The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Housing the homeless: Collaborative efforts to address complex issues

By in Features
An alley view of an aging building in downtown Saskatoon, Sk., photographed on Feb.23, 2020. | Victoria Becker/ Photo Editor

Homelessness, mental health and systemic discrimination are not problems unique to Saskatoon, but issues faced in cities across Canada.

While citizens might be aware and concerned by these issues, often the collaborative work by community service organizations to solve these problems goes unnoticed.

In 2015, the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, the United Way of Saskatoon and Area and the Community Advisory Board on Saskatoon Homelessness began designing a five-year plan to facilitate a co-ordinated approach to address the issue.

Saskatoon’s Homelessness Action Plan calls for “a serious investment in affordable housing units across the spectrum.” It also calls for a collaborative system of response where community service organizations increase prevention efforts, transitional support and public policy reform  to make “homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

To implement the action plan, SHIP became the lead organization responsible for fostering collective action between Saskatoon agencies to develop new housing units and recondition existing facilities .

Colleen Christopherson-Cote, director of planning and evaluation for SHIP, says homelessness is a complex social issue that cannot be solved by community partners working in isolation. Instead, these groups are relying on a “collective impact model” and “mutually reinforcing activities.” 

“By creating common agendas like plans and strategies, community partners can come together and know what we’re doing as a collective,” Christopherson-Cote said.

“But we also recognize that each member brings a very unique set of skills and work that they do as individual agencies.” 

Since 2012, SHIP has administered how the nearly $7 million in funding from the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy has been invested in Saskatoon. In 2018, $1.85 million was put towards affordable housing developments, innovative projects, renovations and transitional living support homes.

Since 2015, 983 individuals have been sheltered through the Housing First and other housing placement programs funded by SHIP. 

Housing First is a recovery-orientated approach for ending homelessness developed in the United States. The model centres on immediately moving people experiencing homelessness into an appropriate shelter without requiring commitments for treatment.

Christopherson-Cote says Housing First is just one method to address homelessness, but it is an effective approach because it provides people with access to housing without forcing them to agree to compliance requirements.

“Housing First does a really good job at meeting people where they’re at,” Christopherson-Cote said. “It’s a harm­reduction based model that regardless of what’s going on in people’s lives, they should have housing first.”

SHIP’s 2018 Point-in-Time Count, which offers a “snapshot” measurement of the community, accounted for 475 people experiencing homelessness in Saskatoon. 

Once individuals are in the program, they are supported by “intense case management” to keep them safe and securely housed over the long term, says Christopherson-Cote.

In the 2018 count, 55 per cent of the individuals were reported as chronically homeless, defined as someone who has been experiencing homelessness for six months or more within the past year.

In 2014, Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service partnered with SHIP and the United Way to develop the Journey Home program for the city based on the Housing First model. 

Rita Field, executive director of SCIS, says the Journey Home program uses intensive case management to help support vulnerable people experiencing chronic homelessness. She says participating in Housing First is a good fit for a frontline outreach operation and a 24-hour crisis service like SCIS.

“It works very nicely because we can see these crisis situations popping up and can identify that perhaps an outreach to this individual could make a difference, and they might fit with this model,” Field said.

Field says having citizens who are chronically homeless is problematic because they frequently over-rely on shelters and emergency services intended as temporary, not long-term solutions. The Journey Home program’s purpose is to break that cycle of homelessness.

“The whole idea behind Housing First is to recognize that it’s a basic right to have access to housing,” Field said. 

Once housed in a stable shelter, Field says if the individual chooses to be involved in some form of treatment then SCIS connects them with the appropriate support for difficulties with unemployment, health concerns or substance use.

“It’s about establishing relationships of trust and finding the right match,” Field said. “If they would like to be involved with recovery, there are many options and excellent services in our community.”

Christopherson-Cote says although housing placement programs can be costly and resource-intensive, it actually reduces the burden on other services in the city.

