Homelessness Learning Hub continues improving lives, training

Hand reaching out for help

By Alexander Huls, deputy editor, YFile

Four years after its launch, the Homelessness Learning Hub (HLHub) is evolving to continue becoming an essential resource across Canada to the homeless-serving sector.

When the HLHub launched in 2019, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) at York University had a clear vision of what it wanted the site to be.

“We’ve always been aware that the sector is quite cash strapped and often doesn’t have resources to send their staff for training,” says Stephanie Vasko, senior director of communications at COH. Because organizations often have time and money for mandatory training (such as first aid or crisis intervention), but not any additional professional development, COH wanted to create a free, self-directed online platform that brings together promising practices and training in the form of practical tools and resources.

Stephanie Vasko
Stephanie Vasko

With funding provided by the Community Capacity and Innovation funding stream of Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, the HLHub dedicated its first two years with a clear strategy on how it would build a strong training curriculum aimed at service providers, researchers and policymakers. “We committed to developing five original self-paced trainings, or collections of resources, every year,” explains Karen Bosworth, senior instructional design specialist for the COH. “That would allow us to focus on building high-quality materials for the website, while also allowing us time to curate additional, relevant resources for the website’s library.”

The HLHub saw encouraging success out of the gate, but the team wasn’t content to rest on their laurels. Because the homeless-serving sector has frequently evolving training needs, in 2020, COH decided to assess their progress by soliciting and reviewing feedback from participants. “We felt it was an opportune time to understand what functionality on the website was working and wasn’t working. The best way to do that was listen to those who were using it.”

In doing so, it proved to direct not just the future of the site, but boost its success.

Among the surprises feedback revealed was that individuals in administrative, supervisor or human resource positions with no frontline experience were using HLHub to better understand what their staff were doing. There was another unexpected audience, too. “We learned that about half of the participants were coming from colleges. Students were being assigned our trainings as part of their coursework, which is a completely unintended audience,” says Vasko. It was a welcome sign, indicating that HLHub was helping to right the future, with students becoming equipped with the training before they enter careers in the sector.

Karen Bosworth
Karen Bosworth

Inspired by these discoveries and others, COH upgraded the HLHub website in 2021. “We really made it more true to an e-learning platform,” explains Vasko. Adds Bosworth, “We were able to create learning pathways for people, whereas before it was a lot of independent resources loosely gathered in collections.”

They integrated one click enrolment, saving of favourite resources, and progress tracking. “Another important feature – one that our audience asked for – was the ability for participants to earn certificates upon completing training. Certificates keep people motivated to complete courses,” says Bosworth.

A separate survey assessing the state of the sector, conducted by the COH research team in 2021, also highlighted an urgent need for self-care resources to address high rates of turnover and burnout in the sector. Training materials created to promote self-care are something Bosworth is especially proud of, as she ensured they would be personal and empathetic in their promotion of basic self-care (sleep, nutrition, relaxation and more) as well as tools to support emotional well-being, including lessons and activities about personal boundaries, nurturing self-compassion and deepening resilience.

The cumulative effect of these changes in 2021, as well as ongoing growth in awareness, has been significant. “Once we introduced those features, the enrolment in our trainings started to increase. We went from about 1,000 members in 2021 to now over 9,000,” says Vasko.

In 2022, HLHub also saw another form of encouraging success when it was awarded an additional $443,518 from Reaching Home, who is a partner on the project and has been using COH resources within its own community efforts. The team isn’t just grateful for the sign of continued support, but Reaching Home shares an understanding that HLHub is a long-term project.

“It’s gratifying to know that they appreciate it takes time to develop what we’re trying to do,” says Bosworth. “Now that we have a good base, we have to keep it going.”

With considerable success already achieved in its first four years, where does HLHub hope to be in the next few years? There are plans of launching a targeted digital marketing strategy, they also have high hopes for further driving awareness of HLHub’s training.

“Right now, our model is to be an open learning site so people can dip in and out wherever they find an interest or depending on their need,” says Bosworth. “We would like to create core foundational content for new hires, or different cohorts, along with a micro-credential that they could achieve. That’s where I see it going,” Vasko adds.

What’s most important, however, is the content and its audience. “Our focus on creating consistent, high-quality, free content in response to the homeless-serving sectors needs will be integral to continuing to build the reputation and awareness of the HLHub,” says Bosworth.

“Listening to our audience and their needs and developing materials in response to support them will be key to building this momentum. We have to stay current and relevant,” adds Vasko.