Based on a ‘housing first’ strategy, this municipal programme aims to end rather than manage street homelessness in Toronto, by providing permanent housing and extensive support to help people stay housed and begin to address long-term issues, such as health, addictions and poor mental health. Working in partnership with community service providers and private sector landlords, a variety of housing options are available for people to choose from throughout the city and to date 1,400 people have moved directly from the streets to permanent housing. Nearly 90 per cent of these remain housed.
Aims and Objectives
The primary goal of the Streets to Homes programme is to end street homelessness in Toronto by finding permanent housing for people who are homeless and providing extensive support to enable them to stay housed and address some of the problems they face.
With a population of approximately 2.5 million in a region of seven million people, Toronto is Canada’s largest city. Situated on the shores of Lake Ontario, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the world, with 49 per cent of Toronto residents born outside of Canada. In early 2005 there was growing concern about the growing number of homeless individuals living on the streets. Despite historical support for a well-funded, national social safety net, the effects of funding cuts to social assistance and changes in housing policy at provincial and federal levels in the 1990s had resulted in weakened support for the most vulnerable members of the population. On any given night there are over 5,000 homeless people in Toronto, 800 or so of who are sleeping outdoors.
The main groups benefiting from the programme are homeless individuals living on the streets, in parks and ravines, under bridges, in squats or in vehicles in the city of Toronto. Most clients have some form of mental illness, substance abuse issues and/or serious health problems and have been homeless for six years on average. Eighty-one per cent are male; with an average age of 37; and 26 per cent have an Aboriginal heritage.
Launched by Toronto City Council in 2005, the Streets to Homes programme focuses on solving rather than managing street homelessness. It is based on a ‘housing first’ strategy and is aimed at finding permanent housing for people instead of just focusing on improving services for them as they continue to live on the street or in emergency shelters. As well as finding homes for the homeless, the programme provides extensive support to ensure they stay housed. To date the programme has moved 1,400 people directly from the streets to permanent housing and nearly 90 per cent of these remain housed. Post occupancy research shows that people are healthier, happier, and more optimistic about the future when they have a place to call home and the necessary support to stay housed.
The Streets to Homes Programme works one-to-one with homeless individuals who are sleeping outdoors to create individualised housing plans that respect personal preferences and autonomy. It no longer operates the process of blind referrals where homeless individuals were signposted to support services and instead accompanies the individual to appointments and advocates/negotiates on their behalf. Great effort is also put into ensuring that follow-up support is available for the client and to the landlord and that any problems experienced are addressed in the early stages. Follow-up support is provided for one year with initial intensive support gradually lessening as individuals gain confidence. Working in partnership is a key element of the approach and partners include landlords and local communities, as well as a range of not-for-profit outreach services.
The current cost of delivering this service is C$6.8 million (US$6.6 million) annually and is drawn from a range of grant sources. Affordability is encouraged by working with large property management firms to secure units for clients in conventional private rental apartments, as well as working with a range of social housing providers. 60 per cent of all clients are housed in the private sector in conventional apartments. A range of barriers and gaps have been identified in the system and addressed with innovative solutions, for example changing the way that income assistance programmes are delivered to those living outdoors, using a mobile outreach team to carry out on-street assessments, working with prisoners to develop housing plans for when they come out of prison, helping homeless people rejoin the labour market and addressing the needs of Aboriginal groups.
Housing outreach workers work one-on-one with their clients directly from the street to provide a range of practical housing options and to create individualised housing plans that respect clients’ personal preferences and autonomy and continue to work with them over the next 12 months to help ensure continuity of care and support. Clients choose their own housing: the emphasis in the housing process is on choice, not placement, with a view that when clients have an active voice in the decision-making process regarding their housing it results in better long-term housing outcomes.
The cost of helping people find and keep housing through the Streets to Homes programme is estimated at C$11,600 (US$11,400) per client per year. The programme is 100 per cent revenue costs, with a 2007 operating budget of C$6.8 million (US$6.6 million). This figure includes salaries and benefits, materials and supplies, equipment, services and grants to community partners. It does not include housing benefit payments that are used to pay the rent in many instances.
The City contribution is financed by municipal property taxes. The provincial and federal governments provide temporary financing sources that must be re-applied for after a specified term and are subject to cuts or permanent elimination depending on the platform of the ruling party. To sustain the project, Streets to Homes has successfully moved more of its financing needs to the more permanent municipal property tax, despite the City’s challenging financial position.
On an individual level, quality of life for housed clients has been shown to improve substantially in the areas of health, mental health, nutrition, sleep habits, personal security and alcohol and other substance use. Having permanent housing provides the security and stability required so that individuals can move beyond focussing on basic daily survival needs to addressing more complex and long-term issues, such as health, addictions and mental health.
