Universally in the developed world, homelessness is something that communities want to end rather than manage. Co-ordinated social services can come together to create and enhance community-based responses that tackle the threat of homelessness rather than attempting to deal with it on the other end -- after the fact, after people are demoralized by the experience.
An important part of any community response to homelessness is affordable housing. But once community members have been placed in affordable housing, they critically need job training and support to ensure that their transitions are self-sustainable. Thus it is that policy must address homeless from two perspectives: That of prevention, and that of recidivism. For many potentially homeless and homeless people, employment is the key way to address both of those problems.
National governments are increasingly taking an aggressive position with regard to writing, implementing, and evaluating policy related to homelessness. Local communities are being tasked with contributing long-range plans to end chronic homelessness in the next decade. A strong argument for these long-range plans is economic, in that, the cost to provide housing to homeless people is considerably cheaper than the cost to fund the collection of services that are called into play when people are chronically homeless. It is entirely feasible to bring together a coalition of governmental agencies, service providers, businesses, non-profits, faith-based organizations, and homeless or formerly homeless people with the capacity to stop homelessness before it happens.
Purchasing and repairing housing solutions for homeless populations takes time and a considerable amount of fiscal resources. Funds expended to provide transitional housing and shelters usually impact small numbers of people because of the large initial capital outlay. And unless other sources of support are available, the underlying reasons for the homelessness are not impacted. Placing a homeless person in a shelter or in transitional housing is, by and of itself, not a life-changing formula. Building on the foundation of successful global programs, such as Heifer International or the artisan programs such as the baskets made in Rwanda that are sold by Macy's, a basis of future employment can be offered. Micro-lending programs or programs that offer other means of helping recipients to achieve financial independence can result in the provision of supports that are life-changing. Most notable are those programs that provide job training and employment counseling to homeless people.
Homelessness in Ottawa, Canada, has reached immense proportions and the number of available shelters and transitional homes are staggeringly inadequate. Municipal policies tend to focus on the need for immediate shelter, addressing the symptoms of the homelessness problem rather than the causes. For many people without homes, the fundamental problem is unemployment due to a lack of marketable job skills, job displacement, or deteriorated labor market. Job training programs in fields where employment is readily obtained and typically ensured is a rational policy choice. Rather than relying on non-profit organizations, such as FareStart, Ottawa will provide long-term benefit to homeless people within the city by directing human services funds to the development of efficacious job training programs and follow-up counseling & consultation. Demonstration programs provide evidence that those who are trained to serve tables and prepare specialty coffee beverages will have a place at the table-their own tables in their own homes.
This policy brief will consider four policy options for serving people who have become homeless and are now living in Ottawa. The policy options include immediate substitute housing in homeless shelters, transitional housing, independent living programs, microloans and small business incubators, and comprehensive job training programs.
Policy Options & Probable Outcomes
Immediate shelters. Inarguably, homeless shelters provide the immediate protection from the elements and from taking shelter in unsafe environments. The primary symptom of homelessness is alleviated by ensuring that people have beds to sleep in, warm quarters to sort out their belongings and practice hygiene, and a launching platform for seeking work or accessing public services. Homeless shelters will undoubtedly be an important component of the city's homeless solution policies.
The outcomes from placing homeless people in shelters represent a spectrum, from highly desirable to highly undesirable. People become homeless for a number of reasons, some of which are more amenable to mediation than others. For those homeless people who fall into the hard-to-house category, the outcomes of spending time in a homeless shelter are unlikely to be satisfactory. Many of them will not be able to return to the shelter because of behaviors that violate the shelter rules or endanger others. This population requires a different set of solutions that those that are proposed in this policy brief.
Transitional housing. The purpose of traditional housing is to provide a bridge between homelessness and an independently maintained and stable lifestyle. This is not to say that every person who enters transitional housing as a homeless person and moves out to live on their own will be without additional public or private-not-for-profit services of some kind. On the contrary, because the issues that contribute to homelessness are often intractable, it is typical for other types of supports to be made available to the graduate of transitional housing for the short-term, for the long-term, or indefinitely.
The outcomes for individual who have passed through transitional housing are various, just as their situations upon entering the transitional housing were numerous. Individuals who are in transitional housing often live in ways that cause them to be vulnerable to instability. Moreover, the causes for this vulnerability may be completely beyond their control, such as chronic disease, intellectual or physical disability, mental health problems, minor children under their care, or domestic violence. Some of the people who are in transitional housing will be candidates for employment training programs and some will not. This policy brief does not address those individuals who will not be candidates for some viable form of job training that would enable them to compete in the labor market.
Independent living programs. Programs that offer, or more typically require, that the people living in free or reduced rent housing participate in independent living courses. These classes are designed to build their skills in personal & household budgeting, banking and loans, job searching, drivers' training & licensing, filing state and federal taxation, and access to healthcare and any public programs identified as necessary to their ability to live independently. People who are successfully admitted to independent living programs have often become homeless because of inadequate income or some major financial setback, such as exorbitant hospital and medical bills. They may struggle to recoup sufficient resources to recreate the stable environment that they once knew. For instance, they may find that they have to make choices between heating their homes in the winter or eating sufficiently nourishing food to maintain their health.
The outcomes of people who have been in independent living programs are generally good, in that, the support systems that follow them into the community are flexible enough to adapt to most of the presenting problems that would destabilize the program participants. Independent living programs will often help with rent or utility bills once people have left the program and are largely living on their own, but are still making efforts to rebuild a cushion that will guard against future homelessness due to a lack of monthly income.
Microloans & incubators. There are numerous examples of microloan programs in foreign countries but, surprisingly, fewer domestic programs exist. In part, this is because life in the United States is typically more complex than in any developing countries, the result being that the amount of a microloan in a developing country will not accomplish the same benefit in a developed country -- there is simply not price parity. Regardless, for some people who have become homeless, a microloan can, at once, be the solution to their homelessness and their joblessness. For a person who has some marketable skills that are in demand, but who lacks only seed money, a microloan can tip the balance toward a stable lifestyle. Occasionally, homeless individuals can benefit from help to establish a small business that is a more sophisticated than what might be started with just a microloan. People with marketable skills or business acumen can profit from experience in an incubator environment. Generally, the people who are homeless because of some sudden catastrophic live event are candidates for small business incubators, largely because they may have racked up years of successful small business operation.
Outcomes for people who have been helped with microloans and small business incubators tend to be good, if only because of the exacting standards for participation. Also, it is common for participants in these programs to be assisted with advice and networking long after they have received the microloan or left the small business incubator.
Comprehensive job training programs. The success of comprehensive job training programs has been demonstrated across many different models established and maintained by non-profit organizations. These programs generally consist of four major components: Selective recruitment, job training for positions that are in…