Beyond Housing First: A Holistic Response to Family Homelessness in Canada

is part of Raising the Roof’s national Child and Family Homelessness Initiative.

Providing families with housing is the first step in helping them escape homelessness and gain stability in their lives. With its ‘meet you where you’re at’ approach, Housing First is a means of early intervention for families who are already experiencing or are at imminent risk of homelessness. The Housing First model has demonstrated that once individuals have been housed, wraparound client-driven services support participants from the perspective of employment, addictions, mental health, education, and establishing community connections.

While this method has been identified as a successful and effective way to assist those currently experiencing homelessness, what would it mean to genuinely prevent homelessness from occurring? Furthermore, how we can ensure that the systems and structures are put in place so that workers are better able to assist Housing First participants achieve long-term success?

Homelessness is not an issue that occurs in a vacuum, but one that intersects with multiple social concerns. This includes poverty and Canada’s declining social safety net. If we are able to address the root causes of homelessness - such as affordable housing, income, food security, discrimination, and violence – perhaps we can prevent the cycle of poverty and homelessness experienced by families and eventually eliminate the need for Housing First.

To date, most strategies have focused on homelessness as an isolated issue and reactively developed temporary solutions, but have yet to address the primary causes of homelessness. While some headway has been made in provinces such as Ontario, with the newly released Poverty Reduction Strategy that includes ending homelessness as part of their mandate, and Alberta, where youth homelessness has been made a priority, much greater buy-in from government is needed. Until complex societal issues such as affordable housing, income, and food security are addressed, families will continue to ‘fall through the cracks’ into homelessness and graduates of Housing First programs may once again become vulnerable.

In addition, the complex systems and services provided to families experiencing poverty or homelessness must be better coordinated. This includes income assistance programs, education, child welfare, and social housing, among others. It must also be noted that a lack of overall services has resulted in decreased success among Housing First ‘graduates’ and other program participants.

To assist those at-risk and provide them with opportunities to escape the cycle, these services must be supported and implemented in a way that matches the unique needs of families experiencing homelessness. Coordinating a systems-response is imperative. The fragmented coordination between provincial and federal systems-level responses has often prevented individuals from receiving the support they require. Systems and services need to act as a support and not a barrier in order to ensure the long-term success of prevention initiatives and Housing First programs.

Currently, a strong focus on Housing First programming (an early intervention response) has overshadowed the importance of essential programming and supports. We need to break the cycle of homelessness. The only way to do this is through a holistic approach that includes prevention, systems-response, and early intervention as a direct response to ending homelessness in Canada.

Raising the Roof's infographic
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