Housing First won't end homelessness on its own

Researcher Erin Dej says while housing first has become de rigeur in policy circles as a strategy to end homelessness, prevention measures like mandatory discharge plans for inmates and psych patients are just as important.
Man sleeping on cardboard near Robson street in Vancouver (David Horemans/CBC)

Housing first strategies are often hailed as the best way to tackle homelessness.

The approach aims to provide people who are homeless with a place to live first, and then link them to recovery-oriented services and supports that best meet their individual needs.

Some Canadian cities have even seen great success with such programs.

But Erin Dej, a researcher with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University, along with her research partner, Dr. Stephen Gaetz have found that housing first strategies are not enough on their own and that prevention of homelessness should be the first priority.

Dej spoke to 180 host Jim Brown about the steps all levels of government need to take to end homelessness. This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

What's missing if we focus only on housing first?

Housing first is an absolutely essential policy if we are committed to reducing and ending homelessness in Canada. We absolutely have to provide people with housing and the  supports they need to maintain that housing over a long period of time. What's missing however is stopping homelessness from happening in the first place. So if we focus strictly and only on housing first as a solution, there will always be somebody next in line that needs housing first. So we have to both close the back door with housing first and be able to close the front door with prevention.

So just like we're used to talking about prevention when it comes to healthcare, we should having the same kinds of conversations around homeless?

We actually use the public health model in our homelessness prevention framework as a way of thinking through what we need to do to prevent homelessness. And what the public health model says is that we need to tackle prevention at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The primary level is everybody. We need to provide basic care, basic affordable housing, poverty reduction measures so that everybody builds assets to prevent them from becoming homeless. Secondary prevention is for those at imminent risk of homelessness so we can make sure we have crisis intervention for those who might lose their home. Tertiary prevention is to make sure that those who have experienced homelessness never do so again.

Erin Dej says that it will take cooperation across all levels of government and agencies outside of the homelessness sector to seriously end homelessness. (submitted)

What are you talking about when you say prevention around homelessness?

So one of the things that we have learned from the public health model of prevention is that most of the strategies are strictly focused on individual changes, so convincing people not to smoke, convincing people to eat healthy. While we recognize that we do need to intervene at individual factors when people are at risk of homelessness, we're suggesting that we also need to focus on these structural issues, these systemic issues. So we know that when people are leaving hospitals, correctional facilities and the child welfare system that they are vulnerable to becoming homeless, so we need reintegration supports and discharge planning that allows people to not be discharged into homelessness.

How does this compare to the systems that are already in place, things like welfare, housing subsidies?

So those are example of prevention, The neat things about homelessness prevention is that there are some things that would prevent homelessness that aren't actually labelled homelessness prevention. So for example, income supports or raising the minimum wage are examples that will reduce the risk of homelessness, without actually being a part of the homelessness sector. So one of the barriers we are seeing is that often it's the homelessness sector that's given the sole responsibility for solving homelessness, and that's just impossible. So that's why we're saying it needs to be a multi-sectoral partnership that gets on board and says all of these other departments– education, healthcare, employment, criminal justice system– all have a stake in making sure that people are prevented from becoming homeless.

This plan sounds like it will require a lot of work, a lot of coordination across a lot of different agencies and levels of government. How do you make sure this happens?

So we need a inter-ministerial group that would spearhead this. What's very exciting is that in the fall of this year, the federal government is going to be coming out with their national housing strategy, and so this is the federal government being back at the table when we haven't had a national strategy on housing here in Canada for over 20 years. So if we can use that national housing strategy as base for the funding, for the policy initiatives that we need to mandate people get on board, I think that this is very doable.

To hear the full interview, click on the 'play' button above.


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