Housing stability. Rapid re-housing. Prevention. Diversion.

These were the words that guided discussion at the first of four service provider consultations hosted by the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration Division last week. The consultations are a welcome opportunity to inform the City’s Five-Year Housing Stability Plan and the public’s annual $650 Million investment in housing and homelessness.

For some, these terms are full of meaning. But I can’t help wondering whether our discussion somehow missed the mark. What if the foundation for the City’s housing strategy was a single, simple goal:

Everyone has a home.

Starting with a single syllable

We’re not used to basing city policy on single-syllable words, and certainly not words that are as personal and emotion-laden as “home.” How could such a word guide funding decisions, or inform program evaluations?

For fun, I spent a happy summer afternoon looking for answers outside the housing sector, skimming definitions of “home” in everything from women’s magazines to children’s essays to poems. I discovered four themes that seemed surprisingly pertinent to the consultations:

Home is where you can settle in. According to the poets, children and magazine readers, it’s not about how long you stay in one place or another. It’s about whether a place is yours to keep as long as you want. It’s home when you can live and plan your future, secure in the knowledge that you will not be arbitrarily evicted or forced out because you can no longer afford to live there.

Home is where your people are. Sometimes “your people” are your own family or friends. Sometimes they are simply the people you feel comfortable around, because you share a common culture or language, belong to the same social strata, or share similar life experiences.

Home is where you are safe. It is a refuge and a sanctuary. It’s where you can protect yourself from not just the violent or the thieving – although that is essential — but also from the tiresome, the mean-spirited or the nosy.

Home is where you can be yourself. In the magazines, “being yourself” seems to mean lounging in old T-shirts and flip-flops, staying up late and never mind the dishes. It gets trickier when “being yourself” involves bugging your neighbours, turning your apartment into a fire hazard, or drinking yourself to death. But I think there is an important principle here: home is not so much the place where you “get your act together” as the place where you don’t have to act at all.

From happy sentiments to housing strategy

What might a housing plan supported by the pillars of settling, belonging, safety and being yourself look like?

For a lark, I tried scoring each of the most common housing alternatives against these four pillars. I discovered, of course, that almost every answer was, “it depends.” I could think of non-profits and co-ops that foster a deep sense of belonging, and others where intrusive rules make it impossible to be yourself; shelters that were safe, and those that definitely were not.

Nonetheless, the exercise helped me look at housing options from a different perspective. I started asking questions such as:

Are general emergency shelters actually better than the street? Both offer opportunities for belonging; neither allow people to settle in; neither are safe. But the street has one big advantage over shelters: you can be yourself in a way not possible in a (necessarily) rule-bound shelter.

Could shelters improve their advantage over the street by investing heavily in safety, or by reducing rules to the absolute minimum? Or should the City be shifting its funding to smaller specialty shelters, such as women’s or youth shelters, where the potential for belonging and safety are higher?

Is transitional housing really part of the housing system? It was transitional housing’s focus on self- improvement that stood out on my score card. It made me wonder whether it should be recognized as part of the health or education system – a sort of school residence while you learn skills or recover from an addiction – and be funded and regulated accordingly?

Can we replicate the advantages of social housing in private buildings? Permanent non-profit and co-op housing scored well on all four pillars, but we also know in this market it is costly to build.

Subsidies in private buildings could offer similar advantages, but only if we dropped our notion that housing allowances are time-limited aids. The threat of losing one’s subsidy is the antithesis of settling – especially at a time when incomes are declining, not rising, across Ontario. We’d also need to stop parachuting tenants into buildings that are out of their comfort zone – away from their social circle and the services that keep that circle alive.

Evaluation? Ask the people who live there

And how would the City evaluate whether an organization is providing a home, or a path to a home? It could start by asking the people the organization serves.

Tenant and client surveys tend to be under-used. I can understand why. Many tenants and clients have trouble completing questionnaires, individual interviews are time-consuming, and the results can be hard to quantify. But I know no truer measure of a policy outcome than the testimony of the people it is designed to serve.

Simplicity and science

Am I proposing that city policy be driven by popular culture rather than solid research?

Certainly not! But I can’t help noticing the poets, children and magazine readers have hit on many of the findings confirmed by research and reflected in the City’s own philosophy: the proven benefits of self-determination, choice, autonomy, stability, security, and community.

This may be one time when simplicity is not “dumbing down.” Instead, it may be the best way to get at the heart of our work.

Reposted with permission from Opening the Window.

Joy Connelly writes Opening the Window, a blog featuring fresh ideas for social housing. She has worked in housing for over 30 years.