The concept of “ending homelessness” has had significant impact on public policy and service responses in recent years. Just consider the number of “ending homelessness” plans, strategies, policy directions, and funding announcements not just in Canada, but internationally.
Currently, there is no internationally recognized definition of an end to homelessness, the type of indicators and targets, and a verification process for communities. This is also the case for Canada.
In light of the recently launched National Housing Strategy with a clear recognition of housing as a human right and commitment to ending homelessness, we want to ensure that measurable targets and goals drive toward the elimination of homelessness. However, without a clear sense of what homelessness actually means and what an “end” looks like, how will we ever know where we stand on progress towards this objective?
Clearly, if we are truly interested in ending homelessness, then we need to move beyond a sole focus (and performance metric) on chronic homelessness, as the National Housing Strategy suggests. This is because we cannot, and should not, wait for people to become chronically homeless before we help them. This is a fundamental violation of their human rights. In fact, if we really want to end homelessness, we need to ensure that people do not become homeless in the first place through a preventive focus that ensures they have access to appropriate supports and housing.
One of the main problems with focusing narrowly on chronic homelessness is that we can exclude key populations who are extremely vulnerable in other ways, including women fleeing violence, Indigenous Peoples in substandard housing, couch surfing youth, young people vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation, and racialized communities and newcomers. Waiting for these groups to become chronically homeless before we offer them serious help to avoid or exit homelessness is expensive and damaging to individuals, families and communities.
In addition, the important work on defining Indigenous homelessness, from an Indigenous-lived experience lens speaks to the important considerations tied to definitions and their powerful impact. Thus, a Canadian definition must resonate regionally and across populations; it must align with the lived experience voice and look beyond quick fixes if we are to truly leverage this historic moment in social policy for our country.
Finally, we need to consider that chronic homelessness underrepresents dynamics involved in small, medium-sized and regional centres as well as rural and Northern remote communities where hidden homelessness is very common.
While focusing on chronic homelessness must always be a central priority in community strategies to address homelessness, if we want to truly end homelessness, we need to do more.