The programme has helped to reduce the social costs associated with homelessness that have an effect on the entire community. Some community groups throughout Toronto now feel that there is an adequate response to the homeless issues impacting them and business groups are increasingly supportive of the approach as they witness concrete results.
The success of the approach is recognised in the City’s new Affordable Housing Framework, which recommends the expansion of the Streets to Homes programme and implementation of a housing first approach at the provincial and national levels. The programme has also influenced the development of the federal homelessness Partnering Strategy which sets national policy for homelessness programmes.
- Number of people moving directly from the street into housing (1,400 in two years)
- Percentage of people remaining housed (nearly 90 per cent)
- Percentage of people obtaining access to employment and volunteering opportunities (31 and 36 per cent, respectively)
- Improvements to health, mental health, nutrition, sleep habits, personal security and alcohol and drug use among residents.
Why is it innovative?
- Focus on ending, rather than managing homelessness: the City of Toronto is the first jurisdiction in Canada, and one of the few in North America, to implement a comprehensive strategy to end street homelessness using a ‘housing first’ approach, which recognises that other problems can only be faced once an individual has housing.
- Clients are housed in a variety of locations and housing types, according to their particular choice – from rooming houses to one bedroom apartments to shared accommodation with roommates to family units – at rates they can afford, with a majority of clients in private market units without any type of subsidy.
- Offering a scattered site model of follow-up support to help clients adjust to living indoors and to maintain their new housing.
- Discussing problems and barriers in the existing system with the clients and service users and developing innovative ways in which identified gaps in services can be addressed.
- Strong emphasis on gathering and analysing data to provide evidence on the successes and challenges of innovative new approaches to addressing homelessness.
What is the environmental impact?
The programme houses individuals using existing housing stock, living in apartments that in many cases would otherwise be vacant. The approach supports urban densification strategies to constrain urban sprawl and makes use of existing urban infrastructure.
Through its partnership with the Furniture Bank, the programme incorporates the reuse and recycling of unwanted furniture and household items which may have otherwise ended up in a landfill.
Is it financially sustainable?
The programme as a whole is cost effective when compared to the costs of providing emergency services to homeless individuals. A post-occupancy survey found that individuals have far fewer interactions with the emergency health care and justice systems once they move off the street and into housing. By gaining access to more appropriate, and less costly, health care services and through reductions in interactions with police, courts and jail, savings in service costs in these areas offset the programme costs of housing homeless individuals.
Since 2007, Streets to Homes has been funded through the municipal tax base. Previously, the programme was funded primarily through time-limited federal funding. By shifting to the municipal tax base, the programme has become a permanent service in the City.
The programme works to ensure that residents receive all benefits they are entitled to and a vocational assessment and pre-employment project has been implemented to help individuals who have been housed prepare to re-join the labour market. To date, 31 per cent of those taking part in the programme have either obtained paid employment or work as volunteers.
The majority of clients pay rent directly, either through their own income or using social assistance benefits to which they are entitled (in which case, rent is paid directly from social assistance to the landlord). Housing workers ensure that clients are housed in units that are financially sustainable and appropriate for their income levels, so they are less likely to face eviction due to difficulties in paying rent in the future. Under the Residential Tenancies Act, private landlords are prevented from increasing rents beyond a specific amount each year, which is tied to inflation.
What is the social impact?
In addition to connecting their clients to a range of resources within the community, follow-up support workers work hard to develop ongoing relationships with landlords/superintendents and the wider community where their clients are housed, as both of these groups have a role to play in ensuring homeless individuals make a successful transition into housing. Volunteers from the community play an important role by hosting community meals and other social events that provide opportunities for residents to get to know their neighbours and integrate into their new communities.
With the support of follow-up workers in the often difficult transition from life on the street, formerly chronically homeless individuals are able to gain the necessary skills to maintain permanent housing. As part of the programme, follow-up support workers help clients to set individual goals and develop a plan to achieve them. This may involve addressing health and addiction issues, learning to manage finances, learning to cook and shop for food, finding volunteer work or planning to go back to school or work. To date, 27 per cent of those involved in the programme have accessed further education opportunities.
In a post-occupancy survey conducted between November 2006 and April 2007, individuals housed through the Streets to Homes programme reported significant improvements to health (70 per cent of those surveyed), personal security (72 per cent), nutrition (65 per cent), stress levels (60 per cent) and mental health (57 per cent). Alcohol and other drug use was also significantly reduced and people used fewer emergency health resources once in housing, with a 38 per cent reduction in ambulance use and 40 per cent decrease in emergency room use. Formerly homeless individuals were now making use of routine medical services more frequently and there has been a 68 per cent reduction in the number being detained in jail.
