Looking Upstream: Why a Systems Approach to Homelessness Calls for Prevention

Amanda Buchnea

Canada’s adoption of a Housing First approach at the federal, and in many cases, provincial and local levels has been a positive step in using empirical evidence to develop strategies, programs and policies to end homelessness.

However, in general, the response to homelessness has often remained focused on reactive measures, such as emergency shelters and soup kitchens. While well-intended and certainly necessary, we must ask ourselves to what extent these emergency methods can on their own create real social change and end homelessness, or may inadvertently perpetuate housing instability.

But if not an emergency response to homelessness, how do we tackle the issue? The answer to this question lies further upstream in the chain of events that lead to an individual or family’s experience of homelessness, rather than at the point where they are accessing emergency shelters and soup kitchens.

The question then becomes “Why did this person/family enter into homelessness, and what could have been done to prevent it?”

Background – The Case for Prevention

Last week the federal government released the results of Canada’s first national coordinated Point-in-Time (PiT) Count that took place in 2016. The aim of the PiT Count was to use shared measurement tools at the local level to estimate the total number of individuals that experience homelessness in a given night, and therefore over the course of a year. The PiT Count, a component of the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, is to be administered every other year moving forward in order to provide reliable, current data on the state of homelessness in the country – our successes and areas for improvement.

I would like to draw your attention to the following table pulled from the PiT Count findings on various age groups’ top five reasons for housing loss:


Retrieved from Employment and Social Development Canada

Understanding why people become homeless makes it easier to imagine what preventative measures might look like for various age groups and/or populations. For youth, where the number one cause of homelessness is conflict with a parent or guardian, family mediation and supports may be a key prevention approach. For all age groups, the inability to pay rent is an issue that should be addressed well before it becomes a cause for eviction, particularly eviction into homelessness.

Working examples of prevention in action can be found within Canadian communities.  A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and Raising the Roof,’s The Upstream Project in Niagara Region and York Region, Ontario, is a school-based pilot program that prevents homelessness using an assessment tool with indicators that help identify students that may be at risk of family breakdown and homelessness. The students are then connected to the appropriate level of supports from within the school and their community to mitigate those risks early on. Modeled after the success of Australia’s The Geelong Project, The Upstream Project increases youths’ housing stability, which in turn has positive implications for school engagement and completion rates.

Housing First itself, as both a program model and philosophy, can prevent homelessness. Giving individuals and families access to housing with no preconditions followed by the necessary supports to remain housed prevents those that are at-risk or are currently experiencing homelessness from remaining in or returning to homelessness in the future. The 20,000 Homes Campaign, supported by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness is an example of empowering communities to take a systems approach using Housing First, with particular focus on ending veteran and the chronic homeless.

Prevention is catching on. Communities and countries are signalling a shift to systems work and prevention by adopting the name ‘A Way Home’ for their efforts on youth homelessness (see A Way Home America, A Way Home Ottawa, and A Way Home Kamloops for examples). So how can public policy support these efforts?

Policy Implications

It is an opportune moment for all levels of government to get onboard with a coordinated shift to prevention, particularly within the context of Canada’s upcoming National Housing Strategy. The results of public consultations on the strategy have indicated people want a prevention framework to be featured within a dedicated homelessness strategy. Examples of what a homelessness prevention framework could include can be found in the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’ research paper: The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 (pp. 19-21).

Homelessness is considered a complex, wicked policy issue, meaning its causes and effects touch on numerous policy areas that are often addressed in silos by departments, ministries, and even individual social service agencies. Spillover effects of early intervention may be seen in labour market participation, educational attainment, lowered health costs, reduced incarceration rates, and the reduction of time languishing in homelessness for those that find themselves there.

Where public dollars are directed to address homelessness is important, not only from the perspective of fiduciary responsibility and government accountability to taxpayers, but in terms of maximizing the impact of those dollars. Solely directing public funds at expensive bandage solutions does not always improve housing stability in the long-term, stop the flow into homelessness, or create an effective system of care. As shown in the At Home/Chez Soi national study on Housing First for the chronically homeless, the business-as-usual approach may help some individuals become securely housed, but those with complex, multiple barriers and needs are likely to return to homelessness.

Given the many pathways into homelessness, we cannot expect that increased affordable housing supply, family reunification, or other individual policies or programs will be a cure-all. Working upstream to prevent homelessness requires more intentional efforts across sectors from government, to non-profit, to private, to align strategies and resources in order to create a complete working system where no one falls through the cracks. Prevention is a worthwhile and crucial pursuit that is within the realm of the possible for Canada.

Amanda Buchnea is in her final year of the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Toronto, with an Honours Bachelor in Social Development Studies from the University of Waterloo. When she is not researching collaborative systems solutions to complex social problems in school, she spends her time as Government Relations Officer at A Way Home Canada, Graduate Research Assistant at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and Director of pro-bono policy consulting group the Public Good Initiative. 



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bobby Bevan says:

    Robert Bevan I need help form the out of the cold found its me and my dog were at the Weber inn motel we pay 100 roller a day and my girlfriend has vivid and she was the one bringing money rate no we I need help bad I dont want to lose my stuff I can’t afford it without help as anymore please call me and leave a message at this number 2267501800 please get back to me soon I don’t check my emails to hat much do contact me by phone please and thank you lplease contact me soon I’m behind oh yea room 119 at Weber inn

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