A social innovation approach is needed to tackle homelessness in Canada

Photo: © The Hill Times / Wikimedia Commons

Published in The Hill Times, Innovation Supplement October, 16, 2023—subscription required

Ted Hewitt, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Housing, as we know, is a critical issue for Canadians. Daily media headlines range from the lack of affordable homes to the meteoric rise in rents across all regions; from young adults giving up on home ownership to seniors on fixed incomes who can’t afford to stay in their homes. The message is clear: Canada is facing a housing crisis. In response, the federal government has made housing a national priority.

Sometimes—but not always—media articles focus on a devastating issue linked to but not always a direct result of the housing crisis: homelessness. As the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness notes, homelessness is commonly defined as “the situation of an individual, family or community without stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it.”

During the pandemic, homelessness became a more “visible” problem as encampments and tent cities sprung up in rural areas and city centres. COVID-19 not only exposed pre-existing social inequities and injustices, it also intensified them and worsened the conditions for already marginalized populations and individuals. Globally, an estimated 150 million people are homeless on any given day. In Canada, an estimated 235,000 people experience homelessness annually, of which around 40,000 are youth aged 13-24. These figures are best guesses only and likely underestimate Canada’s homeless population. Statistics Canada is currently attempting to provide a more accurate national portrait of homelessness.

Homelessness is a wicked problem due to its persistence, complexity and interdependencies. It intersects with a range of other issues such as mental health, addiction, influx of refugees, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cracks in the child welfare system, availability of education and training supports, racism, and even the effects of climate change. Homelessness is also compounded by structural forces such as inflation, scarce low-cost housing, shelter system capacity, insufficient mental health services and the lack of clean water in remote and Indigenous communities. This is a policy issue that transcends all jurisdictions of governance.

To meet the goal of reducing chronic homelessness by 50% by 2027-28, as outlined in Canada’s 2017 National Housing Strategy and 2018 Homelessness Strategy, it is clear that we must look to new and inclusive pathways. What’s needed for such a vexing problem is a social innovation approach and solutions.

Social innovation involves designing policies and strategies at a systems level. It requires developing creative and practical solutions that build in inclusion, knowledge co-creation and resilience, and take into consideration the unique causes and experiences of homelessness for specific groups such as youth and Indigenous people. It features cross-sectoral, cross-government multidisciplinary collaborations.

Insights generated by high-quality research in the social sciences and humanities are proving to be the foundation for developing effective social innovation policies to tackle homelessness. For example:

  • The recommendations from research on and with 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth, organized by Alex Abramovitch from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, have led to new inclusive housing programs. The project also revealed the prevalence of mental health problems among these youth and their lack of access to mental health services.
  • The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is a world-leading research and policy partnership between academics, policy makers, service providers and people with lived experience of homelessness. Led by Stephen Gaetz of York University, a recent COH project aims to move the sector from a reliance on emergency services to a strategic and coordinated system of policies, services and practices grounded in preventing homelessness. The project integrates a focus on developing reciprocal partnerships with Indigenous stakeholders to support an Indigenous-led research agenda to end Indigenous homelessness.
  • A community-driven research collaboration in Victoria, BC, between older women experiencing homelessness, academic researchers and community partners has increased understanding of the pathways into homelessness and its impacts on the health and quality of life of older women. Led by Denise Cloutier at the University of Victoria, the research also made actionable recommendations to generate systems-level changes through multi-sectoral collaboration.

Crisis is often a powerful spur for social innovation. Canada must leverage its research strengths in taking a systems-level approach to address the homelessness crisis.

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