The Duty to Assist is perhaps one of the most significant paradigm-shifting developments in our efforts to prevent and end homelessness since Housing First arrived on the scene more than 25 years ago.
What is the Duty to Assist?
Duty to Assist originated in Wales and was introduced through the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. This legislation transformed the homelessness response in Wales by hard-wiring prevention into their strategy as a means of strengthening the right to housing. The Duty to Assist means there is a statutory obligation, or a legal duty, requiring local authorities to make reasonable efforts to end a person’s homelessness and/or stabilize their housing. In practical terms, it means first, offering people who are at risk of, or newly homeless, assistance in ending their homelessness as quickly as possible. If the person accepts the offer of support, the legislation requires that their experience of homelessness is resolved within two months. This does not mean housing people in shelters, motels, or other temporary solutions, but instead providing them with permanent, stable housing with the right supports to prevent their homelessness from reoccurring. While there have been some challenges in implementing Duty to Assist, the legislation has proven to be a huge success in reducing homelessness in Wales, with about two-thirds of those who received help under the new legislation in its first year having successfully avoided homelessness. Since then, Duty to Assist legislation has been adopted by England and Scotland.
How can we implement Duty to Assist in Canada?
Adapting legislation and practices from other countries can seem daunting because the social, cultural and policy contexts can be so different. This sometimes leads people to ignore innovation from other countries, while claiming “that would never work here”. A more productive approach would be to ask, “How might this new and innovative approach be adapted to our context?” and to explore how something like Duty to Assist can contribute to our policy and practice toolbox for preventing homelessness.
Today, there is greater recognition that more needs to be done to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. This shift from a reactive to a proactive approach received a big boost in 2019 when the Government of Canada legislated the right to housing and as part of its Reaching Home Homelessness Strategy introduced mandatory outcomes for community entities whereby, they were expected to engage in prevention and demonstrate reductions in inflows and returns to homelessness. So, in light of these positive developments, how might Duty to Assist be employed in the Canadian context?
Given the constitutionally defined division of powers between different orders of government in Canada, it is unlikely that legislation requiring municipalities to implement Duty to Assist would be implemented. So, this means the responsibility must lay elsewhere.
Community Entities play a key role in advancing Duty to Assist across Canada
Using the leadership of Community Entities, the homelessness sector can take up the Duty to Assist at the service level, so that when a person enters a shelter or day program, they can receive immediate support to exit homelessness as quickly as possible. Preventive interventions such as Shelter Diversion, Evictions Prevention and Rapid Rehousing could be broadly employed across the sector to greatly reduce the inflow into homelessness.
More than just optimizing the homelessness sector, Duty to Assist can be embedded at the local level in a systems approach that enables engagement and partnerships with other public systems and institutions that can have a direct impact on inflows into homelessness, including healthcare, child protection and the criminal justice system for instance. A positive aspect of applying Duty to Assist is that there would be no need for prioritization, as everyone in this circumstance would be offered and entitled to support. People would not have to wait until they are ‘homeless enough’ or ‘sick enough’ to get support. An approach to Duty to Assist that emphasizes equity, diversity and inclusion would also ensure that Indigenous people, racialized groups and 2SLGBTQ persons have access to culturally appropriate supports that respect dignity and provide people the kinds of supports they need. If applied community-wide, the impact of Duty to Assist on the homelessness problem would be immediate, and in the long term, it could eliminate chronic homelessness entirely.
When working with youth experiencing homelessness, Duty to Assist requires an enhanced systems approach
In 2019, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada, along with our Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, partnered with Bridgeable, a Canadian service design consultancy, to explore how a Duty to Assist approach could be designed to prevent youth homelessness. The project team used a human-centred, design-based approach to prototype and test service elements of the Duty to Assist model to make strategic policy recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the policy moving forward. We concluded that rather than putting the Duty to Assist solely on agencies in the homelessness sector which young people may or may not engage with, it would be more effective to build supports around and within those public institutions that young people are more likely to engage with on a regular basis, such as schools, community centres, health care providers, and child protection workers, for instance. Importantly, the burden of solving a young person’s homelessness would not fall on these public institutions but rather would require deep collaboration with community-based organizations who have expertise in homelessness prevention that would offer safe and culturally appropriate assistance to young people and their families in need.
For a deeper dive into our process and learnings on supporting youth through Duty to Assist, read the full project report, Guiding Youth Home.
Duty to Assist relies on legislation that protects people’s housing rights while giving them legal recourse if these rights are violated. But it’s about more than legislation. Fundamentally, it’s about creating a set of policies, practices, and services designed to retool existing systems, sectors, and agencies to be prevention-focused. With Community Entities leading the way, we can prevent and end homelessness across Canada together.
If you are interested in learning more about implementing Duty to Assist in your community, contact the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources on Duty to Assist
- Report: The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness
- Report: Duty to Assist – A Human Rights Approach to Youth Homelessness
- Report: Guiding Youth Home - A design-based approach to preventing and ending youth homelessness
- Webinar: The Duty to Assist approach to homelessness prevention
- Free Online Training: Duty to Assist – Taking a Rights-Based Approach (Homelessness Learning Hub)