asking how we could leverage that shared experience, across Canada.

Youth homelessness is an issue that hits close for me. In 1989 I was a homeless person pushing a shopping cart around Vancouver’s downtown East Side. I was addicted to drugs and lived under a bridge. For years I struggled and could not seem to break the cycle of addiction, poverty and homelessness by myself. Fortunately for me I had supports, I had a mother and a police officer that assisted my transition off the streets. I subsequently went on to graduate college and became a successful entrepreneur.

When I look back at my story I am most grateful I had those supports: my mother, access to treatment and access to education that lead to fulltime employment. In my case, the system to exit homelessness worked. It wasn’t until much later in my life when I began to dig deeper and ask questions about what didn’t work. Where were the systemic breakdowns that could have prevented my street involvement? Here I discovered big gaps, gaps that, if filled, could have changed the trajectory of my life.

The first opportunity to assist me was in school. There were a number of measurable things that began to change: attendance, discipline issues and grades dropping. Any teacher, counsellor of coach I was in contact with would have known something was not working.

The next area that went unaddressed was when I left home at 15. There were no attempts to reconnect me with a suitable environment. I was left to try and mange as an adult, with the life experience of a 15 year old.

The third area where a successful intervention could have occurred was through the justice system. I had frequent contact with probation and courts. Yet again nothing was initiated to prevent the train wreck that was about to become my life.

When I look back today I was an average young person dealing with challenges that I could not mange on my own and once I became entrenched in street involved living, all the other poor choices followed.

What if the system was a little different? What if we support young people better at those crucial crossroads of their lives and prevented them from entering homelessness? These questions caused me to begin Push for Change.

The idea to cross the country was good but adding a symbol of chronic homeless - a shopping cart - was brilliant. We checked and learned that in fact, nobody has cross Canada with a shopping cart. So, we began to build. In 2012, to get fit and prepare for the cross-country walk, we did a “trial” walk from Calgary to Vancouver - a distance of 1071km.

From here, we began building national partnerships and seeking sponsors. One of the first conversations we had was with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, to better understand the state of youth homelessness in Canada and what could be done. I also spoke with Mike Lethby from the RAFT to understand the successes they were having helping youth through Niagara Region. Next we met Melanie Redman from Eva’s and we were introduced to the National Learning Community. It was at this time that A Way Home, a national coalition to end youth homelessness, was beginning to take shape. The timing was perfect. Next we met with Carolann Barr from Raising the Roof to form a charitable partnership.

Our goal as a campaign is to do two things, raise dollars to support youth homelessness and to engage the public in conversations about what we need to do, as a country, to move towards a systemic change. Along the way we want very much to engage with frontline service providers and invite them to push for change with us.

Since 2011, a mountain of ground has been covered and we launched just yesterday. As you read this we will have already left St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador to commence a 9000km walk across Canada. It will take us 17 months; we will walk through all 10 provinces and engage in the 3 northern territories. We have over 400 community and school events planned. Our team consists of a fulltime road manager, a public relations support person and our dedicated campaign director whose tireless work built the dream I had over four years ago. The person I speak of is my best friend, extremely competent leader and lovely wife Marie who is as committed to the project as I am.

When I was in Vancouver at my lowest point in life I made a promise that if I ever escaped the streets I would do something to “pay it forward”. This is my opportunity to give back to a country I love very much.

At the Push for Change we believe that inspired action can change the world; we believe every young person deserves to grow up and transition safely into adulthood. We believe that ending youth homelessness is possible.

Ending youth homelessness is not a silly altruistic bumper sticker response to a serious social issue. It’s a plan with measured results that will impact taxpayers and save a whole lot of personal and family trauma.

My daughter asked me what I want to accomplish and it’s simple. By creating collaborative relationships, nationwide, maybe in my lifetime, maybe in hers, we can visit youth homelessness in a museum where it belongs.

To learn more or to get involved in the Push for Change go to www.thepushforchange.com or follow our journey on Twitter @pushforchange.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
April 29, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question was asked anonymously via our latest website survey: What are some ways that affordable housing has been built, even in these very austere times?

On this website, my peers and I have written extensively about the lack of affordable housing in Canada and how it’s a key contributor to homelessness. Housing is considered affordable by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) if a household spends less than 30% of its pre-tax income on adequate shelter – but what a household’s income is varies wildly. 

Right now, Canada relies heavily on the private market for its housing supply. Plenty of new units have been developed across the country and real estate is booming in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but the majority of those options simply are not available to many people in medium to low income levels. Decades ago, the federal government pledged funding for affordable social housing, but such funding has been rapidly declining since 1993.

IAH SpendingIn the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report, Gaetz, Gulliver-Garcia and Richter highlighted the fact that decades of disinvestment in new affordable housing projects has resulted in 100,000 units not being built. There have been some successes, however, that were also discussed in the report:

As of March 31st 2014, the federal government reports that 183,642 households were no longer in “housing need” (CMHC, 2014)…The majority of these households were in Quebec (137,481 units). It is important to look at what this means. Approximately 110,000 of the households assisted in 2010-2011 in Quebec were helped by the province’s small although laudable housing benefit, Allocation Logement. The maximum amount per household is currently $80 per month, but the average in 2010-2011 was just $56 (Société D’Habitation Du Québec, 2011; 2014).

