I’ve had this cartoon (below) on my office wall for years. I like its cheeky commentary on how wealth relies upon poverty for its existence, and how the rich are generally oblivious to that fact.
But mostly, in my office, the cartoon plays a cautionary role. It reminds me what kind of researcher I don’t want to be. It’s not just that his gender, clothing, skin colour, and portly physique mark the cartoon researcher as a member of the rich guy’s club. More than anything, it’s his eyes that scare me – so shrewdly focused on the numbers on his ruler, they don’t see the person right in front of him.
Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au
It’s a painfully true and humbling caricature of the researcher as bystander. I learned about the bystander role in a graduate course on the ethics of witnessing trauma, but these days, even my school-age kids are taught in their anti-bullying curriculum that the bystander is almost as bad as the bully. Just as wealth relies upon poverty, bullying relies upon people’s willingness to stand by and allow it to happen.
When I wrote my first article about the ethics of research on women’s homelessness, I was a student. Now that I am paid to do research on homelessness, poverty and social exclusion, I—like many of my colleagues—feel a strong responsibility to reflect on the contradictions of this work. To what extent does it make a difference? Are we bystanders to systemic “bullying”? How can we know that we aren’t just contributing to the problem?
Many of us have reached a similar conclusion: research is most likely to make a difference when it’s done not ABOUT, but ALONGSIDE people facing poverty and homelessness. But doing research in this way raises many challenges and questions as well.
Research that is done by, for and with communities facing exclusion is often referred to as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). Though CBPR has been around for decades, it is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, especially in the health sciences. I find it encouraging that many research and advocacy projects focused on women’s homelessness in Canada are using a participatory methodology.
In a report released today on Homeless Hub, Janet Mosher and I share what we learned from a panel of experts involved with some of these projects. With travel funding from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, they came together at a conference to discuss the ideals of CBPR, their experiences undertaking it, and their recommendations for how research can contribute to action on women’s homelessness. These experts, all of whom are women facing homelessness, brought unique insights to evaluating the strengths of CBPR and addressing its weaknesses.
The report considers CBPR from the perspective of women facing homelessness who have been involved in it as participants, “peer” researchers, activists or service providers who use research. All agreed that CBPR on homelessness and poverty must lead to action, and that people with lived experience have a vital role to play in this process. As one expert said, “It’s important that women are part of the team. Our knowledge and skills and strengths may be different than a university professor’s, but it’s important to acknowledge that experience. That is what will turn into action.”
At the same time, women pointed out, entrenched inequities in power and authority mean that institutions and professionals usually reap more of the benefits from research, even when it’s CBPR. In the words of one CBPR participant, “The University gets the money and funding to do it, they get the recognition for the ideas and questions, when women came up with it at the kitchen table of a drop-in.”
Researchers with lived experience hold a strong sense of responsibility for participants’ well-being, for honouring participants’ contributions through advocacy and action, and for ensuring that research funds are well-spent on worthwhile projects. “Lived experience researchers become advocates because we know the experience,” explained one peer researcher from a university-based project. If CBPR is to live up to these responsibilities, projects need to provide the training, resources, skills and power that community members need to use research products for action.
In the end, women want allies in the academy to think carefully about the worth of proposing new research, when so much research has already been done on poverty and oppression. "Stop repeated projects," insisted one expert. "We need to look at all the research that has been done and is going to be done, and implement it. Take the story, take the needs, and DO something."
In helping to support young people move out of homelessness – or indeed to avoid homelessness in the first place – labour market integration presents both one of the greatest challenges, but at the same time, an incredible opportunity. The benefits of employment for at risk youth should be self-evident: income that can support housing and improved nutrition, positive engagement with adults and other employed youth, improved self-esteem, health and well-being. The barriers to employment, however, are not always so obvious.
And for young people who are homeless, there is much that gets in the way of obtaining and maintaining employment. It is sometimes assumed that young people who are homeless are lazy, attracted to the freedom the streets offer, and not properly motivated to ‘help themselves’. That is, they aren’t really looking for work. So, would employment training help? Mainstream employment training programs focus on building hard skills (marketable skills) and soft skills (how to find a job, create a resume, deal with employers and colleagues), and increasing motivation.
While there is no doubt that a lack of skills contributes to the underemployment of homeless youth, there is much more to this story, as the reality of life on the streets is much different than the stereotypical depiction of youth homelessness suggests. Canadian research highlights that motivation isn’t really the problem, as the overwhelming majority of homeless youth would much rather have a regular job than earn money through panhandling, squeegeeing or criminal activity, which is seen as demeaning and humiliating to many young people who have to rely on such activities for income.
Rather, in order to work or even successfully participate in employment training, such youth need what any young person needs. They need permanent housing (with necessary supports) that is safe and appropriate, so they can rest, recover, have privacy and maintain hygiene (this is generally not the emergency shelter model). They need income, to ensure they have food, transportation and supplies for work, while they are waiting for their first pay cheque. They may need a range of necessary supports – based on individual circumstances - if they are dealing with health issues, disability, mental health challenges and addictions. They need positive engagement with adults – to provide support, mentorship and direction. And significantly, they need opportunities to advance their education, which as we know will have the longest lasting benefits in terms of enhancing the employability and lifechances of marginalized young people.
