Community Services refer to any programs delivered through non-profit or faith-based community organizations to assist people experiencing homelessness. The programs may be funded by individual or corporate donors, foundations or government grants. The activities may be carried out by staff, students and/or volunteers.
Programs may offer such services as: life sustaining supports for homeless and socially isolated people (e.g. food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance), activities for at-risk youth (e.g. recreation, counselling), interventions for victimized people (crisis counselling, legal assistance), child care or children’s support services for families, employment services for youth and adults (computer skills, resume writing), settlement services and English classes for new Canadians, services for frail and isolated seniors, health and wellness promotion for women, families and people living with or at-risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, mediation to solve interpersonal disputes, access to the Internet, access to space for community meetings, and self-help and arts groups.
Having a diverse range of services is critical for those with complex needs, such as individuals facing homelessness. Not only do they require stable, secure and affordable housing, but also require a diverse range of supportive services tailored according to the gender they identify with, their psychological needs, cultural background, sexual orientation, disability and/or geographical location.
At times, however, access to services simply is not a possibility. For individuals living in remote communities, supportive services are limited and scarce, and migration to larger centers to access services away from one’s community is common. For those experiencing homelessness in larger cities, a plethora of services may be available, yet inaccessible to some due to discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, addictions to illicit substances, mental illness and/or disabilities. Often times, navigating supportive services for a wide range of complex needs can be an overwhelming task, especially without a stable address, health card, ID or form of reliable transportation. Furthermore, where failures in coordinating services occur, some systems may be discharging people into homelessness.
At this moment in time, Canada generally has an emergency response approach to homelessness that manages, rather than provides any long-term solutions to homelessness, placing significant strain on emergency services like shelters and food banks. Although there will always be a need for emergency responses, a shift in focus to prevention and accommodation and supports is needed to truly eliminate homelessness. More and more organizations across the nation are starting to implement a Housing First approach, a best practice for ending homelessness that involves moving people who experience homelessness into permanent housing as quickly as possible and providing them with additional services and supports as needed. As such, community services play a vital role in ensuring that individuals have choice and access to services that can address any number of their complex needs.
For example, COSTI Immigrant Services has been a leader in settlement and citizenship services for newcomers to Toronto and the GTA for over 20 years. COSTI also offers a variety of services including mental health supports, employment and youth services as well as supports for women seeking to overcome economic, health, legal, and cultural barriers. COSTI also provides access to housing supports for individuals with limited income, who are new to Canada and who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. These services are critical among newcomer women facing domestic abuse, for instance, as research finds that often times newcomer women will not leave their abusers due to fear of deportation, a lack of knowledge regarding their rights, financial dependency on their abuser or lack of awareness of the community resources available to them.
The 519, also located in Toronto, is committed to the health, happiness and full participation of the LGBTQ2S community and works to promote inclusion, understanding and respect. Through their supportive services and inclusive spaces, the 519 is accessible to the evolving needs of the LGBTQ2S community that range from counseling, queer parenting, housing services, Coming Out groups and much more. These services are particularly crucial as one Toronto study found that 20% of youth in shelter systems identify as LGBTQ2S, which is more than twice the rate for all age groups. Furthermore, LGBTQ2S youth are at a higher risk of homelessness due to homophobia and transphobia in the home and they often face the same discrimination in the shelter system.
Places such as Insite – North America’s first supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside continues to achieve life-saving results for its patrons. In addition to providing detox services, Insite also provides liaison with community supports to housing for those who require it. Substance use and addiction is a commonly cited health issue among individuals experiencing homelessness, where some may utilize injection drug use as a coping mechanism in dealing with the stressors of being unhoused. When accessing necessary health services, research shows that those experiencing homelessness and addiction often face stigmatization on the part of health professionals. Therefore, addiction and health care services that offer judgment-free supports like Insite are crucial in assisting individuals experiencing homelessness and addiction in gaining access to the care they need.
Employment services also play a crucial role in the lives of individuals at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. When a person is homeless and unemployed, getting back into the workforce can be a challenge. Employment services, then, are crucial for individuals experiencing homelessness as they work to increase hire-ability. For instance, Youth Employment Services (YES) Street To Jobs initiative works to employ young people who are at-risk of becoming homeless. Through the program, youth are provided with individualized supports, skills training, work placements, referrals and more with permanent housing and financial self-sufficiency as the ultimate goal.
These are just a few examples of the crucial work being done by a wide range of community services around the country. However, larger structural issues such as reverting the decline in Canada’s social safety net as well as changes across all sectors such as secure, living-wage employment, access to education and consistently funded community services are all necessary to make meaningful, long-term changes in the lives of those experiencing homelessness with complex needs. In addition, community services need to be accessible to all individuals, where stigma is no longer cited as a barrier to accessing help.
The following are also a number of programs available to those experiencing homelessness or at-risk of facing homelessness:
- Street Survival Guide for those experiencing homelessness in Victoria, BC
- Find a food bank in Canada
- A Canadian resource guide for Indigenous women escaping domestic violence
- Youth employment toolkit
- LGBTQ2S Ontario-based support line & referral database
- 211: Canada’s primary source of information on government and community based health and social services
- Organizations in British Columbia with a focus on servicing Indigenous populations