Moving Forward on Housing and Homelessness

If we go on our way and meet a man who has advanced towards us and has also gone on his way, we know only our part of the way, not his – his we experience only in the meeting. Of the complete relational event we know, with the knowledge of life lived, our going out to the relation, our part of the way. The other part only comes upon us, we do not know it; it comes upon us in the meeting. But we strain ourselves on it if we speak of it as though it were some thing beyond the meeting.

Buber, 1958

Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of the downandouters. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!

Proverbs 31:89 The Message

When we speak about the issues of homelessness and about individuals who experience homelessness, we need to keep in mind that we only know our part, our experience, our work. We cannot let our perspective speak for people who are homeless. We can only know someone in relation to where we are coming from and what we bring in relation to others. As we come into relationship with others, we need to be aware of our own perceptions, our own values and our own assumptions. Their perspectives only come through engaging in relationship along the way.

The Scriptures tell us to speak up for people who have no voice. We need not only to speak for those who may not have an opportunity to speak for themselves, but to also listen to what the voices of those marginalized individuals have to say. We should only speak for others to help move their voice from the margins, into the centre. If we are to speak for those who may not have the opportunity or choose not to speak, we need to understand what it is that people have to say or would have us say.

So it is with advocacy. Advocacy creates a potential for transformative change, to be a transforming influence in the communities of our world. As we come to an understanding of the issues of homelessness and the experiences for those who are homeless, we can begin to design strategies to alter the systems that create homelessness. As we experience relationship with vulnerable people, we can add our voice to theirs and work with them as agents of change. And as we make changes to policies, practices and perceptions, we can build a foundation for social change, moving forward towards a Canada without homelessness.

Homelessness in Canada

Homelessness is a complex reality experienced by individuals across Canada. Although the exact numbers remain unknown, recent studies have estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Canadians are experiencing homelessness (Laird, 2007). The majority of these individuals identify an increase in poverty, a shortage of affordable housing and a lack of supports as the central reasons for becoming homeless (Harris & Katz, 2009). These factors exacerbate the experience of homelessness, which, in turn, causes many individuals to live without permanent housing for years (Laird, 2007).

Individuals experiencing homelessness often find adequate and affordable housing as the foremost support needed in order to move them into a stable living situation; however, the provision of housing does not entirely resolve homelessness. When experienced for prolonged periods, homelessness can significantly impair an individual’s social, physical, and mental wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated that an overwhelming number of homeless individuals suffer from mental health issues, physical health conditions, addictions to drugs or alcohol, and employment instability (Harris & Katz, 2009). These factors function as barriers that prevent homeless individuals from obtaining and maintaining permanent housing.

For most homeless individuals, the point of entry into the homeless service system, which meets both service and housing needs, is the emergency shelter system (Meschede, 2004). Emergency shelters provide individuals with a place to sleep as well as services and programs that aim to address issues associated with homelessness. As persons experiencing homelessness are not a homogenous group, services and programs are developed to reflect the needs of this diverse population (Peressini, 2007). Service needs of the homeless population are both unique and challenging. Salvation Army emergency shelters provide clients with safe living accommodations and supportive services. It is the hope that the availability of these services will enable individuals to successfully transition into permanent housing.

The Salvation Army is one of the leading organizations in Canada to provide services for individuals experiencing homelessness. The organization currently operates over 6,000 emergency and shortterm transitional housing beds for men, women and families across the country. In addition to providing for basic human needs, interventions offered by Salvation Army emergency shelters address specific needs of the homeless.

Background on Affordable Housing in Canada

The housing system in Canada provides housing for Canadians in several forms and tenures, including homeownership, private rental housing and social housing. The housing system is intended to provide a range of appropriate housing solutions for a wide range of people (CHRA, 2009).

However, income that low and moderate income households have available to pay for housing has not kept pace with the cost of housing production. Various government programs have been available to stimulate the development of private rental housing, but this part of the market has come to a standstill. Since the 1950’s, social housing programs funded by all levels of government created homes across Canada, compensating to some extent for the deficiencies in the ownership and private rental sectors and helped to prevent homelessness (CHRA, 2009).

But during the 1990’s, federal and provincial governments began to stop developing new social housing. Social housing programs have become smaller in scale. And while the existing social housing stock is aging and requires more funding to maintain a state of good repair, federal funding for that inventory is actually declining due to expiring mortgages, rather than increasing. While solutions to address inadequacies in the housing market can require significant investments, the costs of homelessness are much higher (CHRA, 2009).

