Looking for homelessness or housing support? Find Help

Recovery from the Covid‑19 Crisis: Back to ‘Normal’ or an Opportunity for Innovation and Reform?


by David MacKenzie and Tammy Hand from Upstream Australia/UniSA; Colleen Cartwright from Barwon, Child Youth and Family and The Geelong Project; Jon Park and Bec Glen from YES-Unlimited and The Albury Project; and Sheldon Pollett, Jill Doyle, and David Banfield from Choices for Youth and the Upstream Canada Initiative in Newfoundland and Labrador

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.

The Covid‑19 pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest world-wide crisis since the 1930s. It is a global health and economic crisis bundled up in one. In the first months, as governments began to respond with lockdowns, mask wearing, and other measures, there was reference to a future time when our lives might return to ‘normal’. Now, when the term normal is used it is usually the ‘new normal’ — whatever that is likely to be.

As an international group of researchers and human services professionals, we are deeply involved with the responses to homelessness in Australia and Canada, especially for vulnerable young people and families through the Community and Schools and Services Model (COSS) of early intervention. But more than that, we are also involved with the reform movement around early intervention and prevention as well as rapid rehousing options and Housing First developments — and the challenge to the status quo of the current service system profile. Our thoughts on the impacts and consequences of Covid‑19 can be separated out on several levels.

The first is what effect Covid‑19 has had on vulnerable individuals especially those experiencing homelessness; secondly, what effect has Covid‑19 had on the community services agencies that provide homelessness services or specialist services for homeless people; and thirdly, what effect has the Covid‑19 crisis had on the prospects for much needed policy change and reform?

In any crisis, the issue of ‘innovation’ looms large. In terms of economic crises, the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that crises were the ‘seedbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship’. Despite the destruction wrought during crises, such times can also be  understood as an impetus for creativity that sees new technologies and innovations that pave the way for a new cycle of economic growth. This argument is captured in the adage ‘necessity is the motherhood of invention’. One of our questions is in what ways has the Covid‑19 crisis fuelled innovation, if indeed it has at all, and in terms of what benefits and for whom.

The Impacts on Vulnerable Youth and Families

The impact of the Covid‑19 Pandemic in Australia and Canada has affected everyone, but not equally. Amongst the most vulnerable, homeless young people and their families have been hugely affected. This is more generally the case in other countries as well, where the poorest sections of the population and those with the least resources including access to health care are the worst affected and the most likely to die as a result. While the elderly are generally more at-risk in terms of adverse health outcomes, young people face financial and longer-term negative career  impacts.

From April to July 2020, Choices for Youth connected with 486 young people across Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) in Canada to find out from young people themselves how Covid‑19 was impacting on their lives. The findings were disturbing. Two thirds (67 per cent) reported impacts on their mental health; 77 per cent said that their financial position would be affected over the next six months; 79 per cent were pessimistic about the NL economy; and 77 per cent were uncertain or worried about their education goals. On the positive side of the ledger, young people supported an ongoing basic income program and supported broader system change.

In the April 2020 edition of Parity, several Australian authors of this paper co-wrote an article on the impacts of Covid‑19 on our COSS work in the youth homelessness space at an earlier stage of the global health pandemic. In summary, we documented the ways that the lead agencies in Geelong and Albury had adapted to using online methods for connecting with young people who were already clients or who needed to be reached and supported. So, what has changed since this time?

The second lockdown in Victoria with another return to at-home learning was a major challenge for them and for families who were under stress.

Reports of increased disengagement of at-risk and vulnerable young people from their education and schools was a major concern. Could this be remedied and to what extent?

Copious reports of greater prevalence of mental health issues amongst young people led to calls for more government investment in an under-resourced program area.

Worries about increasing family and domestic violence, and its effect on homelessness into the future raised issues about how to reach those families who need support.

The Impacts on the Community Services Sector

The impact of Covid‑19 on the economy and on many businesses was dramatic. In Australia, all businesses except for those deemed ‘essential’ services were ordered to be closed. Business  providing food could open but only by observing strict social distancing and mask wearing. Unemployment surged. Many businesses faced major financial challenges. After forming a National Cabinet, Australian governments responded in what has been described as the ‘fastest and largest fiscal response’ in modern Australian history with something like several hundred specific policy interventions on all levels costing at least $200 billion. In Canada, similar measures were taken although in some cases not implemented as quickly.

The above plot of new cases raises some interesting questions about the different national actions vis-a-vis Covid‑19; but, that is another debate although undoubtedly one worth having. Putting fiscal policy differences aside, Australian governments acted in an unusually united way to provide relief while people battened down under strict health rulings that, as of the end of November 2020, have almost eliminated contagion of the virus in the Australian population.

This must be acknowledged as an extraordinary surge of innovation in policy decision-making. Many of the expenditures are not sustainable at the levels maintained during the height of the crisis, but what remains to be seen is what the ‘new normal’ is going to be like in terms of a policy mix during recovery from Covid‑19 and beyond. This is the case for both Australia and Canada.

Not-for-profit community services agencies providing support to homeless individuals and families did not, generally, face the same financial pressures as for-profit businesses. Specialist  Homelessness Services agencies held contracts for the provision of support and accommodation to people at-risk of homelessness or who experienced homelessness and these continued. However, homelessness agencies faced a huge practice challenge.

In terms of practice innovation and adaptations, our agencies demonstrated ingenuity and commitment to the work they do with vulnerable young people. Online tools and methods were utilised to enable more connection than might have been thought possible prior to Covid‑19 but, on the other hand, there are limitations. Our workers reported ZOOM fatigue — ‘Uh, another ZOOM teleconference!’ — as well as the blurring of the boundaries between work and home lives and a slow deterioration in the sense of belonging at work with work colleagues. Direct person‑to-person interactions remain the gold standard for human communication and relations.

