Dr. Nick Falvo Discusses Approaches to Homelessness Prevention in Calgary

Dr. Nick Falvo

COVID-19 has forced communities to quickly enact policy changes to protect individuals and families in need. Given the urgency, there has been little time to ensure policies are best meeting those needs. To prevent scrambling, service providers should continuously explore best practices and rising trends.

This is where Dr. Nick Falvo can be of the utmost service. He has the ability to mobilize sector knowledge for the greater public good.

With a PhD in Public Policy, the Calgary-based research consultant has dedicated his professional life to exploring programming templates in Canada’s most respected homelessness networks.

The enthusiasm Dr. Falvo exudes for examples of housing and homelessness innovation is palpable. Highlighting what shelter services are doing in Calgary, Dr. Falvo pointed to research he’s been presenting on developing trends in system operations and knowledge sharing.

Home to nearly 1.34 million people, Calgary has been on the front lines of tackling homelessness in Canada.

Research and best practices examined by the Calgary Homelessness Foundation continue to demonstrate critical thinking and modernization methods. In our interview, Dr. Falvo first discussed Adaptive Case Management (ACM).

Referencing a program being administered by the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF), Dr. Falvo explained that one of their primary functions is to “fund agencies to support clients experiencing homelessness and get them into housing very quickly.”

A popular option for funding has generally been Intensive Case Management (ICM). With a 10:1 client-staff ratio, ICM translates into 16 hours of qualified staff support per month per client. ACM expands on this approach, enhancing parameters of flexibility.

“With Adaptive Case Management, it’s a loosening of this ratio, incentivizing an organization to house a lot of clients quickly, instead of incentivizing you to take on a fixed ratio indefinitely,” Dr. Falvo said. “As of fall 2018, Calgary was seeing considerable success in housing individuals and families via Adaptive Case Management in comparison to Intensive Case Management. People in Adaptive Case Management are getting housed very quickly.”

Breaking down ACM, he explained how the process works.

Industry professionals worried that the 10:1 ratio was unrealistic. If the same goal could be accomplished with fewer resources, then more vulnerable people could quickly be supported.

“The client must be housed in order for funding to flow for that person. As long as a lease is signed, funding flows from CHF,” he said.

CHF funds permanent place-based supportive housing at a rate of $35,000 to $40,000 per person per year on average. This funding stream doesn’t include capital costs.

Alternatively, the adaptive approach would actually curb spending by agencies already stretching their resources. It pays $5,000 per year for some people and gets them housed ($2,500 to get them in, including damage deposits, move-in costs and three months of rent supplements).

More ability to stretch resources ultimately creates room to help more people. And while the program is still being evaluated, Dr. Falvo indicated there seems to be an early groundswell of praise.

Switching gears to the targeted approach of “housing focused shelter” policies, Dr. Falvo highlighted that this innovation is being led through some Calgary emergency shelters.

“Calgary has high rental vacancy rates, relative to other cities,” he said. “As of October 2019, Calgary’s vacancy rates sat at 3.9%. Whereas Toronto’s vacancy rate was 1.5%, Ottawa’s vacancy rate was 1.8%, and Vancouver’s vacancy rate was 1.1%.”

“The Calgary Drop-In,” Dr. Falvo explained “consistently sees 100 new people per month asking for overnight accommodations. Prior to 2017, overnight accommodation was provided on the spot, with very few questions asked. Now, staff tracks each person’s path quite closely. Most gain physical access, but they’re assigned a housing worker immediately, and a housing plan is put in place within a day.”

While not an unheard-of principle, Canadian shelters have frequently utilized this type of practice, making Calgary Drop-In’s shifting focus noteworthy.

“Calgary Drop-In has announced itself as a housing-focused organization. They are now neurotically focused on housing,” he said.

“Staff is striking up regular conversations with residents about where they’re at with housing searches. Staff members have lanyards and frequently get new ones with new tips on how to communicate with residents on this,” Dr. Falvo continued.

A mild shift in focus has begun to not only heed results for clients, but is changing the game for staff and administers.

Dr. Falvo pointed to his research, referencing a quote from a senior official from the Calgary Drop-In.

“Anything comfortable that was making people want to stay in shelter, we shut it down. We stopped doing any and all activities not related to housing. We called this ‘positive disruption.’ This was not easy internally. Culture change and change management is fundamental to this. We shut off the TVs, closed down the library. Now we call the library a housing hub. We took out all the books. We used to get 1,200 people overnight each night – now it’s 700.”

This culture shift can cause discomfort for some. Kindness and benevolence of shelter staff have long been components of the services they offer. For some, this type of hardline approach could prove to be a significant departure of previous practice.

Only time will tell if this approach will return the intended results. Although so far, all signs point to yes.

When asked about how COVID-19 is changing the homelessness conversation in Canada, Dr. Falvo highlighted what he believes are positives, while forecasting some concerns.

Noting an increased attention on physical distancing practices in shelters, and mindfulness towards maintaining health assets, Dr. Falvo feels encouraged. He also noted continued efforts to improve relationships between homeless support agencies and public health officials, and concentrated efforts to combat congregate living arrangements.

Still, amongst all of his enthusiasm came a warning for a potential disaster following the pandemic. Referencing research that indicates the potential for a significant increase in homelessness across Canada, Dr. Falvo highlighted forecasts indicating a potential increase nationwide of up to 20%.

If those numbers ring true over the next 12-24 months as anticipated, other communities might be wise to take a page or two from Calgary’s system planning playbook. Both to avoid overcrowding shelters, and to adapt case management approaches to house people with urgency.

Leigh Zachary Bursey

Leigh Bursey


Leigh Bursey is a 33-year-old three-term City Councillor in Brockville, Ontario. Leigh is a director for Brockville Pride, and a member of the Canadian National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness lived experience working group. He is also Executive Director of Tiny Home Alliance Canada. Leigh is an author, musician (with his group Project Mantra), talk show host, activist, and a pro wrestler. Leigh is a former homeless youth, a punk rocker and a public speaker.

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