The 2006 Street Needs Assessment found that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the homeless population (i.e. whilst only 0.5 per cent of Toronto’s population are Aboriginal Peoples, 26 per cent of homeless people sleeping outdoors identified themselves as Aboriginal). As a result, Streets to Homes has begun working with two Aboriginal non-profit outreach providers to adapt their service to be city-wide, providing a culturally sensitive approach to meeting the needs of Aboriginal people living on the streets. Other partner agencies have expertise in working with other cultural groups, and a new project this year will provide a specialist worker for clients who are refugees and immigrants.
Clients often express a desire to give back and help other people get off the streets as they have done and many of the Streets to Homes partner agencies provide volunteer opportunities in their offices or through street outreach or other community programmes they may operate. Through the Streets to Homes vocational assessment and pre-employment project, 36 per cent of residents have been assisted by follow-up workers to access volunteer opportunities.
- There was a great deal of concern on the part of some activist and homeless groups initially that Streets to Homes, and in particular the Interdepartmental Protocol for Homeless Persons Camping in Public Spaces, would lead to a ‘sweeping’ of homeless people off the streets. Whilst there is still some controversy regarding the programme, the success of Streets to Homes and its respectful approach have led some of those who were initially sceptical of the programme to become supporters.
- Initially there was some resistance to new ways of offering services, and scepticism that a ‘housing first’ approach would work. To minimise this, it was important to gain support from those of all political viewpoints, to talk about the merits of the programme in a non-partisan way and to ‘depoliticise’ the approach by having a public servant, rather than the Mayor, as its spokesperson. Programme staff worked one-on-one with agencies to address issues as they dealt with the implications of changing ways of providing services and early successes also helped Streets to Homes to manage the change process.
- Many non-profit street outreach providers had to learn a new skill set relating to the housing process and the complexities of income assistance. Specific types of training and workshops were developed to assist follow-up workers, moving away from the charity, volunteer-based model of service provision to an increasing professionalisation of street outreach services.
- A challenge that the programme faces on an ongoing basis is finding suitable housing that is affordable to individuals on social assistance. There is very limited funding available for rental subsidies or affordable housing and Streets to Homes has had to work hard to come up with innovative ways to address this challenge, in particular through developing ongoing relationships with large property management firms, which often have higher vacancy rates due to the large number of units they manage, and developing agreements with select rent geared-to-income, supportive and transitional housing providers.
- Finding adequate, affordable housing options in Toronto’s downtown core, close to services and support networks, is another challenge that the programme faces on an ongoing basis.
- The most significant lesson learned is that a housing first approach to ending homelessness can be effective. Clients housed directly from the streets have seen large improvements in their health, personal security and overall well-being, and are able to maintain their housing with the appropriate supports in place.
- Flexibility in responding to clients’ level of need for service is required as they adjust to their new environment, as opposed to the initial approach to offering uniform, graduated levels of service with decreasing frequency of follow-up support visits.
- The challenges of housing individuals with long histories of homelessness and multiple barriers to accessing housing can be addressed through innovation and partnerships with service providers and community agencies.
- Relationships need to be developed at all levels within a partner agency to achieve the best possible outcomes.
The programme involves a continuous monitoring and evaluation process. Two full-time research analysts work with the programme and through extensive data collection, opportunities for feedback from font-line staff on client needs, and specific research initiatives, programme staff are continuously analysing information and updating policies and processes.
In April 2006, more than 1,000 volunteers, staff from non-profit agencies and city staff participated in a comprehensive Street Needs Assessment by conducting surveys with homeless individuals encountered in outdoor areas, as well as shelters, hospitals, treatment and correctional facilities. The information collected has allowed programme staff to make more informed, evidence-based decisions and provides a benchmark against which progress can be measured.
The programme is viewed as a local success and has received national attention in Canada, including visits from the Alberta Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, as well as an invitation to present to the Homelessness Partnership Initiative in Ottawa. It frequently receives requests for information and hosts visiting delegations from around the world, including the Assistant Commissioner of New York City and representatives from as far away as Australia.
City grants for homelessness projects now align with the principles of the strategy and the programme has influenced the development of the City’s new Affordable Housing Framework as well as the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy which sets national policy for homelessness programmes. A number of housing providers operating within Canada have adopted or are in the process of developing a comprehensive ‘housing first’ approach modelled after Streets to Homes.
Staff from the programme have assisted over 60 other groups and jurisdictions considering similar programmes, both nationally and internationally. This has been done through the provision of consultation services, sharing information and documents, hosting visiting delegations, providing peer review to draft documents and allowing staff from other groups to job shadow Streets to Homes housing and follow-up workers.