She says that often the people experiencing chronic homelesness placed in these kinds of intensive case management and supported living programs are considered to be of “high acuity.” That means they have often experienced personal problems like health issues, substance use, intergenerational trauma and violence.

“The people that are in the program are the biggest service users of systems like health and justice,” Christopherson-Cote said. 

“So the social return on investment for Housing First is quite high because what we’re doing is pulling people out of those really expensive services by providing them with housing services and hoping they will then get the help they need once they’re housed.”

Christopherson-Cote says that when the general population thinks about homelessness, they often default to stereotypical images, mainly of men “rough sleeping” on the streets. However, homelessness in Saskatoon is much more complex. 

Of the 475 people identified in the 2018 PIT Count, 38 per cent were women and 7 per cent were children or youth. Also, 18 per cent qualified for “Hidden Homelessness,” a category that includes people couchsurfing and living in overcrowded or inadequate shelters.

Christopherson-Cote says it is also important to consider the people living temporarily in systems like prison or healthcare who become homeless upon release if they have no access to shelter.

“The community does a really amazing job at responding to the crisis and getting people sheltered in supported care or affordable housing,” Christopherson-Cote said. 

“But I feel like the piece we’re missing is that there are still people coming out of systems or falling out of being homed and the homelessness action plan needs to take that next step of increasing prevention.”

The Lighthouse Supported Living in Saskatoon is more than just an emergency shelter. It offers Housing First services to the community through its affordable housing and supported living spaces. 

In partnership with SCIS’ Journey Home program, the Lighthouse launched the Managed Alcohol Program for people with recurring substance use and who may lack appropriate shelter.

The program funded by the Saskatchewan Health Authority provides clients in supported living with customized daily doses of liquor to chronic drinkers and consumers of non-beverage alcohol, such as hand sanitizer.

The Lighthouse’s addictions counsellor, Julie Milne, says she can see the difference the innovative program is making to support people’s treatment for substance use through harm minimization.

“Most of the participants have come from our Stabilization Unit and now they have ten pours a day of proper alcohol instead of drinking street alcohol,” Milne said.

“It’s well managed and I would advocate for it because I just think there’s a big place for programs like this.”

In the 2018 PIT Count, it was reported that 53 per cent of the surveyed individuals responded they “felt they would be successfully housed with help managing alcohol issues.” The Managed Alcohol Program expanded to serving nine clients in 2019 after a successful pilot program.

Although experiences of homelessness cannot be explained by mental health and substance-use problems alone, these three issues share a complex relationship. 

Milne says mental health issues can lead to substance use, and substance use can lead to poorer mental health or psychosis. Also, people with these problems are at an increased risk of falling into homelessness, and people experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to these difficulties.

“A lot of people who have a mental health problem and an addiction don’t see the mental health problem as a problem,” Milne said. “But they’ll use substances to manage their mental health and it’s very difficult to get a diagnosis or to even see a psychiatrist.”

Milne offers addictions counselling to everyone living at the Lighthouse, but she is also available to the people using the emergency shelter and Stabilization Unit. Even if people do not want to immediately address their problems, Milne can still refer people to one of the five Housing First intake centres in the city.

“Some people want to be securely housed before they address their addictions,” Milne said.

Although community organizations like SCIS and the Lighthouse have been finding success with their Housing First programs, other organizations working collaboratively with the plan to end homelessness in Saskatoon choose not to follow the model. 

Street art displayed in downtown Saskatoon, Sk., photographed on Feb.23, 2020. | Victoria Becker/ Photo Editor

Christopherson-Cote acknowledges that Housing First is just a “tool in the tool chest.” She says it can be resource intensive and does not work for every person. However, she is pleased that the federal government’s new Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy funding stream allows for more flexibility in creating a plan specific to Saskatoon’s needs.

“The idea is that we need to look at a much more coordinated system and we can’t eliminate homelessness with one specific tool; it has to be a multitude of different things,” Christopherson­-Cote said.