These numbers also include units that were funded under renovations programs and therefore are not new units of housing (although improvement of poor housing conditions is certainly an important and admirable goal, which may lead to the prevention of homelessness).

Similarly in British Columbia, 813 households were assisted under the same program between 2012 and 2013. Of those, 165 were new builds and 609 were units that were “renovated, rehabilitated or repaired.” So while this is necessary assistance, it doesn’t lead to the development of lots of new housing.

Today, most affordable housing funding comes from the Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH), and most of that money goes to improving and modifying existing housing (as shown on the right). Given the declining quality of much of Canada’s social housing, these are crucial investments, but they only maintain what we already have. The CMHC lists a number of country-wide agreements by province and territory.  

Affordable housing can and is being built

Through the development of affordable housing strategies and partnerships between government and developers, affordable housing is being built.

In many areas, affordable housing is often built on property owned (or previously owned) by municipalities. In Toronto, the municipal government website lists affordable housing developments currently under construction. Much of the affordable housing in the city is repurposed – the most well-known example is the Pan-Am Games Athletes’ Village buildings. In 2011, two non-profit agencies, Wigwamen and March of Dimes, purchased one building and will be offering the units well below market pricing. Other partnerships are in the works throughout the province, including Barrie, Niagara region and Kingston

As Catherine McIntyre wrote for Torontoist, the rate at which housing is being built simply isn’t keeping up with demand:

Since 2010, fewer than 3,700 new affordable units have been built in Toronto, while about 94,000 individuals and families are waiting for subsidized housing. Of the affordable units that do exist, 400 are currently uninhabitable and another 7,500 are on pace to be boarded up in the next decade. 

In any area, the ability to build new housing requires cooperation between levels of government. Back in March, the Ontario government announced its long-term affordable housing strategy, which proposes inclusionary zoning: requiring developments of certain sizes to include a percentage of affordable units. Development companies are currently opposing this inclusion, and it remains to be seen if the province will enforce it or not. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver municipal governments have adopted inclusionary housing policies, but higher level government support is needed to truly make them effective. Hopefully between provincial and territorial commitments to affordable housing and the increase in federal support and funding, we will see much more built in the coming years.

Related posts:

How can we incentivize building more low-end housing?

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
April 27, 2016

This week’s infographic comes to us from the True Colors Fund, an organization aiming to raise awareness about and help bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth homelessness. Today, Wednesday 27th April 2016, is 40 to None Day, a day to raise public awareness about LGBT* youth homelessness. Approximately 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), yet LGBT young people make up less than 7% of the general youth population. The goal of 40 to None day is to ultimately reduce this disproportionate percentage from 40% to none.

*”LGBT” is the acronym used by the True Colors Fund. In Canada, the acronym “LGBTQ2S” is more commonly used to refer collectively to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and 2-Spirit identified youth.

40 to none infographic

The figures in this Infographic come from a report funded by the True Colors Fund, the Palette Fund and Williams Institute, three organizations dedicated to the advancement of LGBT equality.

Serving Our Youth presents data from The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Homeless Youth Provider Survey, a web-based survey that sampled over 350 youth living in critical housing conditions that were receiving services from local agencies. Approximately 40% of the survey respondents identified as LGBT. The report also made note that “youth may not be willing to self-identify as being LGBT when initially presenting for services” and as such, this data may underestimate the proportion of LGBT youth served by homeless youth providers.

Family rejection based on sexual orientation and gender identity was the most frequently cited factor in the report contributing to LGBT homelessness. Many youth experience homophobia and transphobia at home and in school, and due to gaps in knowledge and a lack of reported incidents, discrimination against queer and trans youth remains largely invisible to shelter workers. 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.

Although this study was conducted in the US, LGBTQ2s youth are also overrepresented among Canadian homeless populations. 20% of youth in Toronto's shelter system identify as being LGBTQ2s, meanwhile only approximately 5-10% of the general population identify as members of the community. Research has shown that LGBTQ2s youth are at higher risk for victimization and associated negative health and mental health outcomes. Further, many youth do not access support services due to issues regarding homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system and drop-in programs.

Surveys of LGBTQ2s youth highlight the need for specialized services for this subpopulation. Failure to account for the unique needs of homeless LGBTQ2s youth is likely to perpetuate and further exacerbate existing problems.  40 to None Day aims to shed light on the issues faced by LGBT youth experiencing homelessness on social media through the hashtag #40toNone. To find out more about the campaign, visit the True Colors Fund website.

Do you have any questions about LGBTQ2S youth homelessness? We’re hosting an Ask Me Anything on the Community Workspace on Homelessness. We encourage you to post your questions in advance of the AMA. Log in and post your questions on the LGBTQ2S thread. Experts David French and Dr. Alex Abramovich will answer your questions on Monday, May 9th at 1PM.

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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.