The Formula to End Homelessness

A collection of essays from front-line shelter workers offers a glimpse at what works and a picture of why poverty persists

On any given night, an average of 35,000 Canadians are homeless. Over the course of a year, 235,000 men, women, and adolescents have no safe bed. Twenty percent are visible, sleeping on park benches and heating grates. The rest are hidden: couch-surfing, in a hospital, in jail, sleeping in a car, or moving from one emergency shelter to the next.

Indigenous Canadians, individuals with disabilities and mental health and addictions issues, as well as gay, lesbian, and transgender youth are overrepresented in the homeless population. So are adolescents who have aged out of the child welfare system, men with criminal records, and women living in fear of violence.

The city with the largest percentage of homeless residents is Red Deer, Alberta. Measured in sheer numbers, Toronto has the highest homeless population, followed closely by Vancouver. Right now, 1.7 million Canadians are hanging on by their fingernails: one missed paycheque, one severe drug overdose, or one missed rent payment could send them spiralling into chronic poverty or ­homelessness.

Given this reality, it is refreshing to begin 2019 with a book that puts forward solutions to homelessness. Each was contributed by a grassroots leader who has succeeded in moving men, women, and children from an emergency shelter into safe, affordable places to live.

But—like most tonics—this book should be consumed with frequent pauses: What assumptions are being made? What questions aren’t being asked? Can a patchwork of local success stories be scaled up to address a nationwide issue? Is there a danger that homeless shelters, like food banks, will become a permanent part of the social landscape, shifting the burden of caring for those in need from government to volunteers and donors?

The best thing about Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines is that it is rooted in experience. Each of the thirteen contributors (including editor James Hughes, who writes the introduction and conclusion) works or has worked for an organization committed to re-housing people whose lives have fallen apart. Each focuses on the geography he or she knows personally. And each admits that new barriers and challenges arise every day.

The drawback for readers seeking a solution that can be applied in their own community is that there is no such thing. Each of the models showcased in this book was developed in response to local conditions. In Quebec City, for example, the vacancy rate is 3.3 percent according to the 2018 CMHC Rental Market Report, which allows shelter workers to move clients into permanent housing. In Vancouver and Toronto, with vacancy rates of 0.8 percent and 1.1 percent respectively, it is a struggle to find accommodation for the homeless. Affordability varies greatly, too. In Quebec City, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $725 a month. In Vancouver, it is $1,411, followed closely by Toronto at $1,270.

Hughes is a skilled, insightful editor. He ran Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission for many years. A lawyer by training, with multiple degrees and fifteen years’ experience in government, he brings a well-rounded perspective to the task. He has an all-encompassing view and a network that allows him to tap into front-line shelter workers across the country. Plus he has the ability to turn a disparate series of essays into a coherent whole.

The book is organized as an east-to-west journey with an initial foray into the United States where a Canadian psychologist, Sam Tsemberis, developed and implemented Housing First, an approach that has proved seminal in the quest to reduce chronic homelessness.

Born in Greece and raised and trained as a clinical psychologist in Montreal, Tsemberis began his career treating people with mental illness. In the early 1990s, he accepted a position in New York City helping mentally ill clients, many of whom were homeless.

He got to know these individuals by name, entered their hidden world, and gained their trust. He developed a network of landlords and public support that enabled him to find them a safe place to live. He helped stabilize them and integrate them with the community. But twenty percent kept coming back, homeless again.

Recognizing that a change was needed, Tsemberis assembled an unusual team of outsiders—a recovering heroin addict, a formerly homeless person, a sexual assault survivor—to come up with a more effective approach.

They brainstormed based on their own experiences. And they turned the conventional method of assisting homeless people—get clean and sober to qualify for housing—on its head. They tried moving them into stable housing, then connecting them to counselling, social services, and treatment. As of 2015, a consistent eighty percent of Housing First clients escaped the cycle of homelessness, compared to forty percent under the old rules.

An appreciation for such methods of harm reduction—meeting a person where they’re at and helping them to move forward—is finally gaining ground in Canada.

Most of the chapters of Beyond Shelter follow a similar trajectory: an agency created to get people out of immediate danger evolves into a support system to rebuild lives. The authors deserve collective credit for their willingness to tackle one of the most complex challenges of our time. The backdrop for every story is entrenched poverty, family disintegration, and a shortage of public housing, put in place over the past twenty-five years by judgmental politicians, inflexible bureaucrats, and frustrated taxpayers.