Shirley Isbister, president of the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc., says the organization has operated its own model of supported housing for over a decade before Housing First was used in Saskatoon.

CUMFI never adopted the Housing First model but focused on its own Coming Home Program and affordable housing with a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol or substance consumption. With the 2018 federal funding, SHIP invested $196,000 into renovating one of CUMFI’s four supported living homes.

CUMFI’s Coming Home Program specializes in providing intensive support for parents and families in order to have children returned from the foster care system or to maintain custody.

“People who can stay housed is one thing, but we have so many people who can’t,” Isbister said.

“Because we’ve always known that our families will never move forward without having strong support, then we can assist their move into the community.”

Indigenous peoples are over-represented in Saskatchewan’s criminal justice and foster care systems, and urban Indigenous people also experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.

Of the 475 people counted in 2018, 85 per cent of the respondents self-identified as Indigenous. Isbister believes that few people properly recognize how Canada’s history of colonization and racism created this present situation.

“What leads to a stigma towards homelessness is that people don’t understand how people become homeless or the conditions that surround them,” Isbister said.

“Residential schools and the Sixties Scoop — Métis and First Nations people were a part of all those tragedies, and people don’t realize that along with that comes addiction, violence and everything else.”

Because these are intergenerational problems, Isbister believes that it will take generations to make those statistics change.

“We’re never going to end homelessness but we need to find ways to prevent it as much as possible,” Isbister said. “But it’s going to take working with children in schools and reducing poverty.”

She does not think that Saskatoon can move forward without community partnerships, but because of the disproportionate demographics, Isbister believes that homelessness programming should be led by an Indigenous organization. 

Isbister has recently attended community meetings on homelessness in Saskatoon where she was the only Indigenous person in attendance.

“There’s all these non-Indigenous people going to decide on how we’re going to move forward make change but 85 per cent of the homeless are Indigenous, so that tells me that change needs to be Indigenous-led and community driven,” Isbister said.

Homelessness, mental health and systemic discrimination are not problems unique to Saskatoon, but issues faced in cities across Canada.

While citizens might be aware and concerned by these issues, often the collaborative work by community service organizations to solve these problems goes unnoticed.

In 2015, the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, the United Way of Saskatoon and Area and the Community Advisory Board on Saskatoon Homelessness began designing a five-year plan to facilitate a co-ordinated approach to address the issue.

Saskatoon’s Homelessness Action Plan calls for “a serious investment in affordable housing units across the spectrum.” It also calls for a collaborative system of response where community service organizations increase prevention efforts, transitional support and public policy reform  to make “homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

To implement the action plan, SHIP became the lead organization responsible for fostering collective action between Saskatoon agencies to develop new housing units and recondition existing facilities .

Colleen Christopherson-Cote, director of planning and evaluation for SHIP, says homelessness is a complex social issue that cannot be solved by community partners working in isolation. Instead, these groups are relying on a “collective impact model” and “mutually reinforcing activities.” 

“By creating common agendas like plans and strategies, community partners can come together and know what we’re doing as a collective,” Christopherson-Cote said.

“But we also recognize that each member brings a very unique set of skills and work that they do as individual agencies.” 

Since 2012, SHIP has administered how the nearly $7 million in funding from the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy has been invested in Saskatoon. In 2018, $1.85 million was put towards affordable housing developments, innovative projects, renovations and transitional living support homes.

Since 2015, 983 individuals have been sheltered through the Housing First and other housing placement programs funded by SHIP. 

Housing First is a recovery-orientated approach for ending homelessness developed in the United States. The model centres on immediately moving people experiencing homelessness into an appropriate shelter without requiring commitments for treatment.

Christopherson-Cote says Housing First is just one method to address homelessness, but it is an effective approach because it provides people with access to housing without forcing them to agree to compliance requirements.

“Housing First does a really good job at meeting people where they’re at,” Christopherson-Cote said. “It’s a harm­reduction based model that regardless of what’s going on in people’s lives, they should have housing first.”

