02 April 2009

Streets to Homes in Toronto: Iain de Jong Responds

A few days ago, I posted my thoughts on the upcoming survey of homeless people in Toronto. I critiqued what was reported as an exclusively positivist and statistical approach to understanding the needs of the homeless, calling it inadequate to gain a complete understanding of the complexity of the problem: statistics can be useful to understand many phenomena and situations; complex human problems are not among those that lend themselves to complete knowledge through numbers.

This morning I received an extensive response from Iain de Jong, the Manager of the Streets to Homes program in the city. Here it is in its entirety:
Mr. Federman,

Thanks for sharing your perspective with the Mayor and Members of Toronto City Council.

It may be of interest for you to know how we have arrived at the methods that we are using.

Starting in 2005, we began an extensive examination of practices used in other jurisdictions when it came to assessing the number and needs of homeless people. We undertook this work because in February 2005, Toronto City Council directed staff to determine the number and service needs of the homeless population. While there was some decent literature (grey and academic) on the enumeration - or count - piece, there was next to nothing on determining the needs aspect on the scale and scope that we were directed to undertake.

We met with representatives from New York City, Chicago, Edmonton and Vancouver. We also reviewed documentation and/or had conversations with representatives from Philadelphia, Calgary, Kelowna, Victoria, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Bernardino County, Phoenix, Indianapolis, King County, Nashville and Atlanta. We also examined materials from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Government of Canada. We also participated in the Homeless Outdoor Population Estimate in New York City and participated in discussions with their methodologists and statisticians. One of my staff also spent time with Dr. Kim Hopper, whose work you may be familiar with on plant-capture techniques in homeless counts.

With this information, we worked extensively with the Street Outreach Steering Committee in Toronto, which is a group of senior representatives from a range of community agencies, hospitals, researchers, City Divisions and the private sector. The Committee membership has a wealth of experience in not only delivering homeless programs and services, but also on research methods with vulnerable and marginalized populations. Some of the most respected and cited researchers on homelessness and health are members of the committee. Their input was invaluable in crafting a survey and approach that would work best with the Toronto homeless population. We also received input from a number of other committees in Toronto including the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, the Advisory Committee on Homeless and Socially Isolated Persons and the Ontario Association of Hostels. The survey developed with the exhaustive input of all of these committees was pre-tested extensively prior to execution the first time, on April 19, 2006.
The 2006 survey provided a wealth of information that has helped us better understand the demographics of the homeless population and their needs. In addition, the information on needs and service use has provided an evidence-base to make program improvements and strategically target new investments in homeless programs and services. Furthermore, through other research studies carried out through our Division, the results point to multiple lines of evidence of the success of the approach taken with the 2006 study.

Streets to Homes, the program I manage, is an evidence-based program. Independently reviewed and assessed, the program is acknowledged as one of the best housing programs in the world by the World Habitat Awards, is considered a best practice by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, has been honoured for its impact on public policy by the Arthur Kroeger Awards, and has won a dozen other awards for the quality of the processes used and thoroughness of design in program delivery. The 2006 Street Needs Assessment has been one of the aspects reviewed in all of these awards, and in particular, received a PSQF award in 2007 for the Street Needs Assessment.

My work on the Street Needs Assessment and Streets to Homes has provided me the great honour of working with academics, service providers and other government officials throughout the world. I have been a keynote speaker, conference presenter and workshop provider throughout North America on our approach to undertaking the needs assessment component of the Street Needs Assessment and the evidence based work of Streets to Homes. In 2008, the Community University Institute of Social Research at the University of Saskatoon replicated the needs assessment in Saskatoon. The US National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, by far the largest organization working on ending homelessness and working extensively with leading academics and researchers, had me present on the Street Needs Assessment in Washington DC last summer. There are other Canadian and American jurisdictions in the process of replicating the approach. In each instance there is quite a lot of interaction between the local service providers, government and academics. While there are accepted limitations to the count methods, Toronto, New York and Seattle are all using decoys and other methods to address some of these limitations. It has not been my experience that service providers or other academics in these communities have taken exception or found issue with the needs assessment component.

Perhaps it is also important to note that the Street Needs Assessment is but one tool that we use to gather information about the homeless population that we serve. Drop-in centres, Housing Help Centres, shelters and street outreach providers all also collect data. In addition, in the course of any year there are one or more other studies with professional researchers that examine important issues related to homelessness. The Street Needs Assessment compliments this other research. It is the largest and only single point in time collection of needs and demographic data. And it has been our experience that the information gleaned has great benefit and accuracy informing future policy and program design.

The 2009 Street Needs Assessment is an opportunity to not only see how the homeless population has changed in Toronto, but to also assess our progress towards our goal of ending homelessness. To that end, we are using the same questions and methods as were used in 2006. This consistency will allow for meaningful comparison, and it is my belief that in looking at comparison data we will be able to inform policy and programs even more.

Mr. Federman I hope this response is helpful at highlighting our approach and intent. Again, thank you for sharing your opinion with City Councillors and the Mayor. If you have additional questions, please let me know.

Iain De Jong
Manager, Streets to Homes

My thoughts on this in the next post.

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1 comment:

Joanna said...

This reply just makes me sad.