In response to the continued growth of family homelessness, communities across Canada are developing family-centered interventions to end homelessness and help families achieve residential stability. In Calgary, there is concern for the growing number of families entering into homelessness with Calgary’s two emergency shelters consistently at capacity. Families experiencing homelessness face a range of structural barriers, personal risk factors, and triggering events. While the experience of family homelessness is distinct from that of singles, the typologies of shelter users may be comparable. That is to say not all families who fall into homelessness are considered to be high acuity or require an intensive level of support to be rehoused. However, anecdotal evidence in Calgary in 2011 raised the concern that there were a group of families for whom permanently ending their homelessness was challenged due to lack of appropriate services. These families exhibited multiple, and complex challenges and a greater duration of time in the shelter system. This exploratory research developed in response to local concerns and sought to devise recommendations for the development of a model of Permanent Supportive Housing to support high acuity families with multiple shelter stays.
This study includes an environmental scan of existing models of supportive housing, a literature review of family homelessness and risk factors, qualitative interview data from 36 heads-of-household experiencing past or present homelessness, survey data from 27 service providers working with homeless families, and an analysis of statistical information from two emergency shelters and six housing programs currently available to families in Calgary.
By targeting families with repeat or lengthy shelter stays, this study aimed to gain additional insight on families with complex needs, for whom it is likely that affordable housing alone would not be a sufficient intervention and where additional and longer-term supports would be needed. This data is intended to be used for a permanent supportive housing model with wrap-around supports for families, creating a tailor-made intervention for the specific needs of this cohort.
Participants in the study indicated that stressors such as inadequate income, inaccessible or unaffordable housing, substance use, discrimination or racism, family violence, lack of supports or information about services, and physical or mental health concerns all contributed to their experiences of homelessness. Across all families, a housing crisis was at the center of their homelessness. Further, the experience of homelessness brought with it a fear of disclosure of the associated challenges related to family cohesion and parenting, due to the potential for child welfare involvement. Given the link between child welfare involvement and experience of homelessness later in adulthood, it is crucial to understand how best to support families experiencing homelessness to maintain their family structure and to address the root causes of their homelessness so as to not produce the next generation of homelessness.
Among the perceived facilitators for families exiting homelessness were supportive staff providing case management and referrals, a respect for the pursuit of autonomy and independence, addressing the needs of their children (from child care to intensive counselling), improved awareness of available community supports, and cultural supports and spiritual practices. Fundamentally, underpinning all of these supports was the need for affordable housing and adequate income. Participants were clear, however, that sufficient housing and income alone would still leave significant gaps in their family’s needs. These, in turn, needed to be filled by supportive, flexible, appropriate and accessible programming and supports.