October 1, 2014

Targets, timelines and tracking progress on poverty reduction and ending homelessness

This blog post has also been published as a contribution to the online dialogue ON Poverty Reduction - Strategy at Work.

The Wynne Government unveiled Ontario’s second Poverty Reduction Strategy on September 3, 2014. The new Strategy puts a focus on ending homelessness. Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who is the Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy, said the new strategy will continue to work on reducing child poverty – to reach the original 25% target -- as well as employment, education and training for youth. But ending homelessness stands out as the boldest goal in the new strategy.

What struck me as I listened to Minister Matthews launch the new strategy was the lack of specific targets and timelines to go with the goal of ending homelessness. The strategy obviously will need an action plan and investment strategy. But if the strategy is to succeed, it also needs clear targets and timelines, including targets for both outcomes and policy effort.

The need for clear targets and timelines for poverty reduction strategies was identified by the National Council of Welfare as the first cornerstone in their 2007 report, Solving Poverty. The United Nations Commission for Human Rights has laid out principles and guidelines for implementing poverty reduction strategies. The Commission says a poverty reduction plan “must set benchmarks (i.e., intermediate targets) corresponding to each ultimate target. As a prerequisite of setting targets and benchmarks, the State should identify appropriate indicators, so that the rate of progress can be monitored and, if progress is slow, corrective action can be taken. Indicators should be as disaggregated as possible for each subgroup of the population living in poverty.” (p 12)

The European Union which has had national poverty reduction strategies for more than a decade points to two types of targets as useful for tracking progress: outcome targets (such as reducing the number children in poverty) and policy effort targets (increasing the number of homeless served).

Ontario’s first strategy focused on reducing child poverty. The Government chose a target of reducing child poverty by 25% over five years – from 2008 to 2013. Notwithstanding the limited focus of Ontario’s first strategy, the target and timeline gave a clear direction for the strategy. Policy initiatives such as raising the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, as well as expanding full-day junior and senior kindergarten were clearly connected to the target and timeline. Two of them, the OCB and minimum wage, were directly linked to family incomes – the key indicator measuring progress on reaching the target. Full-day junior and senior kindergarten played the dual role of making it easier and less expensive for parents with young children to participate in the paid workforce or pursue education and training while also providing a foundation of early learning and child care for Ontario four and five year olds.

With the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), the cornerstone of the first Poverty Reduction Strategy, one can see an effort to report on policy effort and policy outcomes. In terms of policy effort, the Government reported that “about 530,000 families” in Ontario received the OCB in 2013-14.  The rate of child poverty, measured by the Low Income Measure (fixed to the base year 2008 LIM) serves as the outcome target.

Realizing Our Potential, as the second Poverty Reduction Strategy is called, differs from the first not only in the goal – ending homelessness -- but also in the lack of a five year target.  The Government acknowledges this and states that its first task will be to determine how to measure homelessness.

“Homelessness is a complex problem to tackle, and we currently lack the right data to effectively measure and address the issue. That is why we will seek expert advice, including from those with lived experience of homelessness, to help us define the problem, understand how to measure it and collect the data, and to advise us as we set a target related to ending homelessness. Across the province, there are success stories to emulate and knowledge to be shared. We want to get it right so we can end homelessness for good.” (p. 35)

The goal of ending homelessness could be viewed from another perspective as the goal of assuring the right to housing – or housing stability. The Homeless Hub, which compiles and shares valuable resources about homelessness says

“The goal of ending homelessness is to ensure housing stability, which means people have a fixed address and housing that is appropriate (affordable, safe, adequately maintained, accessible and suitable in size), and includes required services as needed (supportive), in addition to income and supports.”

This is the approach that the Region of Waterloo has taken in its multi-year Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy. As that strategy has found, affordable housing, adequate incomes, supports and services along with community inclusion and a sense of home are essential elements for ending homelessness.

