In this bi-weekly blog series, Abe Oudshoorn explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Follow the whole series!
2017 was declared the Year of Prevention. This included the most comprehensive homelessness prevention framework published to date. 2018 saw the implementation of Canada’s National Housing Strategy stretch beyond responsive models such as Housing First to inclusion of funding for prevention. Google searches for “homelessness prevention” spiked in 2018. However, in spite of these significant conceptual advances, shelter occupancy numbers have remained stubbornly high.
So what’s the barrier? How come homelessness prevention is taking time in having a tangible impact? I think one clue rests in a small qualitative study looking at the experiences of homeless mothers:
Sarah Benbow, Cheryl Forchuk, Carolyne Gorlick, Helene Berman, and Catherine Ward-Griffin interviewed twenty-six mothers experiencing homelessness to understand the experience of mothering in the context of homelessness, and interactions with systems of support. The interpretive analysis re-storied themes seen in the original stories told by the women.
The first theme of the study tells a vital system message that links to issues around prevention. This theme is:
“Until you hit rock bottom there’s no support.”
For the women in the study, this requirement to “hit rock bottom” was identified in terms of: 1) access to shelter supports; 2) access to mental health supports; and, 3) access to safety in the context of violence. I would add that we see these same types of criteria at times in terms of access to rent supplements, access to Housing First programs, or access to case management. When criteria are put in place to ensure supports go to those most in need, then ‘high need’ becomes the price of admission into supports.
This process is referred to as service prioritization. So, am I suggesting that service prioritization is bad? Not at all. In all systems it makes sense that highest supports go to highest need, and on downwards from there. However, the essential challenge occurs when their second theme is linked with the first. The second theme is:
“It’s just not enough”: insufficient supports.
Where community need is greater than community resources, service prioritization means that those who would normally need and qualify for the service are also screened out. This is what the women in the study are trying to tell us: they knew they had significant housing needs prior to hitting shelter, but couldn’t get into the supports they needed until they hit shelter.
So, what does this all mean in terms of homelessness prevention? It means that when housing and homelessness programs are stretched thin, crisis continually takes precedence over prevention. This is why Housing First and prevention have been falsely held at times in contention with each other – not because we don’t need both, but because in a context of no new investments into services we are ‘shifting chairs around on the Titanic’. Therefore, building responses that create the promise of homelessness prevention shouldn’t come from taking resources away from other programs that work; they need to come from a true commitment to the human right of housing for all.