Finding a new home for the homeless

A national housing strategy would contribute to affordable housing, such as these units located at 100 Lower Ossington Avenue.

A national housing strategy would contribute to affordable housing, such as these units located at 100 Lower Ossington Avenue.

The Harper government has taken a significant step forward in Canada’s fight to end homelessness.

In the recent federal budget, funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the arm of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada tasked with addressing homelessness throughout Canada – and whose federal funding was set to expire in 2014 – had its funding extended until 2019. Its mandate was also expanded to include a focus on delivering housing first programs.

It should be noted that while the budget has been tabled it has not yet been approved by the House of Commons. However, given the majority government that is in place and the party whipping tactics that often come along with budgets, the chances this particular budget will be defeated are extremely slim.

The “Housing First” approach — a theory that allows for funds provided by federal and provincial governments to be streamlined through municipalities — is an innovative response to homelessness that sees a homeless individual placed into housing first without conditions before bringing forward a social service provider to work with the client to identify goals and create a support system. This will ultimately help clients to overcome the barriers that caused them to become homeless in the first place.

Housing First is unique because of the way it empowers program participants, said Wolfgang Vachon, a professor in Humber College’s School of Social and Community Services.

“[The] key to the housing first philosophy is this idea of non-coercion,” he said.

“It’s this non-conditional support and housing regardless of whether the person is using drugs, regardless of if they’re in school and all these sorts of things.”

Amélie Maisonneuve, media relations officer with the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, said in addition to getting people housed, implementing Housing First has additional economic benefits.

“Housing First can be an effective tool in solving chronic homelessness while reducing pressure on other shelter, health and justice services,” she said.

This was demonstrated by the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study, a Canadian research project that saw the Housing First model implemented and evaluated in controlled trials in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. Launched in 2009 and completed in March 2013, the study saw more than 1,000 individuals housed using the Housing First model, and was the largest trial of its kind in the world.

The At Home/Chez Soi trials found providing individuals with housing through the Housing First model saved thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in shelter, hospital and judicial bills, compared to those of individuals who remained homeless over the same period.

This can really add up, which is likely part of why the Harper government chose to endorse the approach in the new budget.

Dr. Tim Aubry, a professor at the University of Ottawa and researcher with At Home/Chez Soi in Moncton, said he was surprised by the budget’s endorsement of Housing First, especially the pace with which it happened.

“These things tend to be incremental in how they work, so the government taking the findings from a big study and applying them in this budget is wonderful,” he said.

“It’s not something that you see often — this quick response from research into policy.”

However, Dr. Stephen Hwang, chair of homelessness, housing and health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an investigator with the At Home/Chez Soi study, said he worries this may be a case of too much, too fast, with too much emphasis placed on Housing First. Hwang stresses it is not a universal solution to homelessness.

“It’s important that we not think that, because while Housing First is a spectacularly effective solution to a certain kind of homelessness, homelessness is also, in many cases, caused by a shortage of affordable housing,” he said.

Vachon also said that Housing First might not be the right fit for everyone, particularly homeless youth.

“Some youth see themselves as travellers or troubadours and have no interest in housing,” he said. “This push to housing can, at times, feel quite oppressive to young people.”

Another concern with the Homelessness Partnering Strategy’s new mandate is related to their funding itself.

HPS’ funding currently sits at $139 million per year but the extended funding, which will sustain it from 2014 to 2019, has been reduced to $119 million annually. Considering HPS funds homelessness initiatives in 61 communities across Canada, this is, as Aubry said, “a modest amount,” with which to pursue HPS’ Housing First mandate.

Vachon said he feels this reduction in funding may indicate the government is not quite as passionate about Housing First as it may appear at first glance.

“It’s wonderful that there’s money there, but I’m not sure that it is going to become embedded as a long-term strategy,” he said.

“A five-year commitment is good, but it’s not 10 years.”

Professionals like Hwang note that Housing First will never solve homelessness in Canada. It is a response mechanism – one must already be homeless in order to take advantage of a housing first program.

Hwang said what Canada needs now is an affordable housing strategy; a national housing strategy, which could help to prevent homelessness through development of an adequate supply of affordable housing.

“It would be short-sighted to focus on treatment of the illness without addressing the underlying causes of the problem,” he said.

The obstacle is Canada doesn’t have a national housing strategy and doesn’t seem to likely to have one any time soon.

On February 27, bill C-400, the Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 129 – 153. It was the most recent attempt at establishing a national housing strategy.

A lack of housing strategy hurts Canadians who are housed, experts in the field note. Many of them find themselves paying too much for housing; upwards of 30 per cent of household income for housing is considered unaffordable housing. Housing First programs require a supply of affordable housing to be able to get individuals housed.

Gordon Tanner, manager of Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, said affordable housing is an essential part of his program, and is vital to the effectiveness of the Housing First approach in general.

“An important component of Housing First is the element of choice which consumers have to decide where and in what type of accommodations they would like to live,” he said.

Hwang said in defeating the most recent attempt at developing a national housing strategy, homelessness prevention has been effectively taken off the table.

“Housing First is not a substitute for a comprehensive affordable housing strategy,” he said.

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘well, now that we’ve decided to focus on developing better treatments to lung cancer and not tried to reduce smoking rates, what do you think we should do?’”

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