October 10th was World Homeless Day, an annual occasion on an international stage that brings attention to the needs of people experiencing homelessness and provides opportunities for communities across the world to get involved in responding to homelessness. The initiative encourages both community members and politicians alike to engage in and take critical steps towards combatting homelessness.

World Homeless Day

Unfortunately, homelessness is an issue that is deeply stigmatized, as many of us are socialized to believe in common misconceptions about homelessness. Some of these misconceptions are that homelessness is a choice, that all individuals experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, do not want to work or that homelessness is simply an inevitability. However, none of these notions are true and are harmful attitudes that impede solutions towards addressing and alleviating the causes of homelessness. Furthermore, defining homelessness as an individualized issue, rather than as a result of a combination of structural factors, system failures and individual and relational factors, leads to actions which are sorely misguided, counterproductive, costly and inefficient.

In order to develop the right solutions, we need an accurate portrayal of the problem. That is why the COH developed a definition of homelessness that is useable, understandable and uniquely Canadian yet allows for national and international comparison. Homelessness is a multi-faceted issue that is much bigger than a matter of individual choice. Indeed, as homelessness is an epidemic that touches individuals regardless of race, gender, religion and all nations globally, with an estimated 100 million to one billion or more worldwide (depending on how homelessness is defined), we as a society are all responsible.

Community services

Today’s blog post discusses the vital role that community services play in the lives of those at-risk of or who are experiencing homelessness. Community services refer to any programs delivered through non-profit or faith-based community organizations. These programs can be funded by donations or government grants, and are ran by staff, students and/or volunteers. Services offered by organizations include, but are not limited to, food and clothing banks, health and mental health services, activities for ‘at-risk’ youth like counseling or sports, supportive services for families, women or LGBTQ2S individuals, employment services, settlement services, access to internet and shelter accommodation.

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. For instance, mental health supports are critical, as research shows that people experiencing homelessness tend to have a higher prevalence of mental illness than the general population.

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.

The role of community services in addressing homelessness

As stated earlier, the role of community services in the lives of those who are at-risk of or experiencing homelessness is indispensable. 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.

As crucial as employment services are, employment is only one piece of the puzzle in ensuring an individual attains and maintains housing. Canada’s transition to a service-based employment sector has resulted in the proliferation of low-wage, precarious and insecure labour, and assisting individuals in accessing employment will only be successful if there are good, stable, living-wage jobs available. One way that this is being done is through the role of social enterprises. Social enterprises are companies that reinvest any profits and revenue back into the organization and its employees, rather than into the pockets of shareholders or executives. As a key tenant, social enterprises often work to employ those from backgrounds that often face discrimination in hiring practices, such as individuals with disabilities or histories of substance use and addiction. Places like Out of this World café in Toronto, or Coco café in Naimano, BC are social enterprises breaking down barriers and ensuring everyone regardless of abilities, health, mental health or housing status are given a fair chance.

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.

As we circle back to the issue of stigma, it is crucial that as we go about our daily lives, we treat societal issues, like homelessness and those experiencing homelessness with compassion, understanding and kindness. For example, as a teacher or parent perhaps implementing lessons to children regarding homelessness will help counteract stigma at an earlier age. If you have any questions about homelessness, browse the Hub’s selection of comprehensive resources. Don’t see an answer to your question? You can always ask the hub and we will provide a research-based answer!

There are also a number of programs available to those who are homeless or at-risk of facing homelessness:

If you would like to suggest or know of any other community services kindly leave them in the comments!