Dr. Stephen Gaetz is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), a Professor with the Faculty of Education at York University, and Board President at Raising the Roof. More importantly, he is one of the most outspoken advocates of homelessness prevention in the country. He sat down with us to answer a few questions on the issue, and provide some tips for how Canadians can get involved.

When we talk about “preventing” homelessness, what kinds of programs or initiatives are we talking about?

There are three things you can do when it comes to tackling homelessness. First, you can focus on preventing homelessness, second, you need to provide emergency services – because even with good prevention bad things will happen to people – and finally, you can focus on moving people out of homelessness, preferably as quickly as possible. For the longest time we put our efforts into the second option – emergency services.  In recent years in the United States and Canada, we have begun to see the value in the third option, and in particular, prioritizing the housing of chronically homeless people through Housing First strategies. The future, in terms of how we’re going to need to respond to homelessness, is to begin to shift that focuses more on prevention.

While we haven’t focused on homelessness prevention much yet, in other places such as Europe and Australia, prevention has been at the centre of how they respond to homelessness.

What would that look like in the Canadian context?

It’s going to take an integrated response. Prevention models look at primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention means working way upstream on the issues. We have to start working on affordable housing, we have to stop dumping people from institutional settings into homelessness such as people leaving prisons and mental health facilities or youth leaving care. We have to address things like family violence, violence against children and poverty. These are all big picture things that will require multi-sector support.

In terms of secondary prevention, we have to go in with early intervention strategies that are more targeted to vulnerable populations. A classic example of that is based on a model from Australia where they get into schools, identify young people who may be at risk of homelessness and then intervene. In Australia, they didn’t build a bunch of youth shelters. They said, ‘why don’t we stop youth from becoming homeless in the first place?’ Every homeless person in Canada was in school at one point. Very likely there was an adult who knew something was wrong but didn’t know what to do. If they knew what to do and there was an intervention that would help young people and their families, then we could do something that would help them.

In Canada right now, where are we when it comes to preventative programs or services, and where do we need to go?
The good news is with the current shift to Housing First, we’re not just putting resources in emergency response. The next phase is to not abandon any of that but to add a focus on prevention. The places that are the most innovative around homelessness, they’re starting to get that.

In Alberta, they’re naming prevention as something they want to do but going beyond that – they’re really doing it. And even in Ontario they’re embarking on their first homelessness prevention strategy, situated within their poverty reduction strategy. They’re saying with homelessness we need to do more than just put out the fires. The provinces need to pick it up because they’re the ones who control the drivers of homelessness – corrections, health care, child protection, income support in many ways. They’re doing many things that get delivered at the community level. And of course the federal government needs to be there in terms of investing in expanding the supply of affordable housing.

Somehow in the last 25 years, we talked ourselves into thinking its ok to warehouse people, to keep them mired in poverty and great indignity. We’ve let our affordable housing supply deteriorate and shrink over the last 30 years. We’re going to have to get back into that business of addressing the drivers of homelessness, and invest in that.

In Australia, they suggest their upstream work with youth in schools reduced homelessness by 20 per cent, so we know it can work.  And by helping young people avoid long term homelessness, we are actually investing in the future. Of course, we shouldn’t go down this road just do this because it’s going to save us money. We have to do it because it’s the right thing to do.

What’s the most important next step in Canada?
Keep pushing forward with Housing First, definitely, but we also need all levels of government to adopt a prevention focus. And invest in that, not just talk about that, but actually do it. We need communities to embrace the really good ideas and implement them locally. We need the paradigm shift, we need all levels of government involved and we need communities involved.

What about for the average Canadian – is there anything they can do to help shift the focus to prevention?
Support governments to do this work, get involved in their communities and push for changes. Canadians have to shift their thinking from believing that people want to be homeless and that it’s ok to warehouse people indefinitely, to saying that we can end homelessness. I don’t begrudge people for not knowing all the solutions. That’s where organizations like Raising the Roof can play a role in educating society about how we can do things differently.