Project helps divert families from homelessness

A pilot project aimed at keeping families at risk of homelessness off the streets is showing promising results thanks to diversion efforts that appear to be an effective measure at combating the issue long-term, according to one Western researcher.

“The hope is to end homelessness – but you can never end homelessness without preventing homelessness. Unlike other homeless populations that access shelters, when families become homeless, they often phone ahead. Quite often when people are homeless, they simply show up,” said Nursing and Psychiatry professor Cheryl Forchuk, Assistant Scientific Director at Lawson Health Research Institute.

The family unit is unlike other groups when homelessness becomes an issue because of dynamics, varied effects and intergenerational issues that might arise in the event of homelessness, she noted. This offered researchers a unique entryway into a diversion project.

“If someone’s already at the door of the homeless shelter, diversion is fairly difficult. The idea was, when a family phones ahead, instead of saying, ‘We’ve got space – come on down,’ to look at that phone call as the opportunity for diversion and say, ‘OK, what’s going on? How can we stop you from coming? What would it take?’”

Lawson, Western, the City of London and Mission Services of London partnered on the Prevention of Homelessness Among Families project to assess the effectiveness of a shelter diversion pilot-program at Rotholme Women’s and Family Shelter, part of Mission Services. The project was funded by a grant from the Government of Ontario’s Local Poverty Reduction Fund.

Interviewing 20 area families facing homelessness, the study showed a low percentage of families needing a shelter when accessing the program. Families at risk of homelessness who contacted the shelter before leaving their home were connected with a housing crisis worker to explore alternate housing arrangements, services, and supports. As a result, 90 per cent of the families stayed housed 18-months later.

“In the loosest sense, intervention is whatever it takes,” Forchuk explained. “Often, there were system issues and relationship breakups, and (the worker) was looking to see what could be done to prevent homelessness. If there had been an eviction notice, it was possibly negotiating with the landlord for a slight extension to give the family a little bit more time, or seeing if there could be some rapid rehousing – if there was a relationship breakup.”

To evaluate the success of the program, researchers assessed administrative shelter data, interviewed parents who participated in the program and conducted focus groups with staff and families who did not access the program.

What researchers didn’t know was if homelessness was prevented or delayed, however. Did members of the family remain housed months later?

Researchers followed those same families, interviewing them four times, approximately six months apart. Thirteen families completed all four interviews. In total, the information of 75 individuals, including 29 parents and 46 dependents, was collected, including demographics, specific needs, utilization of health services and quality of life metrics.

A majority of the parents interviewed had never experienced homelessness before accessing Mission Services.

“With the families we were following – and we were able to maintain contact with 90 per cent of them – none of them became homeless, even 18 months out. It’s a 90-90 factor, then. It appears if you work on diversion, at least 90 per cent do not come into the shelter, and at least 90 per cent will stay out. We can’t assume the remaining 10 remained homeless – they could have left town for a job or some other form of housing but we don’t know for sure,” Forchuk explained.

“We were very happy with this because it really does demonstrate with these diversion programs, it’s not just delaying it – it actually is preventing homelessness.”

Other themes that emerged from the study suggest that families at risk of homelessness:

  • may have life challenges such as mental health and addiction issues, language issues, or low-level education levels;
  • may have a lack of understanding the system, including shelter rules, social assistance and school supports and their own rights; and
  • may experience difficulty with conflict, both within the family dynamic and in resolving conflicts with landlords.

“The important thing is this issue of diversion. Quite often, people will get cynical about this idea and think it is just a delay. I think the fact diversion truly is diversion is probably the main take-home message,” Forchuk said.

“Diversion can be extrapolated to other groups, but how you divert would be different for different populations. Shelters having a role in diversion is important, but other groups don’t tend to phone ahead, so the strategy would have to be a bit different.”