What Citizenship Looks Like in the Context of Mental Health and Homelessness

Western University
May 08, 2018

In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness.

Community belonging, community integration, social support, social capital, engagement -- whatever the concept, there is a common understanding that a supportive response to both mental illness and homelessness is to actively promote citizenship. This is because both living with a mental illness and being de-housed carry the risk of marginalization, being pushed to the margins of society by other persons, by systems, or even by the services meant to support. It is not sufficient that we support recovery and re-housing. We must also support citizenship. 

Allison Ponce and Michael Rowe present a framework for citizenship, building on existing theory and research including their own work with those experiencing housing loss. This work is timely as Canada recognizes CMHA Mental Health Week, with the authors providing recommendations for community psychology and psychiatry.

Ponce and Rowe provide a justification for a focus on citizenship that likely rings true for those of us who work in the homeless-serving sector: front-line workers are best prepared to provide those they assist instrumental supports and referrals to direct services, but find it more difficult to meet “affective needs of positive identity and a sense of belonging in their communities and society.” Another good fit for the sector is the social justice and equity underpinnings of their citizenship framework, that it’s not just about belonging and participation, but explicitly about “opportunities for persons of difference.”

So, how do we support citizenship in practice? Some ideas their research presented or stimulated for me include:

  • Engage those with lived and living experiences into councils, committees, planning groups, etc.
  • When engaged, actively avoid having services providers dominate these committees and taking on all action items.
  • Educate the community about mental health and homelessness through the voices of those with lived experience directly.
  • Use trained peers to assist in the intentional development of broader social networks.
  • Support those who are newly independent in the community to identify an explicit community based task (ex. volunteering at an event, supporting a fundraising project, attending free library sessions, etc.), and support them in following through with this task.
  • Provide free classes on the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
  • If local projects or services are engaging in evaluation, train peers as community researchers to support these activities.

 I conclude with their point that citizenship is not just for those who have reached some pre-determined or culturally conceived level of ‘stability,’ but is for all people.



Dr. Abe Oudshoorn is an Assistant Professor in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing at Western University.  Having worked as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness, Abe’s research focuses on health, homelessness prevention, mental health, and poverty.  Outside of the University, Abe is on the Steering Committee of the London Homeless Coalition and is a board member with the United Way of London & Middlesex.

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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.