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ROAD HOME: It’s time to stop ‘reacting’ to homelessness

September 20, 2023

Posted on: September 20th, 2023. By: Michael Braithwaite,, Original Article.

In this month’s column, Blue Door CEO says programs that prioritize and strategically pour resources into preventing homelessness come at a fraction of the cost

As a preventive measure for our health, we are encouraged to visit our doctor for a yearly checkup.

Similarly, we are encouraged to lock our doors and have proper lighting around our homes and vehicles to prevent crime.

While both health care and crime are very different, for years they both had a focus on not just reaction but on prevention.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when we look at the housing and homelessness sector. We’ve traditionally put all our resources into ‘reacting’ to homelessness once it has occurred rather than prioritizing and strategically pouring resources into preventing homelessness.

Imagine having a leaky water pipe at home. Instead of fixing the pipe, you’re handed a mop and a bucket. While you manage the immediate mess, the water’s ceaseless flow persists.

Similarly, with homelessness, unless we halt the inflow of new individuals into its grasp, we’re only dealing with the symptoms, not resolving the issue at its core.

Homelessness prevention, as defined by Dr. Stephen Gaetz and Erin Dej in their 2017 publication in the Homeless Hub’s ‘A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention,’ is “policies, practices, and interventions that reduce the likelihood that someone will experience homelessness.”

While Canada is gradually recognizing homelessness prevention as pivotal in its eradication, other nations like Australia embraced prevention as early as the 1990s. Perhaps Canada’s hesitation to delve into prevention stemmed from concerns about resource allocation, fearing a trade-off between reaction and prevention. The reality is homelessness prevention not only transforms lives but also conserves resources.

Emergency housing, though indispensable for people in emergency situations, is very costly to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In contrast, preventive initiatives come at a fraction of the cost while producing higher success rates.

In the Canadian context, prominent organizations addressing homelessness such as A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, in collaboration with local partners nationwide, have championed Upstream Canada.

This innovative school-based intervention program engages 12 to 18-year-olds, utilizing the universal screening tool called the Student Needs Assessment, to identify youth at risk of entering into homelessness. What sets Upstream Canada apart is its inclusivity, flagging students not overtly displaying risk signals, thereby eliminating barriers to assistance.

This confidential assessment is the critical initial step in a validation process that connects young people to co-ordinated supports before a crisis hits. Upstream Canada is an adaptation of work that originated in Australia as the Geelong Project (since renamed Upstream Australia), which has demonstrated a remarkable 40 per cent reduction in youth homelessness three years after implementation.

Locally, organizations like 360°kids have been leading a regional table around youth homelessness prevention, as well as implementing two preventive programs. The Family and Natural Supports program helps strengthen relationships within families, and 360°kids’ NightStop provides support in the safety and familiarity of a host’s home to prevent youth from entering homelessness.

More recently, Blue Door launched Construct, a construction social enterprise providing vulnerable individuals with the skills needed to enter the trades, start earning a living wage, and ultimately preventing youth and adults from experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Prevention can also manifest through simple yet profound changes.

The Regional Municipality of York’s diversion programs exemplify this approach. Instead of immediately channelling people in need of a place to stay into emergency housing, folks are encouraged to call a central intake line, where the team asks a series of questions to better understand the person’s needs. In doing so, the team is able to offer tailored support, often bypassing the need for emergency housing and preserving existing housing or family ties.

As the cost of housing and homelessness continues to rise, we must continue to have meaningful conversations with government, institutions, and social service providers, including those in the housing and homelessness sectors, around stepping up the work around prevention.

While I strongly believe we have the means and will to end homelessness in Canada, we cannot do so until we invest in preventive measures.

It is time to abandon the mops and tackle the issue at its source — let us turn off the tap on homelessness.

Michael Braithwaite is the CEO of Blue Door, host of the housing and homelessness podcast On the Way Home, board chair of the youth homelessness-focused organization A Way Home Canada, and a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.