One ray of hope comes from Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, where a transition house for women facing domestic abuse is quietly turning lives around, lifting up women who need more than safe temporary housing. Willow House encourages them to speak openly about their struggles with mental health issues, addiction issues, and financial constraints. It lobbies government, business, community groups, and the public to support prevention programs. “I see transition houses becoming central hubs of support, stabilization, learning, reconnection, and healing for women fleeing violence as they prepare to progress in their lives,” says executive director Heather Davis.

A second beacon in the prevailing gloom comes from Winnipeg, where eighty-nine percent of the youth seeking shelter are Indigenous. A network of organizations that began as crisis response centres has matured into agencies that provide the support their clients need to make a healthy transition to stable housing.

My favourite chapter—probably because it reflects the reality that I documented for close to twenty years as a journalist—is entitled “Homes, Jobs, and Friends.” The author is Dion Oxford, founding director of the Salvation Army Gateway, a shelter for men experiencing homelessness. He now serves as mission strategist for the five Salvation Army homeless shelters in Toronto.

His outlook is imbued with a deep respect for those at the margins of society and unshakeable commitment to “treat people like people, not projects to fix.” Oxford’s understanding of loneliness and the power of friendship lifts the issue beyond stereotypes, charity and the perennial quest for more public funding. “The answer to our problems does not involve finding more money,” he says. “It is about finding the strength, the courage, and the will to do things the right way and to stop offering short-term and inadequate solutions once and for all.”

So convinced is he that friendship is critical on the journey from homelessness to independent living that the Salvation Army has launched an initiative called Causeway, that bridges the gap between homeless individuals and people who want to do something about poverty and injustice. These “unlikely friendships” benefit both groups. The concerned citizen acquires stigma-busting insights into poverty, and the homeless person has an anchor and confidant in the community. Both learn about relationship-building, setting boundaries, and taking risks.

Oxford does not claim this is the right or only formula for reducing homelessness in a high-cost, low-vacancy urban market. But he shows how far humanity coupled with creativity can go in building a healthy alternative to homelessness.

With Indigenous people making up a disproportionate share of the shelter population, particularly in Western Canada, the book offers insight into this unique challenge. Cora Gajari is the executive director of Carmichael Outreach Inc. in Regina and a member of the Inuvialuit from the Inuvik region. She has been working in the area of poverty and homelessness in Regina for ten years and writes, “A disproportionate number of people who are ­homeless or at risk are Indigenous and have experienced separation from their culture, families, and communities. Requests for an Elder, smudging, and ceremony are frequent, particularly for those who have been through residential school and foster care systems.” Arlene Haché, author of the chapter “Decolonizing the North,” is a grassroots activist who established an emergency shelter for homeless women in Yellowknife. As a teenager, she drifted from place to place. In the North, she discovered most of the women seeking shelter were First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, driven to find refuge from racism and violence. The trio of Winnipeg activists who wrote “Youth Prevention and Early Intervention” contend, “It is impossible to discuss and understand youth homelessness in Winnipeg without addressing the historical and contemporary processes and destructive legacy of colonization.”

Finding a way through the tangle of extreme poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness, sexual violence, and lost identity that characterize many homeless people takes time, patience, and a willingness to start over and over. Yet these activists persist in the face of unremitting adversity. They make headway when others have given up.

“Readers may be left with the feeling that shelters are trying to be all things to all people, and they wouldn’t be wrong drawing such a conclusion from this collection,” Hughes admits. He argues this is as it should be. Diversity makes the shelter system stronger, reflects the nation’s geography and allows each shelter to capitalize on the skills of its leader.

Despite serving different markets and different segments of the homeless population, the shelters in the book have a common aim to move clients toward permanent housing as rapidly as possible; they treat the people who walk through their doors as individuals whose stories and circumstances matter; they are committed to changing the social landscape; they marshal their ingenuity to make up for a shortfall of government funding; and they yearn to prevent, not alleviate, homelessness. Surely these are the key ingredients of a formula to end homelessness.

This book is an invaluable resource for anyone working in—or writing about—the shelter system. I learned lessons I wish I had known as a journalist.

It is an eye-opener for Canadians who don’t realize how homeless shelters have evolved since their inception in the ’80s as charities dispensing meals, showers, and temporary beds. Most citizens have only a vague idea what goes on behind the doors of a contemporary homeless shelter.

It is a graphic illustration for politicians of the damage done by their choices: allowing the minimum wage to fall below the poverty line, cutting social assistance, eliminating the Canadian affordable housing program, and underfunding mental health and addiction programs.

Yet Beyond Shelter has a hopeful message. We have the tools to turn the tide on homelessness. We just need the political will.