Reflections on Reaching Home, the Government of Canada’s New Homelessness Strategy

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This April 1st marked a key turning point in the Canadian response to homelessness with the launch of the Federal Government’s ten-year Reaching Home strategy. With this launch, the Government of Canada revealed more details about the program design and its operations. The full directives of Reaching Home were developed through extensive community and expert consultations. Funding has been restructured to give Designated Communities greater flexibility in how they allocate their funds. Eligible and ineligible activities, and expenses are covered in the Reaching Home directives. The Reaching Home program provides excellent leadership for communities wishing to address homelessness in Canada, and below we identify some of the promising possibilities that exist.

What does this all mean? There are a number of key implications worth pointing out that will have an impact on the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada’s work in the areas of homelessness prevention, systems planning and youth homelessness. In supporting communities to reduce chronic homelessness by 50% over the next ten years, the Government has given communities greater flexibility in how they use their Federal dollars. This is a significant shift from the previous Homelessness Partnering Strategy, where the largest communities were required to invest a portion of their federal allocation on Housing First. While recognizing that Housing First is still an important intervention that should be at the centre of community strategies (and recognizing that evidence-led and evidence-informed interventions are critical), Reaching Home offers up to communities the opportunity to explore other complementary directions such as prevention, for instance. This is important because if the government hopes to achieve considerable reductions in chronic homelessness, communities must be able to engage in more dynamic strategies that do more than just focus on those who are already seriously harmed by homelessness (which should always remain a priority). This includes working to stop the flow in to chronicity by focusing on prevention. We believe that we will never end homelessness unless we shift to this focus, and not only prevent homelessness, but also reduce or eliminate the subsequent damage to health, safety and well-being that individuals, families and communities experience through prolonged exposure to homelessness. We needn’t wait until people are very sick before we help them exit, or avoid homelessness. We have been mobilizing research and knowledge on how to effectively implement prevention policy and practice through our reports, A New Direction – A Framework for Homelessness Prevention, and the Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness.

Importantly, the mandatory community-level outcomes put forward as part of Reaching Home are well thought out and point to the fact that the goal of a reduction in chronic homelessness does not mean only working with those who are currently chronically homeless. Other mandatory outcomes include:

In Canada, both of these areas are really new frontiers for policy and practice, and through the course of the ten years of Reaching Home, much can be learned, shared and amplified through the program. The new national funding stream, Community Capacity and Innovation, which for the first couple of years will focus on supporting implementation of Coordinated Assessment and HIFIS, will then shift to fostering and funding broader innovations that can potentially further enable the shift to homelessness prevention.

As mentioned above, a core feature of Reaching Home is the required full implementation of Coordinated Access systems and HIFIS/HMIS data management systems in order to achieve targets and as essential for tracking client flow through the system, facilitating service integration, and measuring progress. An effective local response must do more than simply coordinate and optimize the local homelessness service system, however. We believe that communities must be supported to move beyond this to think about systems integration (note the extra ‘s’ in there, folks); that is, effective coordination and interface with mainstream services and institutions. This is crucial if we hope to truly prevent homelessness, and to enhance the housing stability of those who have exited homelessness. 

The new directives of Reaching Home identify many eligible activities beyond service integration that communities can use to maximize the impact of Reaching Home locally and transform their systems. While communities get to set their own targets, they will need support to do so through improved data & data sharing, systems integration, cost modelling, and supply/demand projections. Communities will be expected to implement assessment tools that are validated, person-centred and strengths-based, reflecting client choice and self-determination, and that are Housing First-oriented. We believe this means that tools such as the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT) and the Youth Assessment and Prioritization (YAP) tool will become more broadly utilized, producing better outcomes for those experiencing homelessness. In a context where most of what we do in Canada (and arguably elsewhere) to support people lacks a strong evidence base, this is a move in the right direction.

Reaching Home requires Designated Communities to develop and implement plans that outline their investments in: housing placement; prevention and shelter diversion; client support services; capital investment; and, coordination of resources and data collection. Communities will need to set targets for all mandatory community-level outcomes and any voluntary outcomes they choose. Additionally, plans should demonstrate how Indigenous stakeholders have been meaningfully involved in the development of such plans. All of this requires communities to take their planning to a new level, beyond what they have done in the past. This kind of work, which communities can begin right away (plans must be complete by April 2021), can be supported by the resources, training and technical assistance provided by the Systems Planning Collective. Supports include, for example, support with implementing technology enhanced systems mapping tools such as HelpSeeker, which can be effectively rolled out in the first year to support Coordinated Access, HIFIS/HMIS and local plan development.

Finally, a key directive of Reaching Home is that communities can and should implement targeted strategies for specific sub-populations. The inclusion of a reduction in Indigenous Homelessness as mandatory is welcomed, given the massive over-representation of Indigenous people in the homeless population, and the need to redress centuries of colonialism, racism and cultural genocide. This strategic focus on sub-populations is also where communities can begin to deepen their work on addressing youth homelessness. Many of the Point-in-Time counts of the last year identified that a high percentage (over 50%) of currently homeless individuals had their first experience of homelessness before the age of 25. We know well the devastating consequences of exposure to homelessness by young people (over 40% of whom have their first experience before the aqe of 16), damage that can last a lifetime. The good news is we know what to do. Effective systems planning to end youth homelessness, combined with a strong shift to the prevention of youth homelessness (as outlined in our Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness) can help us achieve the results we need. Our new Making the Shift – A Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (stay tuned for more info) is helping us design and produce evidence and “know how” regarding how to effectively prevent youth homelessness. We believe that if we get our response to youth homelessness right, it means that over the long term, we will potentially have a big impact on chronic homelessness.

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