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Homeless Families Are Trapped In A Bureaucratic Nightmare

03/18/2016 10:30 EDT | Updated 03/19/2017 05:12 EDT
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Unhappy Depressed Woman

Rachel faces a gut-wrenching decision: put her own life and her step-daughter's safety at risk, or live on the streets.

Rachel, 55, took her step-daughter, Jessica, 15, with her when she escaped her abusive husband and left her home in rural Ontario. Rachel and Jessica (whose names have been changed to protect their identity) went to a YWCA shelter, where staff contacted a local community support organization, hoping to find the pair a safe home. The community non-profit helped Rachel and Jessica move into a low-rent apartment, thanks to a subsidy from Niagara Regional Housing.

Here's where the story goes awry.

Rachel is on disability support from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. It's her only source of income. She has shared legal custody of Jessica, but the ministry only provides Rachel with financial support for one person. Even with a rental subsidy, Rachel didn't have enough money to pay for the apartment and put food on the table. Worse, the government hadn't bothered to tell the other organizations involved in her case that, because Rachel still owns part of the house she escaped from, they'd cut off her disability payments if she moved into another home.

Yet another organization -- this one specializing in legal aid -- then became involved in Rachel's case. That agency tried unsuccessfully to help her resolve the conflict. To regain her disability payments, Rachel must go back home, taking Jessica with her and putting them both back in reach of their abuser. If they don't go home, Rachel and Jessica have no money and no place to live.

If you found this story confusing, imagine being Rachel, a traumatized single step-mom, and actually living it.

Provinces need to work with non-profits to adopt a "one family, one file" approach -- creating a single intake form and database.

The experts who work in the trenches with Canada's homeless tell us, routinely, vulnerable individuals like Rachel complete reams of paperwork and attend meetings with as many as five different government agencies and non-profit organizations. Often, the only outcome is severe stress for already devastated families.

A newly-released report from Raising the Roof, a national organization seeking solutions for the homeless, has a proposal for provincial governments that we believe will help organizations cut their red tape, and truly collaborate to find solutions.

Provinces need to work with non-profits to adopt a "one family, one file" approach -- creating a single intake form and database. When a homeless family first approaches any agency -- be it for social assistance, child welfare, or a homeless group -- a single electronic file would be started for all necessary information.

The province would assign families a single case worker whose job is to coordinate efforts between them and the different agencies. In addition to serving as liaison, this professional would help create a plan that ensures everyone knows what is expected of them and when, so the family gets into a stable home as quickly as possible.

It may seem like a simple idea, but unifying and streamlining administration will save both time and money, which can be better invested in helping people. The principle has been demonstrated as far away as in Tanzania, where a new electronic health tracking system and database is helping the government and non-profit groups to boost immunization rates.

A unified process also prevents additional trauma to parents, like Rachel, who will no longer have to constantly retell their story, reliving nightmare experiences over and over again, according to experts at Raising the Roof.

The executive director of the community non-profit that tried to find Rachel a home believes that if the ministry of community and social services had been more forthcoming, and worked with all the other organizations from the outset, a great deal of time and resources could have been saved. And Rachel and Jessica would not be facing a terrifyingly uncertain future.

It's a shameful failure if a system that is supposed to help homeless families, instead sees them back on the street.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.

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