Things Need to Change

York University
January 31, 2013

A friend of mine, who teaches at York University, recently lamented the fact that “The students in my class, they don’t read newspapers any more”.   Well, I still like to read newspapers myself, but that's not the only way I like to get information.  I follow twitter, I’m on Facebook, I use Youtube for everything from watching music videos, to seeing web-based comedy, to figuring out how to do a home repair. People consume information and, perhaps more importantly, learn new things in all kinds of ways, many of them mediated through technology.

You see, the world has changed, and as a researcher and an educator focused on the issue of homelessness, I am very interested in figuring out how to help the public – as well as decision-makers in government and the community – understand that in responding to homelessness, we can do things differently, and that we must. Through our work at the Homeless Hub, we recognize that it just isn’t enough to just push out academic papers that nobody wants to read; that if we really want people to engage research, we need to think differently about how people might want to consume information, and do things differently.

Here at HomeThis is why I was blown away when I saw the NFB’s Here At Home interactive website and video series.   This site, and the many videos contained within it, is perhaps one of the richest sources of information on homelessness – and how to address it – that I have seen. Right from the opening sequence, which draws you in to the site, to the important facts and figures relating to the five research sites, to the huge number of short video subjects, this is a site that really allows you to learn about and understand homelessness.  The short videos profiling those who were once homeless and who have since been housed through the project, humanizes the subject by helping us understand their lives and the fact that, well, they aren’t really that different from you and me.  They want to be safe, to be warm, to have dignity, to be housed.  Check out the video of Simon from Montreal, and you will see what I mean.

The videos chronicling the experiences of caseworkers and landlords are equally enlightening.  It is fantastic to learn from these videos that there are landlords all over the country who are willing to support Housing First and provide homes for people who are homeless.  Many of these landlords like Jim the Housing Agent in Toronto seem to get much from their involvement, besides rent. They get a strong sense of fulfillment and an opportunity to participate in contributing to solutions to a seemingly intractable problem.

The videos here are interesting and well produced.  They are also short and easy to consume, which is perfect for social media. So, one can visit the site and browse through them.  One can also post them on Facebook (at under five minutes, they are perfect), Tweet them.  If you are a teacher or professor, these are a great resource for your students.  The videos can be used in community meetings, or to show your friends or family. Content like this is really the future of communication and of learning, and the partnership between the NFB and the At Home / Chez Soi project.

So why does any of this matter?  For far too long we have dealt with homelessness by warehousing people in emergency shelters or worse still, throwing them in jail.    After years of working with many others to address homelessness in Canada, I just feel that things need to change.  And change in a big way. But things won’t change at all if people  - and I’m talking about politicians, the news media and most importantly the general public – continue to think that everything is OK, or minimally, that the current system is the best we can offer. You know, “Times are tough, and we do provide people who are homeless with shelter and soup kitchens.  And really, don’t most homeless people choose to be homeless after all?”.

We need to educate people on this front.  The Here At Home series will play an important role in helping people across the country better understand homelessness, through hearing people who have experienced it talk about it.  More importantly, the series helps all of us learn that there are real solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, and that Housing First works! The At Home / Chez Soi project shows that even when you take the most hard core, long term case; when you provide that person with a safe and decent place to live, when you treat them with respect and give them the supports they need, they stay housed.  Nobody really wants to be homeless.

So visit the site, watch a video or two, and then share it.  There are solutions to homelessness!

This article was originally posted on the National Film Board’s ‘Here at Home: In Search of the Real Cost of Homelessness blog.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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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.