Homelessness is a relatively new problem in Canada. Pre-1970, homelessness as we know it did not exist. There was some transience, people who rode the rails and drank, but if you were poor and situated in a community for any period of time you stayed in the slums. These were not pretty places, but you had a roof over your head. Through the 1970s there was a move for human rights and to enhance municipal housing standards, and the slums were shut down. Knowing that this will mean people need a place to stay, the federal government invested heavily in social housing. 136,000 social housing units are developed to replace the slums, the most social housing we ever built in Canada at one time.
Enter the 1980s and all orders of government significantly dial back or completely stop building new social housing. Through the ‘80s we have the rise of homelessness as we know it today, people situated in one community for an extended period of time being unable to obtain safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing. So we have people on the streets. The public sees this and responds. The response is a charitable impulse, a good one, a desire to ensure that no one has to sleep rough in our communities. So we start building shelters. By 1990 there are 400 shelters in Canada, and by 2014 there are 1,100 shelters providing 150,000 Canadians with a place to sleep.
Homelessness is now entrenched in our communities. A significant portion of our public dollars to address homelessness goes towards managing people while they are in an experience of homelessness, versus preventing or ending homelessness. Don’t misunderstand me, both the intent and the function of shelters are very good; we will always need spaces of transition for those in crisis. The problem arises when shelters become the primary response to homelessness as opposed to safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing. As the long-term outcomes of staying in shelter are primarily negative, if this becomes the journey for most, we can expect the kind of outcomes we are seeing in terms of chronicity, poor health, and poor social outcomes.
So herein lies the problem: We can respond to social problems in our communities in a manner that meets the immediate need, but actually makes the problem harder, overall, to address. In responding to homelessness we have somehow forgotten that ending homelessness is the goal, and all pieces of the system must be designed to optimize this goal.