Women enter transitional and second stage housing from a number of places. However they got there, many get “stuck” in supportive housing programs because accessing independent housing is fraught with barriers. Home for Good sought to understand and address what was going on in women’s lives.
In 2016, four Executive Directors in the women’s housing sector in Halifax, Nova Scotia would meet regularly for coffee and to discuss the common challenges, trends and issues facing the participants of their second stage housing programs for women. A topic that persisted throughout these informal coffee chats was the barriers participants faced once they “graduated” from low barrier supportive housing programs and tried to move back into market housing. With collective wisdom and experience behind them, they could identify a number of systemic barriers which were largely gendered in nature, however they lacked the formal evidence they needed to move forward on advocacy for systems changes. So, when a grant call from Status of Women Canada was launched in 2016, which called for collaborative projects, they decided to apply. The result of the application was the Home for Good collaboration, and the four co-applicants set forth to engage in research which identified barriers to housing, and used women’s stories to advocate for the removal of those barriers with decision-makers, as well as in their own programs.
This collaboration was unique as it included four separate organizations (Alice House, Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland NS, The Marguerite Centre and YWCA Halifax) as equal co-applicants on a single grant, each with their own funding agreements but sharing resources and personnel towards the goals of the project. Each of the four co-applicants brought different strengths and relationships in the community but shared in common a vision of housing marginalized women successfully. At the time, the four organizations made up about 65% of the total housing placements for women in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and each worked with, seemingly, different populations of women:
- Alice House is for women, with or without children, fleeing domestic violence;
- Elizabeth Fry for women involved with the criminal justice system;
- Marguerite for addictions recovery; and
- aYWCA Halifax for women experiencing homelessness for any reason, and young mothers in housing need.
Because no framework existed for such collaboration, the EDs were required to map out and negotiate multiple variables, including resource allocation, staffing, priority setting, conflict resolution, public messaging, and four different sets of paperwork and protocols. And where the co-applicants were unable to predict forks and bumps in the road, they relied on their trust and commitment to one another and the women they serve to forge ahead and ensure the integrity of the collaboration was maintained.
There were many discussions about the language of women’s housing in the early days of the collaboration, particularly as it related to what the four programs were: was it transition housing or second stage housing? Could an addictions recovery house be considered either of those things? And what about a halfway house? Some community stakeholders insisted that only domestic violence shelters could be considered “transition houses”. Ultimately the co-applicants agreed to focus on the many things they had in common, namely providing housing for women with limited options or nowhere else to go.
Home for Good engaged a third party, academic researcher to undertake design and to implement the research methodology. Dr. Diane Crocker, from Saint Mary’s University, understood the unique nature of the research, was committed to honouring the women’s stories, and appreciated the inclusion of multiple perspectives in the analysis of them.
Early on, the co-applicants recognized that in order to embark on systems change, there would need to be high-level engagement of community partners and stakeholders who played a role in women’s housing solutions. These included government departments, private landlords, legal representatives, as well as community-based social service providers. They invited external community partners and stakeholders to join us in the co-creation of the research tools, to take this opportunity to find out what they needed to know for their own organizations, assist in findings analysis through multiple lenses, and identify their own recommendations for change. This methodology was a departure from traditional understandings of research and advocacy and instead, using the strength of the collaboration, endeavored to co-create community research and recommendations for change.
Equally important, the project sought to emphasize the inclusion of women who are or have participated in transitional housing projects as these women use the very systems Home for Good wanted to change. Rather than simply engaging women as research subjects, they were treated as subject matter experts and compensated fairly for their participation.
The methodology was simple. Diane interviewed 22 women who had either transitioned out of one of the four housing programs, or was in the process of transition, and asked them one thing – What happened? The Home for Good co-applicants came up with a list of things they, and stakeholders, were interested in hearing about and gave it to Diane to serve as a list of prod areas – if any of the women mentioned any of topics, Diane would ask for more specifics, but for the most part, the stories collected were raw and authentic. The interviews were then all summarized into short stories and they underwent three levels of thematic analysis, first by the co-applicants, then by community stakeholders, and lastly by a group of women with lived experience.
The research was completed just after the first year of the project. The main conclusions from the women’s stories included:
- The absence of a coherent and connected “Housing System” for women to access when looking for housing support
- Women’s pathways through housing insecurity are non-linear, do not follow a predictable trajectory, and are often cyclical in nature
- Women carry the burdens of debt from poverty, instability and prior relationships when trying to secure safe and affordable housing
- There is a clear quantitative and qualitative link between the Child Welfare System and Homelessness which is unaddressed in policies and programs
- Women with histories of addiction, intimate partner violence, and those with children have additional considerations of safety, affordability, and location in the community when looking for market housing
- Landlords often contribute to the stigmatization of women coming from housing programs, are not trauma-informed, and often do not understand the unique safety concerns of women’s housing
After the research report was released, Home for Good convened a smaller group of four women with lived experience to assist in the production of a short video series which could be used as advocacy tools for systemic change.
The scripts were a compilation of quotes and interpretations of the stories shared through the research and screenwriting sessions. The decision had been made early on that the videos would not depict any past or current participants as individuals, rather a composite would be created from all of their stories. It was very important to the women in the screenwriting sessions to have dark humour weaved into the scripts. Humour, they said, was often a device they used when telling their stories, to help them stay strong and resilient.
Once the videos were complete, the Home for Good co-applicants had all of the tools they needed to move forward on action. Unlike many research-based grants, the research report wasn’t the deliverable, the action which came from the research was. So the third and final year of the project, the co-applicants prioritized the themes captured in the videos for advocacy and action.
To date, Home for Good has set a lot of systems-level changes in motion, as well as started new partnerships with organizations that can assist reducing housing barriers for women and their children. We have moved the needle on women’s housing through our national conversations about the National Housing Strategy and provincial conversations on implementing Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) in new housing policy creation. We have brought together decision-makers in government and presented them with evidence linking the child welfare system and the housing system. In addition to high level systems change, we have started two new partnerships with Credit Counselling Services of Nova Scotia and the Investment Property Owners Association which seek to reduce financial barriers of bad credit when trying to find and maintain affordable housing, and reduce stigmatizing barriers of landlords, and increase women’s safety in market housing.
Change has also happened within all four Home for Good co-applicant organizations, paving the way for organizations to address the barriers within their own programs. Changes to date include the development of better communication channels, improved intake and discharge processes, and trust of each other as service providers. These improvements emerged through the course of the project, and will continue to have sustainable, long-term effects on each organization.
Learn more about Home for Good here, or check out our session at the 2019 CAEH Conference.