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Tackling Complex Issues in Substance Use, Mental Health, and Homelessness

The problems that communities are trying to solve are increasingly complex. Some people even refer to these as “wicked” problems. These problems don’t have a defined solution or a known endpoint. The problem may continuously shift or change as we try to solve it. An example of this type of complex problem is the intersectionality around homelessness, substance use and mental health that communities across Ontario and the country are working to understand and address.


Collective Results recently led a review and gap analysis of housing, substance use, and mental health services for people experiencing homelessness in the City of Guelph. The purpose of this project was to understand community wide roles and responsibilities in these areas and how the community can move from a fragmented and reactionary approach to one that is collaborative and proactive.


To support the City of Guelph, Collective Results led a comprehensive community consultation process that consisted of an inventory of services, a partner survey, key informant interviews and peer led interviews with people with lived experience of homelessness, substance use and/or mental health. Collective Results also led a system wide review which consisted of an environmental scan and key informant interviews to identify evidence-based practices along with new or emerging practices happening across Ontario.


This research led to the development of 13 total recommendations for Guelph Council to consider, including 6 system level recommendations, 3 housing focused recommendations and 4 health services focused recommendations. The final report with these recommendations were presented to the Guelph City Council in September 2023 and motions were passed based on the recommendations in October 2023.


Given that complex problems such as this don’t have a defined solution, it is critically important for the community to have a vision that guides the work forward. One way to do this is to turn off all the noise pertaining to funding sources, ministry mandates, politics, etc., and rally around the most vulnerable people in a community. To have any meaningful impact at a community level, it is vital that the people who are experiencing these challenges are placed at the center and have a voice in informing actions. A great example of this is the adoption of a human rights-based approach to housing by local governments. This approach focuses on housing outcomes for everyone in Canada as a human right based on the principles of non-discrimination, inclusion, participation and accountability. More on this approach in next week’s blog.


Another critical element to addressing complex community problems is working collaboratively across sectors to address the person as a whole, as opposed to working in silos to address each issue independently. In this case, system level planning and action recognizes that housing issues are interconnected with other social, economic and community factors, which all impact community well-being. It requires a comprehensive and collaborative response that brings together diverse partners and resources. The goal is to create a more efficient, equitable, and sustainable housing system that addresses the diverse needs of a population.


Solving complex problems is challenging work! Communities that are committed to collaboration and allowing space for ongoing learning (including learning from mistakes), questioning, piloting, and continuous improvement will emerge as leaders as we work to understand and solve complex problems, including those related to housing, substance use and mental health for people experiencing homelessness. Collective Results enjoys supporting communities with complex social problems because it is truly meaningful work that challenges us to think differently and augments our understanding of how to address these “wicked” problems.


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