Ending homelessness is possible. It is not some lofty goal or some kind of political rhetoric, it is a reality that we as a nation can achieve if we are willing to seriously tackle issues of systemic inequities and inequalities found throughout our society. Unfortunately this does not necessarily seem to be the case at the present time. Certainly Canadian communities have made important first steps in redressing homelessness, but I would argue that we are still playing lip service to the goal of ending homelessness.
While I claim no expertise in the field of homelessness, my work at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness has given me insight into some of the issues the country is facing that must be solved before we can see significant reductions, and even possibly an end to homelessness.
One particular issue that I would like to address is something that is witnessed at both the federal, provincial, and municipal level: We are scared (or hesitant) to define what exactly we mean by ‘ending homelessness’.
The federal government has made no such attempt; and of all the Provinces only Alberta has provided a—regrettably ambiguous— definition:
“[Ending homelessness] will mean that even though there may still be emergency shelters available for those who become homeless, those who are homeless will be re-housed into permanent homes within 21 days.”
Municipalities have faired slightly better, with a handful of them providing a definition for what it means to ‘end homelessness’. Unfortunately, though, there are often just as ambiguous as the one used by Alberta.
Why does this matter?
Well without a precise idea of what we are trying to achieve our policies, programs and services will be misguided.
Imagine, for example, that you are the head summer camp counselor and at one of your weekly meetings with the director, she starts complaining that parents are withdrawing their kids from the camp because they find it boring. As a result, the director has appointed you the task of making the summer camp the ‘most exciting summer camp ever!’
Simple enough you might think. Let’s include more sports, schedule more adventurous field trips, and bring in a superhero mascot every Friday before the weekend.
Done and done!
Not too fast though! Have you forgot something? How do we know if including those events into the camp’s program will make it more exciting? And while we are starting to rethink our strategy, what does it even mean for something to be ‘exciting’? How would we even go about measuring that?
Instead of going head first into the brainstorming process, it would have undoubtedly been better to investigate what exactly children find exciting. Perhaps a quick look into the matter would have revealed that children are now more interested in sedentary activities such as reading and arts & crafts (in our wildest dreams). And what if the director was actually serious about their ambition to make the summer camp the ‘most exciting summer camp EVER’. You would then have to start thinking about how you will compare your camp with other summer camps on some type of ‘excitement’ scale.
The point here is that, without a complete understanding of what we are specifically trying to achieve, it is likely that our recommendations to improve or ameliorate something will not work, and if it does, it probably won’t work well.
This is similar to what is currently occurring in many communities across Canada. We say we want to ‘end homelessness’ but we really have no idea what that looks like.
Unfortunately, the only consensus that has been made regarding what it means to ‘end homelessness’ is that we do not mean ‘ending’ in the classic sense. That is, the complete elimination of homelessness. Rather, what many communities are trying to achieve is a kind of equilibrium where there are an adequate amount of resources to help those that are homeless. Or put in more economic terms, communities are trying to match the supply with the demand. This has been commonly referred to as a ‘functional zero’ definition.
A contradiction is apparent then. What Canadian communities mean by ending homelessness is not congruent with what is implicit in the word ‘end’. This needs to be resolved because—in a way—this definition of ‘ending homelessness’ accepts that a certain amount can be homeless, so long as resources and services are ‘available’ to them.
It is for this reason that we should start to think of an alternative way of defining the ‘end of homelessness’. If we don’t we will be stuck with a definition that does not accurately capture what we as a nation are trying to actually accomplish. And more to the point, without a strong definition, our policies, programs, and services will continue to come short on their goal of ending homelessness.