Federal Homelessness Announcement Pushes the Right Buttons
Last week’s announcement of the federal government’s re-branded homelessness strategy (“Reaching Home”) is good news for those Canadians who experience homelessness and, I would argue, is good news for taxpayers as well.
The focus of the government’s strategy is on housing those who make chronic use of homeless shelters. While the definition of what constitutes chronic use is open to different interpretations, understanding it to be near permanent use of homeless shelters for sleeping does not take you far from the truth.
While one must always recognize that when evaluating government announcements the still-to-be-announced program details are what is crucial, this announcement certainly seems to push the right buttons. The suggestion that the government take an “outcome-based” approach to evaluating programs – one which recognizes that spending money does not necessarily measure success – is clearly important. Not all programs designed to house those who experience chronic homelessness are successful. An outcome-based approach will funnel money toward success and make good use of taxpayer’s money.
The new strategy also recognizes that there is still a good deal to be learned about the appropriate response to homelessness. The current emphasis on the Housing First approach is based on the idea that everything – health, sobriety, freedom from addiction – depends on housing and so housing should come before or in conjunction with efforts to deal with the problems that have led to homelessness. But there are many Housing First programs and understanding which program design is best suited for which person is still being learned. It is still uncertain whether Housing First is the approach best-suited for dealing with the growing problem of youth homelessness and questions remain over how the approach needs to be adapted to best match the needs of indigenous persons. There are also things to be learned about the services that accompany the Housing First approach. For example, does improving access to health care for people experiencing homelessness improve outcomes? Allowing for different approaches, applied to different demographics and each evaluated on the basis of outcomes, is an appropriate response until such time the evidence supporting one approach over another is proven.
The government’s policy as a laudable effort to reduce the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness. But it is not a solution to the problem of homelessness as it is experienced by most people. Canadians might be surprised to learn that the target of the government’s homelessness strategy, chronic users of homeless shelters, are relatively few in number. The great majority of Canadians who are forced to use shelters do so infrequently and for short periods of time. Focusing on the minority of homeless shelter clients who are chronic users of shelters is important as these people fill a disproportionate number of shelter beds. Housing them can therefore yield substantial savings. But the most people experiencing homelessness do so because of poverty. They are not dealing with addiction or mental illness but are simply poor and do not have the resilience to deal with unexpected events that comes from having a stable income. Until we take measures to reduce rates of poverty we have done nothing to stop the flow of people into homelessness. This means the new Reaching Home strategy should be viewed in conjunction with the government’s evolving Poverty Reduction Strategy, needs to recognize the important role to be played by provincial social assistance programs, and needs to address concerns about affordable housing. Well-designed housing and poverty reduction strategies are required to make the government’s effort with respect to homelessness a real success. The fact the federal government is moving ahead on all these fronts is encouraging.