London

Data has become a 'game changer' in helping London's homeless

A dozen of London's leading social agencies have come together to pool their resources in order to offer a more flexible model care to the city's most vulnerable citizens.

New strategy aimed to help those sleeping in the rough or abusing drugs in full view of the public

A handmade sign and some empty milk cartons litter the forest floor at a makeshift camp in a wooded area close to the Thames River in London, Ont. (City of London)

The woman in charge of London's homelessness strategy says a year's worth of voluntary data taken from thousands of vulnerable people in the city has become such a "game changer" for local social agencies that they're reshaping their entire approach to the problem. 

Data is going to help drive solutions.- Jan Richardson, city's halls point woman on homelessness

"Data is going to help drive solutions," said Jan Richardson, city hall's manager of strategic initiatives around homelessness and housing in a conference room packed with a dozen representatives from the city's leading social agencies. 

Last April, the 13 organizations agreed to tear down their individual databases in favour of new one, that would allow all the organizations involved to pool their information in order to help them better understand the people they serve. 

Some of what London social agencies learned from sharing data:

  • There were about 2,700 unique individuals in London emergency homeless shelters last year
  • 34 per cent stayed in shelter for longer than 30 days
  • 41 per cent stayed less than two days and didn't return

A year later, Richardson said the agencies involved are already getting a clearer picture of the homeless situation in London than what they saw before they began pooling information.

"I will tell you that has been a game changer in how we understand the unique needs of an individual"

Among the information captured in the database is each person's history, so that social workers don't risk re-traumatizing a client by having them recall what can sometimes be painful and heartbreaking details of how they got into such a vulnerable situation in the first place. 

Data lets agencies formulate novel strategies

Chuck Lazenby: how data has changed the way shelters deal with clients 0:42

It also lets the 13 agencies coordinate their efforts, as opposed to operating in a silo, according to Chuck Lazenby, executive director of the Unity Project, a homeless shelter for London youth 16 and up. 

"We didn't know how much time [clients] had in shelters across the city and who they were interacting with and we had to rely on that individual to give you that information."  

"For us the shared database has really strengthened our ability to see an individual's experience through the system," she said. "It has really strengthened our partnerships."

Through that partnership, all 13 organizations are now implementing one strategy under the umbrella of the City of London. It will allow all agencies to better coordinate their efforts in order to fill gaps and better tailor their services to meet people's needs.  

The new strategy, which runs from April to October when homeless people are most visible, doesn't aim to make more space available to the city's vulnerable, rather it aims to make the existing space more flexible. 

It's not just about a place to sleep

Charlotte Dingwall is the executive director of the Salvation Army Centre of Hope.

"I think we're one of the services that have primarily looked at beds and nighttime rest," said Charlotte Dingwall, who is the executive director of the Salvation Army Centre of Hope. 

Dingwall said, starting April 1, her agency is among those in the city that will try to rethink the idea of "rest space" for homeless people as something other than just a place to sleep for the night.

She said many homeless people also suffer from mental health issues and addictions, which can sometimes cause them to act out in public and, as a result, aren't always made to feel welcome in the community. 

"It's our job to interrupt that as a resting space to offer a welcoming and supportive environment," Dingwall said, noting that "rest space" can mean something simple or complicated, depending on the person.

"Is it sitting at a dining room table with others and having a meal? Is it a chair in a hallway? Is it a private space? Or is it a bed?"

"So we have to figure out what rest means for each person," she said. "After that we can think about engagement." 

How giving people what they want opens doors

Brian Lester: how giving people what they want helps link them to support 0:39

It turns out giving people what they want, whether it be a cup of coffee, a quiet space or even a place to get high under medical supervision can open doors that otherwise wouldn't present themselves. 

"When people come through the door, they're really not interested in anything than getting the relief of the injection," said Brian Lester, who is the executive director of the London HIV/AIDS connection, the agency in charge of London's temporary supervised consumption site. 

"When they move into the aftercare, which another resting space in our community, we are having really meaningful conversations and deliberate connective referrals." 

Lester said when people get what they need, they're more receptive to getting support services, such as addiction counselling or housing programs. 

'Assertive' engagement

People sleep on the frozen pavement on a snow blown Wellington Street during the winter months. (City of London)

"We call it 'assertively engaging,' said Steve Cordes, the executive director of Youth Opportunities Unlimited.  

"You engage with people on a regular basis and maybe many of those engagements are 'I'm not ready to go into a housing program,' but you keep engaging and maybe one day you get a different answer." 

"Recently we helped somebody into an apartment who had not had a home for years as a young person. She was thrilled to have a key, she was thrilled to pick out paint." 

"Yet, that was available for her probably two years before that as we tried to engage her, but it takes that very active outgoing engagement," he said. "It's a very complex response." 

"People need to spend time together to develop that relationship, especially when they're in a heightened state," he said.

"If you just need a quiet space for an hour, you'll get that. If you just need someone to sit beside you for half an hour, you'll get that too." 

City of London staff say a pilot project last fall illustrated the benefits of using a more collaborative, compassionate approach when dealing with people sleeping rough outside. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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