SHIP’s 2018 Point-in-Time Count, which offers a “snapshot” measurement of the community, accounted for 475 people experiencing homelessness in Saskatoon. 

Once individuals are in the program, they are supported by “intense case management” to keep them safe and securely housed over the long term, says Christopherson-Cote.

In the 2018 count, 55 per cent of the individuals were reported as chronically homeless, defined as someone who has been experiencing homelessness for six months or more within the past year.

In 2014, Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service partnered with SHIP and the United Way to develop the Journey Home program for the city based on the Housing First model. 

Rita Field, executive director of SCIS, says the Journey Home program uses intensive case management to help support vulnerable people experiencing chronic homelessness. She says participating in Housing First is a good fit for a frontline outreach operation and a 24-hour crisis service like SCIS.

“It works very nicely because we can see these crisis situations popping up and can identify that perhaps an outreach to this individual could make a difference, and they might fit with this model,” Field said.

Field says having citizens who are chronically homeless is problematic because they frequently over-rely on shelters and emergency services intended as temporary, not long-term solutions. The Journey Home program’s purpose is to break that cycle of homelessness.

“The whole idea behind Housing First is to recognize that it’s a basic right to have access to housing,” Field said. 

Once housed in a stable shelter, Field says if the individual chooses to be involved in some form of treatment then SCIS connects them with the appropriate support for difficulties with unemployment, health concerns or substance use.

“It’s about establishing relationships of trust and finding the right match,” Field said. “If they would like to be involved with recovery, there are many options and excellent services in our community.”

Christopherson-Cote says although housing placement programs can be costly and resource-intensive, it actually reduces the burden on other services in the city.

She says that often the people experiencing chronic homelesness placed in these kinds of intensive case management and supported living programs are considered to be of “high acuity.” That means they have often experienced personal problems like health issues, substance use, intergenerational trauma and violence.

“The people that are in the program are the biggest service users of systems like health and justice,” Christopherson-Cote said. 

“So the social return on investment for Housing First is quite high because what we’re doing is pulling people out of those really expensive services by providing them with housing services and hoping they will then get the help they need once they’re housed.”

Christopherson-Cote says that when the general population thinks about homelessness, they often default to stereotypical images, mainly of men “rough sleeping” on the streets. However, homelessness in Saskatoon is much more complex. 

Of the 475 people identified in the 2018 PIT Count, 38 per cent were women and 7 per cent were children or youth. Also, 18 per cent qualified for “Hidden Homelessness,” a category that includes people couchsurfing and living in overcrowded or inadequate shelters.

Christopherson-Cote says it is also important to consider the people living temporarily in systems like prison or healthcare who become homeless upon release if they have no access to shelter.

“The community does a really amazing job at responding to the crisis and getting people sheltered in supported care or affordable housing,” Christopherson-Cote said. 

“But I feel like the piece we’re missing is that there are still people coming out of systems or falling out of being homed and the homelessness action plan needs to take that next step of increasing prevention.”

The Lighthouse Supported Living in Saskatoon is more than just an emergency shelter. It offers Housing First services to the community through its affordable housing and supported living spaces. 

In partnership with SCIS’ Journey Home program, the Lighthouse launched the Managed Alcohol Program for people with recurring substance use and who may lack appropriate shelter.

The program funded by the Saskatchewan Health Authority provides clients in supported living with customized daily doses of liquor to chronic drinkers and consumers of non-beverage alcohol, such as hand sanitizer.

The Lighthouse’s addictions counsellor, Julie Milne, says she can see the difference the innovative program is making to support people’s treatment for substance use through harm minimization.

“Most of the participants have come from our Stabilization Unit and now they have ten pours a day of proper alcohol instead of drinking street alcohol,” Milne said.

“It’s well managed and I would advocate for it because I just think there’s a big place for programs like this.”