The Impacts on Systems and Reform

We started our commentary on the Covid‑19 crisis by thinking about ‘innovation’ under conditions of crisis. In economics, there is a relationship between crises and the acceleration of innovative responses. Some businesses collapse, some survive relatively unchanged, while new businesses emerge driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. If this is true in the capitalist marketplace, is it also true in the non-government organisation (NGO) community sector as well, and in what sense? We have seen some unexpected innovative policy decisions fast-tracked.

What now happens during recovery from Covid‑19? Do we simply drift back to normal — the way it was pre-Covid‑19 — or do we use the crisis as a driver for overdue innovation and reform, so that we do not go back to the old normal, except worse than before? A key difference in the innovation possible in the marketplace of for-profit companies is that it is something that is in their bailiwick to decide to do and invest in or not. By contrast, the not-for-profit sector and homelessness services operate under government policies and depend on government funding. Philanthropic funding does play an important, but minor, role.

The Eisenhower Matrix provides a useful framework to work out what is important and what is urgent, to avoid the ‘urgency trap’ — highlighting the famous Eisenhower quotation: ‘what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important’. This matrix is useful to analyse the mix of policies and practices in terms of their contribution to real progress, or whether policies and practices have just frenetically responded to crisis and neglected the opportunities to invest in a more effective future, see Diagram 1.

It could be argued that all the measures in the Covid‑19 response are important. In one sense that is a convincing point, however, if in responding to rough sleeping it was important to offer rapid rehousing, our governments have not acted as if doing that was genuinely important. The above matrix does provide a useful heuristic for thinking about a balanced system response that will make a significant difference, if implemented. The pre-Covid‑19 homelessness services sector was (and is) heavily focused on crisis interventions.

From a systems perspective, it is clear that there is no possible way that focussing on crisis services and rough sleeping interventions can ever prevent homelessness and reduce the prevalence of homelessness. Think about this logically — how can increasing the capacity of crisis and rough sleeping services and functional zero approaches prevent people who are at-risk of homelessness from becoming homeless — it is just not conceivably possible!

The most effective way to reduce homelessness is to prevent people from experiencing homelessness in the first place. Prioritising and funding early intervention and prevention programs and responses that are effective in actually preventing people from becoming homeless means some different measures for different cohorts. For young people, a powerful place-based ‘collective impact’ model of early intervention is the COSS Model in the form of The Geelong Project, The Albury Project, and the new initiative in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Supporting young people ageing out of Out of Home Care until they are at least 21 years of age is another important initiative that needs to be systemically implemented. People exiting custodial institutions are at high risk, and wrap-around support for them will make a huge difference and save the community further costs for potential recidivism and re-incarceration.

A comprehensive and sustained strategic response to family violence will begin to reduce the flow of family groups of women and children into homelessness. Finally, a capacity for rapid rehousing and major sustained investment in social housing are also strategic priorities. Given our involvement with vulnerable young people, we are particularly concerned that a Housing First for Youth approach be widely implemented in both Australia and Canada.

During the Covid‑19 pandemic, governments have increased funding to crisis support services. In many jurisdictions, governments have moved rough sleepers from the streets to hotel-type accommodations, which has offered those people a safe(r) place to shelter from the Covid‑19 storm — however, it is unclear how long governments will continue to fund this housing first-type response for rough sleepers. Once again, the gap between human needs and the supply of housing is exposed.

Now this is not to say that supporting currently homelessness people is not an urgent imperative — it is. As part of the Covid‑19 response, an urgent crisis measure to support all homeless people into safe and stable accommodation, albeit temporary housing, is something we all supported. However, we advise and support a housing-first response for homelessness with the caveat that the response is actually Housing First — with strong adherence to fidelity to the principles of Housing First — and not a weak Housing First response.

Specifically, with regards to young people, we advocate for a Housing First for Youth approach and for youth-appropriate housing solutions that link young people with appropriate supports and to education and training, such as is offered by the My Foundations Youth Housing Company in Australia, as a cost-effective way to house and support young people post-homelessness. Our concern is that the new normal may well end up looking a lot like the old normal! Please, do not let that be the case.

What Have We Learned?

On reflection, no one was prepared for this global health pandemic. When extremist politics dominated health and scientific considerations as in the United States, the result has been hundreds of thousands of deaths that were avoidable. The outcomes in Canada and Australia have been much better.

Our most vulnerable people, and especially young people, have been significantly impacted by Covid‑19 and will be disproportionately impacted after Covid‑19, with negative impacts ranging from  unemployment, increased mental health issues to homelessness. Specific attention must be given to supporting young people moving forward. In terms of youth homelessness, the challenge is policy reform and, at least, the beginning of investment in innovation that must prioritise early intervention and prevention approaches that actually prevent young people from becoming homeless in the first place. And for those young people who unavoidably experience homelessness, we need adequate and appropriate housing options for young people that offer safety, support, and link young people to education and training.

By contrast, increasing funding for crisis and functional zero approaches is not a strategic response and, if governments prioritise these types of approaches in the post-Covid‑19 recovery, the numbers of people across all age cohorts touching the homelessness services sector will substantially increase over the next few years to levels beyond where we were prior to the Covid‑19 crisis.

To read more articles like this, and to stay up-to-date with insights for and from the sector, become a Parity subscriber.

Subscribe to CHP eNews

Get the latest homelessness insights and updates straight to your inbox with Council to Homeless Persons eNews.