Can research help end homelessness in Canada?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, York University
July 25, 2016

One of the unfortunate contradictions of our time is that we have more knowledge and the ability to share our knowledge faster with greater numbers of people in the world than ever in our history – and yet we still have poverty, homelessness, climate change, hatred and war. – Gary Meyers

For decades, Canada has largely responded to homelessness through emergency services and supports. It is now evident that this approach has not been effective at reducing homelessness. In fact, homelessness has continued to increase in some parts of Canada despite years of such efforts.

In contrast, research has persuasively shown that homelessness can be reduced through the expansion of affordable housing and responses focused on prevention, supports, systems coordination, and rapid re-housing. Cities such as Medicine Hat have made significant strides in reducing homelessness through such strategies. Although homelessness is a complex problem, we have many of the answers we need to address it. This forces us to ask: why haven’t we ended homelessness in Canada?

One barrier to ending homelessness is that policy and programming is often developed without the benefit of research. While there is lots of research on innovative, evidence-based solutions to homelessness, this research often fails to reach or be used by policy makers and practitioners. When governments fail to use research, they lose the opportunity to benefit from past experiences, build on community knowledge, and implement policies that are evidence-based. In view of this, we need to foster stronger links between research, policy, and practice.

What Prevents Research from Impacting Policy and Practice? 

There are many reasons that research may not reach or be used by policy makers, practitioners, or the public. Some of these reasons include:

  • Researchers primarily publish in academic journals that policy makers, practitioners, and the public don’t have access to
  • Practitioners and policy makers often juggle many competing priorities and have limited time to keep up with new research findings
  • Research is often presented in technical or academic language that is inaccessible to many audiences
  • Knowledge users may not feel that research is relevant, timely, or important, or they may feel excluded from helping to create knowledge
  • There are limited opportunities for collaboration between researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and the public

These challenges often create a gap between the creation of knowledge and the use of knowledge, making it difficult for policy makers, practitioners, researchers, and the public to learn from each other and pursue shared goals.

Addressing the Gap between Knowledge and Action 

Fortunately, in the last decade there has been a growth of research institutions, NGOs, and community-based organizations focused on making research “count” in the fight to end homelessness. These organizations are often engaged in what we call “knowledge mobilization.” 

Knowledge Mobilization refers to efforts to bridge the gap between research and action. Organizations that mobilize research often try to:

  1. Use unique strategies to share knowledge with a range of knowledge users,
  2. Work with various knowledge users to determine what research is needed and how researchers can help meet the needs of their communities, and
  3. Build partnerships between research producers, research users, and intermediaries to increase the impact of existing knowledge.

Knowledge mobilization is all about building relationships and making research active when addressing problems like homelessness.  

The process of translating research into action.
Media Folder: 

Knowledge mobilization is at the core of what we do here at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH). Collaboration between researchers and the communications team is critical to our goal of making research more accessible, understandable, useable, and relevant. To do this, the COH produces content in “layers”, giving our audience the option to get a quick overview of the research or dive as deep as they’d like. For example, when we release a research report, it can be accompanied by infographics, a blog post, a plain language summary and/or a video. As host of the largest web-based library on homelessness (the Homeless Hub), the COH employs a unique communication strategy that includes social media, a blog, an online community forum, and the creation of resources such as toolkits, infographics, research summaries, and free e-books. The Homeless Hub is a great place to get you thinking about translating research into action!  

How can you use research to help end homelessness in Canada?

Here are a few ways that different groups and organizations can mobilize research to end homelessness in Canada:

Agencies

  • Use research to shape the practices and policies in your organization (e.g., RENT’s Housing First: Best Practices for Managers)
  • Collaborate with researchers, community members, and other partners in the sector to increase knowledge about the needs of the community you serve
  • Invite researchers to help you evaluate your organization’s programs and identify areas for growth

Researchers

  • Share your findings through social media, a blog, the media, and/or plain language reports (the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health has a great guide to get you started)
  • Design studies in which agencies, organizations, and people experiencing homelessness are partners or collaborators
  • Create easy-to-use tool kits and resources for agencies and government so that findings can be easily understood and put into practice (the Canadian Housing First Toolkit is a great example)

Governments

  • Collaborate with researchers and build on existing research when designing policy and making funding choices
  • Build on the knowledge of agencies and people with lived experiences of homelessness when designing policy (e.g., Lived Experience Advisory Council’s seven principles)
  • Invite researchers and the public to consult on proposed policy, providing sufficient time for individuals and groups to offer feedback 

Advocates

  • Use research findings to educate the public about homelessness and encourage public engagement
  • Invite researchers, politicians, and policy makers to meet with affected communities and listen to their needs and proposed solutions
  • Use research findings when developing petitions, writing letters to your local MP, or deputing at your local city council meeting

The Public

  • Use research to inform your opinions about homelessness in your community (e.g., when a new shelter is being built in your neighbourhood)
  • Challenge stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness using evidence from research (e.g., many people experiencing homelessness want to work or are employed)
  • Use research to learn about the needs of community members who are homeless and get involved with local groups who are addressing those needs

Using Research to Impact Policy: The National Housing Strategy

It is a great time to start flexing your knowledge mobilization muscles because the federal government is currently seeking feedback on its proposed National Housing Strategy. Through letstalkhousing.ca, you have the opportunity to show the government that homelessness is a priority for Canadians.

Fortunately, the government has identified homelessness as a key outcome. The question becomes how? How can we put an end to homelessness through a National Housing Strategy? We know, by leveraging existing research, the answer lies beyond affordable housing. A successful National Housing Strategy will couple improved access to housing with evidence-based strategies to prevent homelessness. Stay tuned for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness prevention-focused response to the consultation.

Remember, by using research findings in your feedback you can strengthen your argument and demonstrate that homelessness is a solvable problem.

If we want to end homelessness in Canada, let’s use all the tools available to us - that includes research!

Kaitlin completed her PhD in Social Work at the University of Toronto where her research focused on Canadian homelessness, activism, and social change. She recently joined the COH team at York University as a postdoctoral fellow. Her postdoctoral work focuses on knowledge mobilization and research impact in the area of homelessness.

Kaitlin has worked on research teams addressing a range of social justice issues, including gender equity, cyber bullying, sex trafficking, arts-based programming with youth experiencing homelessness, and social assistance in Canada’s North. Using her background in the arts, Kaitlin also runs jewelry making workshops for women experiencing homelessness and owns a jewelry company called Fierce Deer, through which she employs folks who face barriers to entering the work force.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.