Researchers Issue A Challenge To Make ‘Housing First’ Work Better

The EmpressHotel, Victoria, B.C.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada photo by Imogene Huxham is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Victoria B.C. has for many years promoted itself as a tiny slice of England, one which belongs to the upper crust like you and I who can afford afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel.

Have you wondered how people who are homeless leave the streets and move to housing? How does Housing First, a program proven to help people who are homeless move to permanent affordable housing, work? And how does it work in a community with low vacancy rates and high rents? Do they have a special supply of housing in their back pocket? Do Housing First clients have enough income to pay for rent?

A study of a transitional shelter for people who are homeless in Victoria, British Columbia investigated these questions. A paper reporting the results of the study has recently been published.

The study in Victoria ran from 2008 to 2013, the same time as At Home/Chez Soi, a large scale test of Housing First in five cities in Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Moncton).

At Home/Chez Soi clients had access to financial supplements to help cover the cost of rent. This was essential because the income they received from social assistance would not cover the cost of rent in the cities that were part of the study.

With the high cost of housing and low vacancy rates in Victoria, agencies planned the transitional shelter as a way to provide immediate housing for people who were homeless. This approach built on the knowledge that program participants in other Housing First programs frequently cycle through a number of housing transitions on their path to permanent secure housing. The agency operating the shelter would also provide supports to the shelter residents to develop and implement individual plans to move to permanent housing.

In 2008, much of the existing Housing First research focused on the outcomes of individual clients, measuring whether they moved to permanent housing and how long they maintained their housing. This approach was successful in establishing Housing First as a best practice. The evaluation of the transitional shelter program needed to pay attention to individual outcomes. It also needed to take account of how the shelter program worked in Victoria’s housing market. To achieve both interests, the research team decided to use a case study to evaluate the program.

The research team also chose a participatory approach, where the agency staff and researchers guided the research process. Information about the program experience was gathered through interviews with the clients.

The findings of the evaluation demonstrate that on an individual level, participants were successful in moving to permanent housing and maintaining the housing. Their incomes had also gone up.

It is also interesting to see that most of the housed clients did not have enough income to pay the full cost of rent. In the private rental market, the gap between income and rent was often covered by rent supplements. Other clients were living in supported housing, where the housing provider receives a subsidy that covers the income-rent gap.

The research team assessed that the housing market and the levels of income support form significant barriers to people trying to leave homelessness. No amount of effort by a support worker can improve access to the most affordable units in the housing market, with rents that are more than twice the amount offered through income support. The research demonstrates that system planners need to look towards improving housing supply as well as increasing levels of income support in order to maintain the success of Housing First.

An abstract of this report is available at The Journal Of Poverty: Where’s The Housing? Housing And Income Outcomes Of A Transitional Program to End Homelessness. For more details, unless you have access to the journal, you need to reach out to Dr. Bruce Wallace, the principal author of the paper, at barclay@uvic.ca