Through federal programs such as the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), communities have been helped to address homelessness through homeless assistance services and transitional and supportive housing. In the current environment, organizations such as The Salvation Army have worked together with municipalities, community groups and others to find new ways to meet the housing needs of the community. Each has brought resources, tools and new ideas to the table to try to solve very pressing local needs. The pool of resources has expanded as new capacity has been developed at the local level (CHRA, 2009).

Policy priorities for housing and homelessness programs

Historically, The Salvation Army’s response to the issue of homelessness has been the development of emergency shelters. Shelters across Canada strive to deliver services to their clients that are both effective and efficient. The majority of shelter users are interested in attaining permanent housing. The Salvation Army is committed to moving people beyond its shelter system, supporting persons to attain this goal, advocating for the creation of affordable housing and providing housing directly.

Canadians deserve the right to live in housing that is adequate in condition, suitable in terms of size, and affordable in cost (TD Economics, 2003). For many, the declining number of affordable housing units and the rise in the cost of living (Snow, 2008) is a major deterrent. Shelter users feel that attaining housing would be the first step to resolving many of the other issues that are commonly associated with homelessness.

Research has demonstrated that a significant number of individuals are experiencing homelessness due to low income or an inability to afford housing (TD Economics, 2003). Of great concern is the number of individuals who do not have any income. Many shelter users rely on social assistance; however, the amount that they receive is generally not enough to afford housing. Minimal income can be both the causal and perpetuating factor of homelessness. Without sufficient income, it becomes exceedingly difficult to attain permanent housing.

Having no fixed address and reduced access to training programs prevents individuals from obtaining and maintaining steady employment (Long, Rio, & Rosen, 2007). Employment is essential to selfsufficiency and there is a high demand for assistance with attaining and maintaining steady employment. Shelter users who are steadily employed often lack the skill levels and experience needed to obtain incomes sufficient for housing affordability. Of those who are employed, many individuals are involved in temporary job positions. These positions are typically lowpaying, infrequent and on a needonly basis. A well paying, steady job would enable many individuals experiencing homelessness to move into permanent housing. Shelter users are interested in attaining permanent housing; however, many need support to help with the search for housing. A lack of affordable housing can be a major impediment to transitioning out of homelessness.

The existing definitions of homelessness are often created by people who have never experienced homelessness. Although these definitions acknowledge issues such as housing, income, and social support, they do not always take personal agency into consideration. By allowing homeless individuals to share their experiences, there is opportunity for both the implicit and explicit aspects of homelessness to be addressed. While shelters have strengths and weaknesses with regards to the services it provides, policies and practices that support service delivery have proven to be more effective if they are evidencebased and clientfocused (Harris & Katz, 2009).

The Salvation Army envisions a Canada without homelessness. Currently, there is no clear national framework for action in relation to housing and homelessness. Emergency response to homelessness is not enough. Emergency and crisis intervention needs to be augmented by strategies of prevention and sustained housing. Without a national framework to establish a comprehensive approach, individuals experiencing homelessness will continue to have difficulty building permanent roots and safe lives (Harris & Katz, 2009).

Shelter users are often frustrated by structural barriers which can discourage them from utilizing services (Thompson, McManus, Lantry, Windsor, & Flynn, 2006). They are often frustrated by long wait times to access emergency shelters, affordable housing, and treatment facilities. Within emergency shelters, limited hours of operation and staff shortages minimize service accessibility. Greater accessibility to services within the shelter will assist clients to attain housing.

The lack of awareness of available community resources can serve as a major obstacle for individuals experiencing homelessness. Information regarding the availability of services within the shelter and the community needs to be adequately communicated. Service providers need to ensure that information regarding the availability of these services is received by the shelter users.

Without access to sufficient resources, employees have few alternatives to offer their clients (McLean, 2006). These limitations highlight the need for coordination between community agencies. Often times, individuals require a broad range of services that are typically provided by separate agencies. A collaborative effort between shelters and partnering agencies will allow clients to address their multitude of needs and navigate the service system. It is clear that the homeless population would benefit from the resolution of the structural barriers that plague both the shelter and the community.

Most housing and service providers find that existing levels of funding in the various streams are inadequate to meet their actual needs. The Federal Government needs to simplify the tools and templates used for community planning and ensure consistency in communities across the country. Homelessness and housing insecurity will only be reduced when all levels of government, the nonprofit and private sectors, are fully engaged and working together (Harris & Katz, 2009).