Ontario’s strategy to end homelessness will need to address each of those elements. In that sense, Ontario’s second poverty reduction strategy really can be seen as building on the first strategy. In order to end homelessness for children and families, for example, the poverty reduction strategy will need to continue to make progress on lifting the incomes of more families with children above the poverty line. The new strategy goes beyond the first strategy in that it includes all segments of the population, not just children. And the goal of ending homelessness focuses the strategy on people who are most likely to be in the deepest poverty.

The Homeless Hub provides a typology of homelessness that will be helpful in choosing indicators and setting targets for Ontario’s plan to end homelessness.

1      Unsheltered
a.       People living in public or private spaces without consent or contract
b.      People living in places not intended for permanent human habitation
2      Emergency Sheltered
a.       Emergency overnight shelters for people who are homeless
b.      Shelters for individuals/families impacted by family violence
c.       Emergency shelter for people fleeing a natural disaster or destruction of accommodation due to fires, floods, etc.
3      Provisionally Accommodated
a.       Interim Housing for people who are homeless
b.      People living temporarily with others, but without guarantee of continued residency or immediate prospects of accessing permanent housing
c.       People accessing short term, temporary rental accommodations without security of tenure.
d.      People in institutional care who lack permanent housing arrangements.
e.      Accommodation/reception centers for recently arrived immigrants and refugees
4      At Risk of Homelessness
a.       People at imminent risk of homelessness
b.      Individuals and families who are Precariously Housed.

Ontario’s plan to end homelessness should set targets for each of these elements of homelessness. Two types of indicators are needed: policy effort indicators and outcome indicators.

For outcome indicators, the Homeless Hub points to three methods for determining how many people are homeless in a community: Shelter Inventory (Number of shelter beds available in a community and percentage of beds occupied); Point-In-Time Counts (a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a specific date); Prevalence Counts (determining how many people experienced homelessness over a set period of time.

An indicator for people at Risk of Homelessness would be something like Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s indicator of core housing need, a situation where a household “falls below at least one of the adequacy, affordability or suitability standards and would have to spend 30% or more of its total before-tax income to pay the median rent of alternative local housing that is acceptable (meets all three housing standards).” (CMHC) Ontario’s first poverty reduction strategy created its own Ontario Housing Measure – “the percentage of households with children under 18 that have incomes below 40 percent of the median household income and spend more than 40 per cent of their income on housing.” (Breaking the Cycle: the Fifth Progress Report, p. 65)

What Breaking the Cycle did not do with its housing indicator was to set a target for reducing the number of children in households falling below the Ontario Housing Measure.

Here is an example from Waterloo Region’s Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy that can help illustrate the connection between a poverty reduction goal, target, timeline and both outcome and policy effort indicators. That strategy has a number of goals: Increase housing retention; reduce the length of time people experience transitional homelessness; end persistent homelessness; increase community inclusion.

The goal of ending persistent homelessness illustrates well the connection between a goal, a target (and timeline) and both outcome and policy effort indicators.

Persistent Homelessness is defined as a point in the cycle of homelessness where “people begin to accept the state of living without a fixed address as part of normal everyday life. They may lose the hope for housing and develop stronger association with the experience of homelessness.” (Policy Framework, p 20)

Waterloo Region’s Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy includes an inter-related set of community programs working together as the STEP Home collaborative (Supports to End Persistent Homelessness). As part of the Region’s strategy it set a target of helping 500 people experiencing persistent homelessness move to permanent housing between 2008 and 2013. The number of people moved to permanent housing is the outcome indicator used to track progress toward that target. The number of people supported through the STEP Home collaborative is a policy effort indicator. The 2012-2014 STEP Home report provides data on the number of participants supported each year by STEP Home and the number supported to move to permanent housing. Between 2008 and 2013, 521 participants were supported to move to permanent housing.

As Ontario develops its strategy to end homelessness, it should identify clear targets related to reducing homelessness and improving housing stability over the next five years. It should also identify policy effort indicators that connect policy initiatives more clearly to policy outcomes. To do that, it can draw upon both resources such as those developed by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, but also on the experiences of Canadian provinces and municipalities that already have multi-year strategies to end homelessness.


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