Specialized Housing is a programme within the COSTI North York Centre (a non-profit community-based agency which provides a range of services to the community), which focuses on providing support to ‘vulnerable’ seniors in North York with regards to their housing and living conditions. Specialized Housing impacts social mobility of the seniors in that it helps them move out of isolation and gain access to society again. Thus COSTI-SHP is not a housing agency but a community service to help seniors to be involved social networks and active community life while they receive access to accommodation and health care services that they could not receive in their previous isolated lives. Established officially in 2011, the programme is part and parcel of the ‘Street to Home’ programme, a housing support programme launched by the City of Toronto with the following mandate; serve homeless people who live outdoors, which includes individuals living in parks, ravines, under bridges, on sidewalks, lane‐ways, alleys, stairwells, building alcoves, squats and living in vehicles. Specialized Housing was created as a response to a high need within the community for not only general housing support services (COSTI already had a programme which focused on that) but specialized services which recognize case-specific complexities and provide services based upon specific needs of each client.
COSTI-SHP works with individuals on a one-to-one basis to identify their needs based upon conditions, mental health state, physical ability, and mobility levels. The target audience of the programme is defined as ‘vulnerable seniors’ in North York, that is seniors (55 and above) with mental and/or physical disabilities, mobility and isolation issues. The programme’s primary aim is to provide these seniors with the support they need in order to get out of isolation and have easy access to services. This support includes anything from helping them fight against eviction to helping seniors relocate to specialised housing units with on-site care. The programme serves around 45 seniors per year.
“We introduce or connect them to the senior centres of the area, then that senior centre or community centre also helps them with many of their needs, whether they are tax-related, financial, etc. So we basically take them out of that desperate isolated situation and then put them in contact with a lot of services.”
Specialized Housing focuses on addressing the very basic needs of its audience at an individual level. Our respondent asserted that there is currently a visible gap within services provided to seniors in the community, many of whom are deeply struggling with making ends meet. Moreover, their problems are often compounded when they face one or multiple of the following issues: (i) become isolated in their homes due to not having social ties; (ii) have mobility and physical problems which limits their ability to take care of themselves and their living environment; (iii) most significantly when they struggle with mental health issues (which in many cases go without being recognized and addressed). Moreover, often seniors who are addressed by the programme are on the verge of getting evicted as many of them cannot afford rent or have problems with managing their finances (many struggle with paying rent on time). Our respondent underlined that being involved in this programme the seniors become active members of the community again. They are linked to each other, to the other age groups of the community and participate constructive community activities. The cases our correspondent referred included desperate situations and financial and social improvements of seniors after receiving this service. Thus, by helping them find alternative housing and connecting them to available services, the programme positively influences the financial conditions of the seniors and put them back into the social live.
The programme is very small with one social worker as the only permanent staff member. In addition there is a City officer who supervises and supports the programme. Specialized Housing receives its entire funding from the City of Toronto. Given the size of the organisations, collaboration with other agencies and service providers is quintessential to the existence and functioning of this programme.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The diversity of the neighbourhood very well resonates in the audience of the programme. Our respondent contended that there is great diversity among the seniors in terms of ethnicity, culture, educational and occupational background, socio-economic status and length of stay in Toronto. Given the case-based approach towards provision of services within this programme, diversity is addressed at the individual and a very personal level. For instance, the programme works with many newcomer seniors who need assistance in specific areas such as language, legal and tax-related information as well as settlement. He further noted that addressing diversity is a deliberate goal within Specialized Housing, however given that the programme serves ‘vulnerable’ seniors, most of the efforts are organised around dealing with negative aspects of the notion.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The most important internal factor contributing to the success of the programme is the passion and commitment of the programme manager. COSTI-SHP is a one-man project, thus it is without a doubt that personal characteristics of the person behind it have had direct influence on its effectiveness. Additionally, the flexibility and mobility of the social worker allows him to reach out to a broader audience. Moreover, the programme tends to keep in touch with the seniors for a long period making sure that they do not fall back into isolation after the referrals have been made. Many service providers tend to put the responsibility upon the clients in terms of making use of services while for some high-need cases there needs to be consistent follow-up and touching base in order for the individuals to remain on board with the programme. Meanwhile, the fact that they have one staff member is a clear indication of how limited the resources made available to the programme are. The funding is stable, as our respondent contends, however it entails that only a limited number of seniors can be served while the demand in the community remains very high. Another external limitation is not having direct and timely access to other service providers. Sometimes there are long waiting lists and it takes a while before the seniors can make use of services in other agencies and that creates many issues within the programme.
COSTI’s Specialized Housing programme is a small but none-the-less significant project, which aims towards serving a very vulnerable and high-need part of the community. The innovative potential of the programme lies in its intense and individually-based approach towards recognition of needs; and enhancing redistribution of resources via providing services which creates an opportunity for addressing the so-called ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ diversities in the community. The future development of the programme will highly depend on changes with regards to sources of funding made available to it. Right now there is an evaluation report being made on the effectiveness of the project and its impacts on the community. The programme manager hopes that the report will serve as evidence for the importance and outreach of Specialized Housing and may thus help with attracting new and additional sources of funding and support to the programme.