In the 2018 PIT Count, it was reported that 53 per cent of the surveyed individuals responded they “felt they would be successfully housed with help managing alcohol issues.” The Managed Alcohol Program expanded to serving nine clients in 2019 after a successful pilot program.

Although experiences of homelessness cannot be explained by mental health and substance-use problems alone, these three issues share a complex relationship. 

“What leads to a stigma towards homelessness is that people don’t understand how people become homeless or the conditions that surround them.” 

– Shirley Isbister

Milne says mental health issues can lead to substance use, and substance use can lead to poorer mental health or psychosis. Also, people with these problems are at an increased risk of falling into homelessness, and people experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to these difficulties.

“A lot of people who have a mental health problem and an addiction don’t see the mental health problem as a problem,” Milne said. “But they’ll use substances to manage their mental health and it’s very difficult to get a diagnosis or to even see a psychiatrist.”

Milne offers addictions counselling to everyone living at the Lighthouse, but she is also available to the people using the emergency shelter and Stabilization Unit. Even if people do not want to immediately address their problems, Milne can still refer people to one of the five Housing First intake centres in the city.

“Some people want to be securely housed before they address their addictions,” Milne said.

Although community organizations like SCIS and the Lighthouse have been finding success with their Housing First programs, other organizations working collaboratively with the plan to end homelessness in Saskatoon choose not to follow the model. 

Christopherson-Cote acknowledges that Housing First is just a “tool in the tool chest.” She says it can be resource intensive and does not work for every person. However, she is pleased that the federal government’s new Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy funding stream allows for more flexibility in creating a plan specific to Saskatoon’s needs.

“The idea is that we need to look at a much more coordinated system and we can’t eliminate homelessness with one specific tool; it has to be a multitude of different things,” Christopherson­-Cote said.

Shirley Isbister, president of the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc., says the organization has operated its own model of supported housing for over a decade before Housing First was used in Saskatoon.

CUMFI never adopted the Housing First model but focused on its own Coming Home Program and affordable housing with a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol or substance consumption. With the 2018 federal funding, SHIP invested $196,000 into renovating one of CUMFI’s four supported living homes.

CUMFI’s Coming Home Program specializes in providing intensive support for parents and families in order to have children returned from the foster care system or to maintain custody.

“People who can stay housed is one thing, but we have so many people who can’t,” Isbister said.

“Because we’ve always known that our families will never move forward without having strong support, then we can assist their move into the community.”

Indigenous peoples are over-represented in Saskatchewan’s criminal justice and foster care systems, and urban Indigenous people also experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.

Of the 475 people counted in 2018, 85 per cent of the respondents self-identified as Indigenous. Isbister believes that few people properly recognize how Canada’s history of colonization and racism created this present situation.

“What leads to a stigma towards homelessness is that people don’t understand how people become homeless or the conditions that surround them,” Isbister said.

“Residential schools and the Sixties Scoop — Métis and First Nations people were a part of all those tragedies, and people don’t realize that along with that comes addiction, violence and everything else.”

Because these are intergenerational problems, Isbister believes that it will take generations to make those statistics change.

“We’re never going to end homelessness but we need to find ways to prevent it as much as possible,” Isbister said. “But it’s going to take working with children in schools and reducing poverty.”

She does not think that Saskatoon can move forward without community partnerships, but because of the disproportionate demographics, Isbister believes that homelessness programming should be led by an Indigenous organization. 

Isbister has recently attended community meetings on homelessness in Saskatoon where she was the only Indigenous person in attendance.

“There’s all these non-Indigenous people going to decide on how we’re going to move forward make change but 85 per cent of the homeless are Indigenous, so that tells me that change needs to be Indigenous-led and community driven,” Isbister said.

“We need to step up, we need to have the dollars to step up and to make change in our own communities and we need, as leaders, to be able to do that.”

“We need to step up, we need to have the dollars to step up and to make change in our own communities and we need, as leaders, to be able to do that.”

Noah Callaghan/ Staff Writer

Photo: Victoria Becker/ Photo Editor

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