Ask the Hub - How can we ensure sustainability for Housing First programs?

Mars 21, 2014

Tim Richter of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness answers this question for us. 

I hate to say it, but there is no such thing as ‘permanent’ funding in our world. Ensuring sustainability for Housing First programs is a constant process and a lot of work. Here are some ideas for creating and maintaining sustainability.

Housing Domino
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  1. Mainstream & Upload – From the beginning of program development, look for ways to partner with mainstream services. Will your local health authority provide psychiatric services? This engages government funders, adds new resources some funding may not allow for, and brings important potential allies to the table for future collaboration.

    Over the longer term however, it’s also important to develop a deliberate strategy to ‘upload’. We know homelessness is caused by structural, systemic and individual factors. We’ve all experienced the government ‘downloading’ responsibility for social issues onto the non-profit sector. An uploading strategy is the reverse.  As you house people in Housing First programs you will begin to uncover systemic problems (e.g. people not being served by the health care system, discharged from public systems). How can we get mainstream systems to take responsibility for the people they are not serving? How do we highlight broken public systems? This can be as straightforward as getting the local health region/authority to provide mental health and medical support to your clients, or it can be as big as a deliberate strategy to lobby your provincial government to prevent discharges into homelessness, fund new affordable housing or provide new Housing First funding. Uploading is important for sustainability as it can add resources or reduce the burden placed on your community.

  2. Performance – You have to deliver a quality program to ensure that you’re meeting your clients’ needs, the requirements of your funders and public expectations. Poorly performing programs are not sustainable or will not get more money. Poorly performing programs are also a risk to the growing movement to end homelessness – if too many programs fail, public and political confidence in Housing First may erode. The flip side is high performing programs, and communities that get results, get support.

    This creates critical questions for communities – how will you ensure performance of your Housing First programs? There are some excellent performance management processes for large and small communities in Alberta – Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat have great systems in place.

  3. Adaptability – Hardwire research into your organization and strategy so you have constant visibility of performance. Be on the lookout for best and promising practices and actively analyze performance and data to keep on top of ‘your world’. This helps you not only adapt to changing conditions, but also ensure a good level of performance as well as positioning you as an expert on the subject.

  4. Knowledge Leadership – It’s important to work toward being a knowledge leader. By staying ahead of government and other funders your organization can become both indispensable and trusted. One of the secrets to securing government funding is that the government has to trust in the expertise and credibility of their counterpart. Being experts, and being seen as experts, builds that trust. It also gives your organization credibility and influence in advocating for public policy change.

  5. Leadership of the UNusual Suspects – Bring in people who aren’t usually seen as homeless advocates or service providers. Partnering is helpful for lots of reasons, but in terms of sustainability a high caliber network (e.g. board of directors), from outside the homeless system can be highly credible in the community and with government. This credibility is an important ingredient in sustainability. Beyond that, they can also be key to raising non-government money.

  6. Financial Risk Management – Look for multiple sources of funding (federal, provincial, private). Social finance opportunities, like social impact bonds, hold a lot of promise in potential application with Housing First programs.

  7. Communication – ‘Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.’ Own the issue and keep it and success in the news. During the five years I worked with the Calgary Homeless Foundation I think we started 80% of the news stories on homelessness in Calgary. We aimed to have at least one communication per week to our stakeholders and kept a constant and active presence on social media. It is critical to become the voice of the issue. When an organization communicates effectively, and often, they implicitly assert a leadership role. Leadership, presence and brand are critical to fundraising and getting public funding.

  8. Advocacy – Keep in constant touch with the political and bureaucratic levels of government. You can do this through the media but also by maintaining active contact with your government officials. Invite your elected representatives, and key policy makers, to your annual meetings, events, or to have tours of your facility or to meet with clients.  

At the end of the day, it may not be easy, and there may not be any silver bullets, but long term sustainability of Housing First programs is possible.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

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