Issues requiring longterm solutions also require longterm planning and funding commitments. Without a national strategy guiding the response to Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis, it is difficult to ensure that efforts are as effective as they could be and there is no common framework to measure progress or success. A national strategy must emphasize flexibility to tailor responses locally and regionally, and investments must relate to stated goals marking progress toward substantial reduction in core housing need and the elimination of homelessness in Canada. The Federal Government should seek stable, longerterm programming to allow for the development of costeffective strategic investment projects that target longerterm housing solutions and prevention.

Delivery of programs and services to individuals experiencing homelessness

Getting an accurate measure of the experience of homelessness can be difficult. But it is important to gather information pertaining to the length of time that individuals experience homelessness, the number of times that individuals use shelters or the length of time that people stay in shelters. These measures assist with understanding different types of homelessness. Through a process of analysis, shelter users can be sorted into three types according to patterns of homelessness: transitional, episodic, and chronic (Culhane & Metraux, 2008).

Shelter utilization patterns can be used to identify subgroups of individuals experiencing homelessness. Programs and services can be developed to meet the different needs of the different groups. Having a better understanding of the experiences for individuals whether they are recently without housing, have been on the streets for a period of time or going in and out of shelter programs will assist with developing responses for helping people find appropriate housing and supports. The delivery of services needs to ensure that people do not become entrenched in the shelter system. Chronic users of Salvation Army facilities and episodic shelter users who spend time living on the streets, often remain homeless due to healthrelated barriers, insufficient residential supports and low income (Culhane & Metraux, 2008).

Research indicates that the patterns of shelter utilization among homeless families initially appear to be very similar to those of single adults. The majority of families experience only single episodes without housing and only for short periods of time (Culhane & Metraux, 2008). Furthermore, experiences of mental illness, addictions and employment levels for this group can be compared to what we may already know about other shelter users. Service responses need to be developed that are responsive to the different needs of individuals and families.

A component central to service delivery is an understanding of the complex needs associated with homelessness. Often times, services exist but employees are not trained to make the proper linkages within the community. Staff need more training in the areas of addictions, mental health, and crisis intervention. Shelters should be able to offer an integrated system of care that supports the different needs of its clients. Staff who can effectively respond to these needs will have the ability to alleviate some of the stressors associated with homelessness.

The practice of case management varies greatly across the system of social services. Case managers can assist shelter users by navigating social service systems and advocating on their behalf (Thompson et al., 2006). Case managers are able to connect shelter users with housing, employment, and addiction treatment centres. These areas are often difficult to navigate and case management keeps shelter users motivated to change and working towards positive outcomes with the additional benefits of providing followup to clients after they have transitioned into permanent housing. Intensive case management can enable individuals to secure and sustain permanent housing by providing them with consistent and reliable support in a number of life domains.

Policies and practices that support service delivery have proven to be more effective if they are evidencebased and clientfocused. Nevertheless, a critical component to the management of emergency shelters is taking the interests of its stakeholders into strong consideration. The ability to meet the immediate and longterm goals of individuals accessing shelter services is an important measure of success.

In order for shelter users to benefit from the services being offered, service providers need to work collaboratively with their clients which will ultimately facilitate their transition into more stable living situations. Many shelter users face a multitude of barriers when trying to access services and as a result, they have stopped using assistance altogether. The organizational alignment within the emergency shelter is paramount to its delivery of services. It is clear that there are opportunities to not only move homeless people into housing, but advocate for permanent housing to its clients outside and beyond the current shelter system. The ability to meet the needs and goals of individuals accessing shelter services is a measure of organizational success (Graham, Walsh, & Sandalack, 2008).

We strain ourselves if we speak for others outside of the context of the experience of homelessness and the delivery of shelter services. We need to move towards an understanding of homelessness and a better knowledge of issues related to homelessness, with an improved understanding of the experiences with the delivery of emergency shelter services provided through The Salvation Army. We only know our part, our experience and our work. The perspectives of others come through the development of relationships with marginalized people.

The opportunities for advocacy within the shelters begin with service providers working collaboratively with shelter users at their point of need. There are opportunities to then advocate for shelter users to benefit from the services being offered, making possible the transition into more stable living situations. Finally, advocacy for permanent housing beyond the current shelter system provide opportunities for the organization to move people into housing and address the issues of homelessness.

As we design strategies to address the systems that create homelessness, we come to an understanding of the issues of homelessness and the experiences for those who are homeless. As we add our voice to their voice, we experience relationship with vulnerable people. And as we envision a Canada without homelessness, we can build a foundation for social change with changes to the policies and practices that make up our emergency shelter system.

Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of the downandouters. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!

Proverbs 31:89 The Message

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