Alleviating homelessness in Toronto

5 mins read

Guest blog by Rob Graham

My public policy implementation challenge is the alleviation of homelessness in Toronto. The problem is getting worse as evidenced by the increasing number of homeless, the frequency and severity of their comorbidities and the increasing demand for shelter services like housing support, mental health, addictions, other medical needs, clothing, beds for the night and battling food insecurity.

Please watch the short video below.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the course being online. Having previously taken a two-week HKSEE course on campus, I was initially a little apprehensive about missing social interaction with faculty and classmates. I was wrong.

I thought the online format would only provide the “bear” essentials (more on this later) and that I would be working alone. This proved not to be the case. The global connection of Zoom’s live-video proved to be a stimulating learning experience. The live faculty sessions with Professor Andrews, streaming from different parts of his lovely home (featuring the upstairs, downstairs and kitchen) brought a heightened sense of sincerity and authenticity to the pedagogy. I think it brought our class closer together in the context of COVID-19.

Over this course journey I know my classmates dealt with wild fires, COVID-19, others with hurricanes and elections and, for me, I lost my Mom.

Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada

On a lighter note, during the COVID lockdown my family quarantined at our cabin north of Toronto where I did several weeks of this course. The picture below shows where we were. It serves to remind me how fortunate my family was during the pandemic. Speaking to my classmates with first-hand accounts from India, Egypt, Argentina, West Africa and the USA, I learned just how much suffering this pandemic inflicted on the global community.

When COVID-19 ends, HKS might consider retaining the online pedagogy with Zoom’s interconnectivity bringing us together in real-time from all over the world.

This student on annual solo wilderness retreat 2020

Key Learning Takeaways: Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) with its own theme song was, for me, one of the main takeaways from the course. The approach, explained through the example the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition, used short scouting hikes testing out the best trail forward. These were short feedback loops, adaptation was quick, and iterations were tried and tried again. The route was continuously adjusted. An outdoors enthusiast, this student travelled through Nepal. I am experienced in wilderness travel and identify with the Lewis and Clark analogy and have some knowledge of the Everest case.

Key learning takeaways include The Triangle of Trust: The three core drivers of trust being authenticity, logic and empathy. Everything starts with trust. This is true in my leadership roles and in my everyday life.

Trust needs to be at the core of leading our board of directors at the homeless treatment centre and needed to empower our board to bring its full talents to our public policy challenge of alleviating homelessness. As a person who stutters, most people taking a phone call from me or hearing me speak in public or in private sense authenticity.

The triangle of trust explains a lot in my career, and in the world of business, politics and public policy where I live.

The 4P Model for Strategic Leadership: Perception, process, people and projection – the “what” I am showing the world about myself and the “what” I am telling myself about the world. And, to leave my biases checked – a constant challenge.

If PDIA can have its own Harvard produced rap theme song by Counter Factual Productions, then, it stands to reason, PDIA can be demonstrated in a more unique real-world situation as well. So when a black bear joined this student during a summer’s swim in a Canadian lake it was time to iterate: Quickly test out the best options: swim to shore and grab my phone, or swim further out into the lake, or dive under the water holding my breath. Experiment with these options (with really, really, quick feedback loops). Decide to swim to shore and get this on video (because my housing group wouldn’t believe me). This is Lewis and Clark stuff. Click on the short video below to see this PDIA the adventure.

Having dried off from swimming, bear seen looking for me, I was busy working on the next Module!

On a more serious note, there are at least two immediate aspects to this public policy implementation: (i) building supportive housing and (ii) preventing persons from becoming homeless in the first place. In Toronto, the three orders of government do not have the budget capacity to finance new housing. Canadian pensions do.

Iteration: Use a public-private delivery model with pension capital to build supportive housing. The government becomes a tenant while the pension fund receives a government-guaranteed return on investment for the design-build-management of new supportive housing stock.

What we have been able to accomplish thus far is only the beginning of a long walk. I gained authority by working the phones and caucusing the directors and executives to get elected to Board Chair of the Good Shepherd Centre in Toronto in October 2020. The Good Shepherd is a leading treatment centre and shelter for homeless citizens. Our board is made up of highly skilled senior professionals. For additional information on the Good Shepherd Centre please see the link below.


We already do considerable work in supportive housing and our organization has an excellent reputation. I am trying to lead our board to bring out its full potential and to engage all the directors in activist leadership roles in cresting supportive housing solutions.

On this IPP multi-month journey I managed to begin building teams of authority, acceptance and ability. Or, as I like to say we have pulled together a “good hand of face cards,” of authorizers including pension fund leaders, ability in treating homelessness and with developer-builders in real estate. The COVID-19 impact on Toronto’s homeless population has brought the issue of homelessness much more in the public’s view. There is wide-scale acceptance of the problem and a renewed interest in the three orders of government to do something quickly. 

Initially this student, remember – a self-proclaimed rugged outdoors type, wasn’t too sure about the fishbone concept. So here you go – a before and after “PDIA fishing”.  

The before and after pictures of my fishbone are shown before deconstruction, before and after dinner, please see below.

Before Dinner.

best entry point was at “more homeless, worse disease” so become Chair of the Good Shepherd

The fishbone diagram speaks to no clear mandate from government, to homelessness and comorbidities increasing in frequency and severity and to confusing and overlapping government programs and to a lack of supportive housing.

What motivates me is the next homeless person on the street could be you, or me. Homelessness can arise from a number of causes and situations. The best defense against becoming homeless isn’t actually money, but a strong family support network. How society treats the weakest and most vulnerable members defines us. What motivates me is the difference between those laying on the sidewalk and you and I is thinner than a piece of paper.

Advice to those coming through the IPP

This is not like other executive course. It is an action-learning seven-month course blending real-world public policy implementation with an academic component.

 The more you invest in the course, the more you will get out of it.

Public policy professionals can, with assurance, consider the Harvard Kennedy School’s IPP as preeminent in the field of public policy.

 The global participation with your fellow practitioners is of immense value and something you should actively maintain during the course and after completion of the course.

Working with my international classmates is my greatest source of inspiration and I include them here: Adrianna Hernandez, Milzy Carrasco, Mike Burns, Pablo Curat and Teshome Mengesha Marra.

Professor Andrews said we are facilitating emergence in this world. I hope we all keep this emergence moving forward.

So welcome to our growing global community of public policy practice. Stay in touch and good luck.

In Memory of my Mom: Adele Graham

September 10, 1923 – November 16, 2020

Rob Graham, Toronto.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

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