Family Homelessness Lab identifies gaps and missed opportunities in housing services

By Allan Martel

As those of you following this project will remember, a Rapid Response Table (RRT) emerged from The Family Homelessness Lab’s decision to include the City of Ottawa and social agencies focused on housing services.

The RRT membership involves community organizations that can intervene at various stages of housing distress. When acting together, these organizations could form an integrated system of progressive engagements to prevent eviction or to avert a family’s need for shelter.

The principle of progressive engagements as a superior option to shelter admission is based on limited data for 2022. The data shows that from a total of around 232 exits from shelter, 94 families returned to market rental properties. This suggests that, at a minimum, these families could have been assisted without recourse to shelter, thus saving the unwanted impacts of a shelter stay and considerable cost to the City.

What have we learned so far?

Currently, an actively managed system of information for homelessness prevention does not exist. As a result, cases are handled in a slow and cumbersome rule-based administrative system, limiting both the case managers’ discretion and the families’ options.

The RRT has discovered gaps in the continuum of progressive engagements in at least two areas:

  • No direct assistance for families struggling to establish a tenancy. Families receiving subsidies for rent cannot remain on the waitlist for Rent Geared to Income (RGI). Priority access to RGI housing is given to families in shelter, creating a disincentive for a family to return to market rent housing and longer than needed shelter stays.
  • No structured intensive intervention to house/rehouse families at imminent risk of requiring shelter.

Several ongoing policies create disincentives for preventive action before a shelter admission. For example, the RRT learned that Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) tried working together to help a family avoid a shelter admission. However, the financial tools of both organizations were applied sequentially, thus causing a significant delay to the family accessing housing.

Based on the Rapid Response Table’s observations, RRT member organizations are eager to work as an integrated whole. The potential for an integrated system of progressive engagement exists across community and City organizations. These range from early warnings of housing distress, light touch tenancy support, and housing loss prevention, through to more intensive interventions to divert families from shelter through rapid rehousing.

While progress is slow, the direction is right, and the learning based on cases from two Wards is nearing readiness for scaling to include a larger section of Ottawa.