Over the past few years, the homelessness crisis has become impossible to ignore, but the current situation was decades in the making, and solving it will take efforts far beyond the homelessness sector. 

During the first session of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’ monthly Prevention Matters! panel series, the COH’s President and CEO, Stephen Gaetz, provided an introduction to homelessness prevention.

The Rise of Mass Homelessness

Although it might seem like just part of the way things are, mass homelessness only arose during the 1980s due to changing attitudes about the role of government, Steve explained. “In the post-war period in Canada, leading right up to the late 1980s, […] Canada was investing in building over 18,000 units of social housing each year. And then they stopped.” The justification for this was that the private sector would be able to meet this need more efficiently, but the results of this experiment are in, and its impact on people’s lives is tragically clear.

Many provinces and territories also cut their benefits during that same period. In Ontario in the late nineties, welfare benefits were cut by 25% and have never recovered. “So people have less money, things cost more, housing costs way more. And so we’ve kind of broken the social safety net,” Steve stated. Add in a 30% population increase since the 1980s, underinvestment in affordable housing, and the broken social safety net and we have the crisis of homelessness we see today.

“Much of homelessness as a problem has been caused by policy and investment decisions,” Steve continued. “And so, if we know how we created the problem, it should point to what we should do next.”

Homelessness Is a Fusion Issue

“The number one factor that determines and predicts homelessness,” Steve said, “is the lack of affordable housing, and deeply affordable housing in particular, but there are other things we have to address as well, because they are interlinked. So addressing the legacy of colonialism and ongoing racism with Indigenous people, preventing adverse childhood experiences, breaking the link between homelessness, migration, and displacement… All of these things are important, but one thing you should note is that none of those can be solved by the homelessness sector.”

Steve proposes thinking of homelessness as a fusion policy issue, meaning it requires engagement from various sectors and from every level of government. We can’t prevent and end homelessness if it is only the responsibility of the homelessness sector. He points to sectors that discharge into homelessness, like child welfare and prisons, as well as to immigration, healthcare and mental healthcare as having a role to play. He also calls for involvement in prevention initiatives by the philanthropic sector, since they can be more flexible in supporting innovation. But to truly prevent homelessness, we also need solutions on the policy level.

The Need for Structural Change

Steve calls for the provinces to be “more strategic” in aligning the priorities of their different ministries to tackle this multi-faceted issue. Premiers give mandate letters to each of the ministries that spell out what to focus on, and this could be used to take a whole-government approach to homelessness. For instance, the healthcare and criminal justice systems could be called on to report annually on how they are reducing discharges into homelessness.

He compares it to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where a whole-government prevention approach was used to limit the spread of the virus, develop and distribute vaccines, prioritize the most vulnerable, and stop the situation of those who became sick from deteriorating. Steve asks what it would have looked like if we treated the pandemic the way we treat homelessness. Well, there would have been no masks, no lockdowns, and no vaccines, but there would be huge waiting rooms built for hospital emergency departments so that everyone who became sick would have room to wait for a doctor.

Speaking of prevention, Steve said, “If we took that approach, it would reframe everything... but we’ve created a situation where we are kind of warehousing people for a long time before they get help. And that would never have worked for the pandemic.”

Learning from the Public Health Model

The COH uses a model of homelessness prevention that is based on the public health definition of prevention, and it is divided into three elements. “Primary prevention means working upstream in order to increase public population health and help people avoid illness,” Steve explained. “Secondary prevention addresses when people have become sick or hurt, ensuring that the condition doesn’t worsen but rather improves. And tertiary prevention is helping people to manage long-term complicated health problems or to avoid the recurrence of illness and injury.”

So what does it look like to translate that to homelessness? It means developing policies, practices, and interventions to that do the following:

  1. Intervene earlier to stop people from becoming homeless
  2. Act fast to prevent those who are recently homeless from experiencing chronic homelessness
  3. Provide wraparound supports to reduce the likelihood that those who exit homelessness will return to it

If we want to do prevention, though, we also need to be clear about what prevention is not. Much of the programming in emergency shelters, like cooking and employment programs, do not prevent homelessness since they do not end people’s homelessness. Similarly, there are community-based programs that support marginalized people around many issues, but not everyone who is low-income is at risk of homelessness. Clear definitions allow us to better target our prevention efforts. 

Targeted Legislation

Bringing these threads together, we can see that targeted legislation is critical to preventing homelessness on a broader scale. One example of this that Steve gives is Duty to Assist,  a legal framework put in place in Wales. It requires local governments to offer help to those who become homeless and to resolve that homelessness within two months. By creating a legal obligation for decision-makers, it redirects resources towards ensuring that experiences of homelessness are rare, short, and non-recurring. 

Reallocating resources towards prevention initiatives is vital. “A jail cell is the most expensive form of housing in Canada,” Steve said. “And so often we say, well, we can’t do things like prevention… we don’t have the funds. And in fact, there’s a lot of money, public money, that goes into supporting [the current] approach to homelessness.”

Shifting Public Policy

How can we create the kinds of policy shifts that are required to prevent and end homelessness? Governments are often responsive to shifts in public opinion, so raising awareness has an important role to play. Combatting stereotypes about homelessness and reframing the conversation around systemic issues shifts the responsibility from the individual experiencing homelessness to the political and economic system, which changes the kinds of solutions we imagine. 

We also need evidence-based solutions, proven interventions that work to prevent inflows into homelessness and that resolve situations of homelessness as quickly as possible. An example of this is Housing First for Youth, which is currently the subject of a four-year, randomized control study co-led by Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Other examples include the growing body of evidence for school- and community-based interventions like Reconnect and Upstream

Accurate information and changing public opinion can drive policy and result in the kind of sustained effort required to address homelessness in a new way.   

For information about upcoming Prevention Matters! sessions and to check out recordings of previous sessions, you can visit the COH’s website.