Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Are the Feds Hapless Over The Homeless?

The Auditor-General's reports on the RCMP and Canada's cultural industries, released yesterday, are getting big play on the CBC this morning. Another area worth a look is what the AG has to say about Ottawa's efforts to help the homeless. (A PDF version is available here.)

You won't find it easily on the Report Card's Table of Contents page. That's because the National Homelessness Initiative is what's called a horizontal initiative -- where partners from two or more organizations have established a formal funding agreement (e.g. Memorandum to Cabinet, Treasury Board submission, federal-provincial agreement) to work toward the achievement of shared outcomes. (That's the Treasury Board definition. In plain English, it's a program that gives multiple agencies money to work on a common goal -- in this case, solving the homelessness problem.)

The Initiative currently involves two ministries: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada runs five funding programs, while Public Works & Government Services funds a sixth.

You might have expected Health Canada, or the Public Health Agency of Canada, to be involved somehow, since studies have shown a link between poor health and homelessness. But neither of them are partners in NHI, which the Auditor General noted:
We found that, in a number of cases, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada worked with the same service providers and targeted the same homeless population. For example, some community organizations received funding from the AIDS and hepatitis C programs and from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada programs for homeless people. When we reviewed the files and interviewed regional officials, we did not find sufficient evidence of co-ordination between these federal organizations.

Co-ordination goes beyond funding. Health Canada did not work with other departments to address policy gaps or develop implementation strategies where it was working with the same service providers. The National Homelessness Initiative did not adequately benefit from the expertise of Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada; opportunities to enhance the federal contribution to the homelessness issue were missed.
(Page 13 of the report)
So you have three programs -- Health Canada, PHAC, and NHI -- targeting the same population, and yet they're not working together. Bureaucratic inefficiency.

You might have also expected Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC) to be involved with NHI. CMHC was involved with the initiative at the beginning, but not now.

During the second phase of the NHI program it was apparently decided that CHMC's programs would target those "at risk" of becoming homeless, while NHI would focus on people who already were: "relative" versus "absolute" homeless. A sensible division, except that neither NHI nor CMHC actually had guidelines to define "relative" and "absolute."

The result was overlapping and duplication of services:
In Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver, we found that the Corporation and HRSDC were funding the same types of capital projects, such as shelters and transitional and supportive housing. In some cases, they were funding different activities in the same buildings. In many instances, we found that the Corporation managed the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance and the Shelter Enhancement programs separately from other federal programs directed at the homeless population. In some cases, we did not find evidence of federal co-ordination, except for the official opening ceremony.

In Phase 2, the Corporation continued to fund shelter renovations which, in our view, needed to be co-ordinated with HRSDC to ensure sustainable support services for the shelters. In Edmonton, the Corporation's advice was not adequately considered in the project selection process. In Toronto, the Corporation and HRSDC transferred the program administration for the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program and the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative to the City of Toronto. However, they did not work together on how these two programs could be better aligned for delivery by the city.

Despite some early efforts to modify its programs, in the three cities we examined, we found that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation could have done more to bring its housing expertise to federally supported projects for the homeless population.
(pages 14-15)
Not surprisingly, the Auditor General also found accountability problems with NHI; there was no clear idea which ministries and agencies were involved, which makes it hard to say how much NHI actually costs the taxpayer.

It's interesting to note that, apart from an overall commitment to improving accountability, the government's response contains no specific actions regarding the NHI. Clearly the government wants to be seen doing something about the homeless; NHI's existence proves that. But the question still remains whether they want to do that something more efficiently and effectively. I'm not at all assured that they do.