Program Spotlight: Diversion Work in Calgary’s Homeless-Serving Sector

What does diversion mean?

Diversion means that people are directed away from emergency shelters into some form of housing.

What does diversion look like?

Diversion programs exist for people who have recently become homeless and have only just entered Calgary’s Homeless-Serving System of Care. It often happens at the shelter door as a conversation with a case worker. The caseworker will talk with the client to determine how they entered homelessness and see if there are any natural supports they can lean on, such as family or friends. Some of the programs even work with families to repair broken relationships. They can connect the individual with assistance in applying for financial supports, damage deposit, rental arrears relocation or rehousing, or a few months’ rent.

Why is diversion important?

Calgary’s Homeless-Serving System of Care works to provide tailored support for everyone. Even though there are some similarities amongst the homeless population, everyone’s needs are different, and we collectively offer a spectrum of services to help.

Imagine if our health care system was only made up of hospitals. People don’t always need to visit the ER if a trip to the pharmacy will do. It’s the same with the services our sector provides to clients; diversion is one offering on a spectrum of services.

If the difference between someone being quickly rehoused or staying homeless is simply assistance with a damage deposit, rental arrears, or applying for Alberta Works, diversion programs aim to make up the difference, addressing someone’s homelessness in the moment, or quickly after it starts. We utilize diversion to decrease the number of people in the homeless-serving system of care and reduce time spent in a shelter, which can be challenging and traumatizing, and potentially further entrench them into homelessness.

What would happen if appropriate diversion did not happen?

Shelters are a vital part of our homeless-serving system. They are there for people who have nowhere else to turn. The experience of being in a shelter is also a big adjustment from the experience of having a home. It can be very traumatizing for people and has the potential to increase the complexity of an already challenging situation. It disconnects them from the relationships they usually rely on and forces them to rely on a system, which can be destabilizing. It means that someone else cooks for them, shows them where to sleep, and tells them when to wake up—and it means they don’t have an address or a place to store their belongings. Shelters can also be a health risk, especially in our current COVID-19 context. The purpose of a shelter is to provide emergency space while people wait for more permanent housing.

How does diversion work contribute to reducing and ending homelessness?

Diverting people from shelter ensures that they move into housing quickly instead—which means that people can rely on themselves and their natural supports rather than the homeless-serving system of care. That means that many people can be spared from utilizing emergency shelters—and if they do enter a shelter, they are moved into housing quickly, ending their experience of homelessness.

What agencies are currently involved in diversion work?

The Mustard Seed, Calgary Drop-In Centre, Aspen Family and Community Network Society Children’s Cottage Society, Calgary Alpha House Society, Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary (BGCC), and Centre for Newcomers.

Has diversion work been impacted by the pandemic?

The homeless-serving sector’s diversion work has increased as it’s now considered a health measure to reduce exposure within congregate settings, or large gathering spaces. As part of our COVID-19 response, we’ve launched a transitional hotel with the Calgary Drop-in Centre that diverts individuals from shelters and moves them into permanent housing, and we are also in the midst of launching a place-based diversion program with the Mustard Seed.

What is CHF’s role in diversion?

CHF primarily funds these programs, and we also collect data from these programs—such as the number of people accessing them, their current barriers to housing, and the kinds of solutions that are available within our community. We analyze the information so the sector can better serve other individuals who may be facing a similar situation. We also provide training opportunities, mentorship, and programs for caseworkers who work within these programs.

What are the results?

Since January, 284 people have been diverted from shelter into housing, and all of these individuals are exceeding our goal of remaining in housing for 3 months without re-entering the shelter system. Diversion programs are a recent development with the collection of diversion data began in 2019. The information will continue to be reviewed, and will inform more successful diversion work as we continue.