Photo: Getty Images | Design: Genevieve Pizzale
From coast to coast, too many experience homelessness. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s being done to solve this crisis.
Explaining what it means to be homeless is easy enough—it’s someone who lacks a place to live. What’s difficult is finding the solution for the estimated 235,000 people in Canada (per a report from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness from 2016) who experience it every year. Homelessness affects such a wide variety of people, and with systems and resources that are disorganized, there’s confusion about exactly who needs help. We talked with Dr. Alina Turner, a Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a member of the Alberta Rural Development Rural Advisory Board on housing and homelessness, to better understand the state of Canada’s homelessness crisis.
Who is affected by homelessness?
The most overrepresented group is Indigenous people, accounting for 25 per cent of those experiencing homelessness. The number of children and families is on the rise, too. Twenty per cent of the homeless population is aged between 16 and 24, but that’s a conservative estimate because youth account for a large portion of the hidden homeless, or people who don’t go to shelters. The same goes for women. “According to the data, it’s mostly, single white males, but that’s not the full picture of it,” says Turner. For women who are fleeing domestic violence, they might not feel safe at a mixed-gender shelter, or they might be worried that social services will take their children away when they arrive at a shelter.
How does homelessness happen?
Here’s the thing—homelessness doesn’t just happen. If you’re an employed homeowner, you need to lose your job, miss mortgage payments, lose the support of family and friends, and drain your savings. But Turner says the idea that homelessness can happen to anyone is a common misconception. “When somebody has a major income and housing imbalance, that’s a big factor,” she explains. “Another factor is addiction and mental health, and involvement with public systems, like child welfare or jail.” When all those things start to add up, you have a much higher chance of becoming homeless. Which means that certain groups of people are at a much higher risk of homelessness, and they’re usually some of the most under-supported and marginalized groups.
What is the federal government doing?
This past summer, the government unveiled Reaching Home, a program that hopes to prevent and reduce homelessness by 50 per cent over the next decade. It’s the most significant change to Canada-wide policies on homelessness since 1999. Unlike the previous program, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPR), Reaching Home will give communities more flexibility on how they spend federal money, and services dedicated to reducing Indigenous homelessness specifically will get more funding. But, like HPR, Reaching Home will still be anchored by Housing First, which aims to get people in homes as quickly as possible. “You don’t need to show that you’re worthy of housing,” explains Turner, referring to the fact that prior to Housing First, people in need of shelter would have to prove that they were stable and sober. “Everybody deserves a house, housing is a human right.”
What’s in the way?
“We don’t have a clear understanding of what resources we have,” says Turner. “We think we’re doing our best, but we need some better strategies.” Understanding what the homelessness relief systems look like across all communities in Canada is difficult, and that has to be tackled in order to find out what’s missing. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness started holding annual conferences four years ago to bring different communities together, but we need to keep communicating, and remember that solving homelessness requires a holistic approach. It has to start with other social programs, like mental health and addiction services. “Homelessness will not be solved by the homeless system,” says Turner. “It will be solved by the community’s social systems and integrated response.”
What communities are leading the charge?
Medicine Hat, AB, was one of the first in the country to adopt the Housing First strategy, and now, no one in that city spends more than 10 days in an emergency shelter or on the streets. “They know exactly who’s coming in that needs services, and they know exactly what services they have,” says Turner, who helped Medicine Hat develop their plan. They’ve had a lot of help from the provincial government, too. Even as leadership has changed, the Alberta government consistently puts money into homelessness relief, unlike other provinces and territories. Other communities are slowly catching up to Medicine Hat, though, like Hamilton, Ontario which has seen a 25 per cent decrease in homelessness over the past two years, and Victoria, British Columbia with an 18 per cent decrease.
How can we educate ourselves?
“Twenty per cent of the GDP goes to health and social services,” says Turner. “So as Canadians, we need to hold that sector to account and learn what’s happening. It’s not a small thing to care about.” She sees educating the public as an important step, to both arm people with the knowledge to deal with homelessness, and to minimize the stigma. That’s why Turner developed Help Seeker, an app that connects people with services and resources in their area, whether they’re at-risk-youth, people with addiction or mental health challenges, or people experiencing homelessness. “I want people to feel like they know what to do to help themselves or to help somebody they care about,” she says. “Then people will have the self-empowerment and the knowledge to make a difference.”