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UBC Okanagan professor’s book rethinks how to address homelessness

Carey Doberstein
Image Credit: Contributed
February 14, 2016 - 2:00 PM

How do you end homelessness?

In his new book, Exploring Effective System Responses to Homelessness, co-edited with Naomi Nichlos from McGill University, UBC Okanagan Assistant Professor Carey Doberstein, who teaches political science in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, says the solution requires an integrated system response from multiple players.

We spoke with Doberstein to learn more about his book—the first comprehensive examination of systems planning and integration efforts on ending homelessness in Canada.

Q: Your new book Exploring Effective System Responses to Homelessness was just released this week. What are the goals of this book?

CD: About two years ago, my colleague Naomi Nichols and I sat down together at a coffee shop in Toronto, where we lamented the lack of a resource that conceptualized key systemic problems and opportunities related to homelessness governance, policy, programs, and services in Canada.

We know from countless studies that homelessness is a systemic public policy problem, meaning one that involves numerous sectors, government institutions and service agencies, and therefore—at least in our view—it requires more integrated system responses in terms of governance and policy, and a recognition that more policy domains and actors—such as child welfare systems, correctional services, and health services—ought to think of themselves as not only touching the issue of homelessness, but as critical parts of the solution.

With the support of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, we reached out to researchers and practitioners all across Canada (and ultimately it reached those outside of Canada too), to contribute to a book that was designed to take stock of what is happening out there, to appreciate the diversity of activity, and to reveal major gaps and challenges associated with adopting a systems approach to addressing homelessness.

The response was extraordinary, and the size of this book certainly reflects that. We have pulled together an impressive suite of cases at all levels of systems planning, and from all parts of Canada, with a couple of international cases as well.

Q: Along with your co-editor, you two assembled three dozen case studies to demonstrate that systematic change is possible. Tell us about the major themes.

CD: The edited volume features research examining service integration at the local level, broader systems integration work involving the homelessness sector and mainstream services (like healthcare, child welfare, corrections), and models of system integration within and between different levels of government, all of which are designed to increase the effectiveness of community responses, enhance collaboration, client flow through systems and ensure that people’s needs are met.

Contributions featured in the book range from case studies focused on governance opportunities and challenges associated with systems planning and integration (including the Alberta Interagency Council on Homelessness, Calgary Homeless Foundation Systems Planning Framework), to sectoral integration (including coordinated access and assessment in Victoria, youth housing and services), and to program integration and partnerships (including those focused women-centered harm reduction, mental health, and pregnant women).

There are case studies from local and provincial governments, from all regions of Canada, including the North, as well as contributions with an international perspective on systems planning from the U.S. and Finland.

Q: Why should people read the book? What may surprise them? What are the key takeaway messages?

CD: This book will find an audience among scholars, policy professionals, service providers and practitioners, given that we have taken great care to bridge scholarly work on collaborative governance, inter-organizational dynamics, and systems analysis with lessons from real-world actions on the ground in Canada among those working towards systems integration and planning as a means to reduce and ultimately end homelessness.

One thing we have learned in recent years, and manifested in the cases in this book, is that we are getting quite good at providing services and housing to vulnerable Canadians—though there are not nearly enough investments in affordable housing by any government in Canada—but we are failing to stop the inflow of citizens into homelessness. That is, we are getting good at managing the ‘outflow’—facilitating the ‘exit’ from homelessness for many—but the inflow of citizens experiencing homelessness remains largely unaddressed. Indeed, through key government investments in the past decade, we have rehoused and stabilized tens of thousands of Canadians in the past years, but cities and communities continue to report troublingly large numbers of homeless people in their streets.

One of the major governance failures of homelessness in Canada and elsewhere is the lack of ownership of this issue within and across government. As a public policy problem that has complex origins, homelessness does not neatly fit within a single government department or ministry, let alone a single level of government. The key takeaway from this book is that complex problems like homelessness require sophisticated governance solutions and networks of service agencies to bring together key pieces of the system to make sure that they work cohesively together.

Integration and coordination of policy and programs is about smoothing over potentially conflicting objectives and actions of agencies and government departments, not necessarily the imposition of a single policy instrument or approach. Yet systems planning and integration alone will not end homelessness. Adequate and sustained funding commitments from government in this regard are essential components on which all of this hinges.

Yet at the same time, simply allocating more money towards housing and homelessness alone will not be effective without a strategic orientation and policy framework that ensures that various sectors and public authorities are working towards the same goal. Most services and programs have been developed and have evolved incrementally: housing separate from social services, which is separate from health services, mental health and employment and each has a separate funding stream, different set of rules and usually a separate service location. That is, while individual programs to help address homelessness must be made to work well, so too must the assembly of programs in government as a whole. This is very difficult to do within and across government and service agencies, but our case studies across the country help us better understand how this can be done successfully.

Q: What can we do as every day citizens to help #endhomelessness in Canada?

CD: Two things I would suggest as important: reset our thinking about the homelessness experience, and advocate to our political leaders to make more substantial and smarter investments in affordable housing and support services for vulnerable Canadians.

First, we know from extensive research that the vast majority of those experiencing homeless have been exposed to some form of trauma, victimization, discrimination, mental health challenges, or extreme poverty, that has contributed to a life trajectory that is beyond anything most of us could ever imagine. By some estimates, youth comprise 20-30 per cent of the homeless population in Canadian cities, and despite prevailing myths of their self-indulgent desire for early freedom, we know homeless youth often run away from something awful, not towards something hopeful. Thus, there are real reasons why people become homeless through no fault of their own, even if we can also point to some poor individual choices along the way—but who among us could not be evaluated critically in terms of some poor choices in our lives? So my first appeal is for empathy.

Second, there is a strong rationality-based argument to support additional government investments and programs to help end homelessness: the hidden costs of homelessness to taxpayers are extraordinary compared to what it would cost to prevent chronic homelessness. It is terribly expensive for taxpayers to pay the extra costs of temporary homeless shelters, health care and emergency services, extra policing, and others support services that grow in concert with homelessness. A landmark randomized controlled study conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that considerable cost savings were demonstrated after individuals were provided housing first with support services (as needed) compared to those individuals who were subject to the typical approach.

This book shows that people, organizations and indeed governments are beginning to fight back against homelessness, and that is it possible to make considerable inroads towards ending homelessness in Canada—we just need Canadians to continue to put pressure on all levels of government to make those strategic investments in affordable housing and support services.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2016
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