This latter point is important, because when young people become homeless in Canada, the goal of educational engagement is often a low priority in the rush to support them to become self-sufficient.
The Canadian Homelessness Research Network, with support from the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, is releasing an ebook on youth homelessness in early 2013, with a dedicated section on labour market integration. These chapters, which draw on the latest research, provide communities that are working to address youth homelessness with solid evidence regarding what works. The first chapter focuses on what we know about youth homelessness and employment, the most significant barriers to labour market participation, and key elements of a successful strategy for training and integration into the workforce. The second chapter highlights the role of corporate engagement in labour market integration for homeless youth. Here, the authors highlight the major findings from Raising the Roof’s Private Sector Engagement Project. The final two chapters present ‘promising practices’ in employment training for homeless youth. Case studies of “Train for Trades" in St. John’s, NL, and “BladeRunners” in Vancouver highlight successful and innovative program models that address the barriers that homeless youth face; models with potential for adaptation elsewhere in Canada. Look for these chapters and others in the New Year when the CHRN launches our latest ebook: Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice.
The impacts of homelessness are not only physical and emotional – they are also social. Becoming homeless has been referred to as a “social death” – one in which a person’s social identity is radically transformed from neighbour and citizen to unwanted and threatening Other. The expressions of this “Othering” pervade our society, from comedy sketches ridiculing “hobos,” to laws like Ontario’s Safe Streets Act that make certain actions punishable only if performed by a person who appears to be homeless. What the comedians and legislators have in common in these examples is that they depict people facing homelessness as having less dignity, fewer rights, and less inherent worth than “ordinary” people – in short, as less than human. Just as importantly, such depictions influence how self-identified “ordinary” people see and respond to people they believe to be homeless.
Antipoverty activist Jean Swanson coined the term “poor-bashing” to name the attitudes, behaviours and policies that diminish the humanity of poor people. In a report co-authored with Wendy Pederson, she elaborates:
“Poor bashing is when people who are poor are discriminated against, stereotyped, humiliated, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and / or falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated and not wanting to work.”
For women facing homelessness, poor-bashing and discriminatory attitudes towards homeless people are further compounded by marginalization on the basis of gender, race, Aboriginal identity, age, disability, immigration status, sexual orientation and other factors. The result is a profound denial of fundamental human rights – which women facing homelessness in Canada brought to the attention of the United Nations in 2006.
Front-line services aim to address the effects of poverty and homelessness: they provide food, a place to sleep, emotional support, and resources. But being treated as less than human is as much an impact of homelessness as being dehoused and hungry. Services can help address the social impacts of homelessness by creating environments of mutual respect in which women’s human rights are recognized and restored.
Since 2010, I have been leading a study to look at how, exactly, services can create such environments – and today, the final report is released on Homeless Hub. The study was funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Homeless Knowledge Development Program, with a mandate to identify, analyze and disseminate promising practices in homelessness services. Members of this research-action project didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk, striving to implement the good practices we were learning about. The project was based on feminist participatory action research methods, with a research team and advisory committee in which women facing homelessness, academic researchers, service providers, and self-advocacy groups worked side-by-side.
We agreed to focus on service practices that:
- directly involve women facing homelessness in designing and delivering policies and programs;
- promote women’s strengths, skills, self-reliance, and mutual support; and
- reflect and respond to diverse needs, identities and experiences.
We believed that such practices would be key in shaping service environments where women’s rights are promoted.
Unfortunately, as we heard in this project (and as I have witnessed first-hand in the past as a front-line worker), not all services uphold women’s basic rights of autonomy, dignity and self-determination. One focus group participant put it very eloquently:
“Canada ends at the doorstep of the shelters. When you’re outside, it’s Canada. When you go in, it isn’t. When I go in the door I know I’ve left Canada behind. When I say Canada, I mean everything – the values, the principles, what they stand for, everything.”
But the good news is, many front-line services are finding innovative ways to include women facing homelessness in service design, delivery, governance and evaluation; to build on women’s strengths through peer service models; and to promote women’s leadership and civic engagement. There are inspiring models outside the homelessness sector, too, that can be borrowed and built upon. Most importantly, women’s own responses to homelessness have much to teach organizations. Our report not only describes some of these great examples, it also identifies the day-to-day practices that are necessary to their success.
Making services better won’t end homelessness. The root causes of women’s homelessness— unaffordable housing, insufficient incomes, inadequate services, discrimination, and violence—must be addressed by changes to economic and social policies at the federal and provincial levels. But while we continue to advocate for changes at the systemic level, women facing homelessness and service providers can also work towards changes closer to “home”: in our organizations, and in our relationships with each other.
As this report demonstrates, these changes are already taking place among women and organizations all across Canada. The promising practices described here are at once visionary and practical, inspirational and instructive, infinitely adaptable and locally-specific. We hope that readers will take freely from these ideas and try them out. Working together, front-line services and women facing homelessness can build organizations that will challenge not only the social impacts of homelessness, but its root causes as well.
Download the Full Report
What is in a definition? Leading policy makers, service providers and researchers from across the country have long lamented the fact that Canada has no national definition of homelessness. The feeling has been that there is a need for an agreed upon definition of homelessness in order to provide all levels of government and community groups with a framework for understanding and describing homelessness, and a means of identifying goals, strategies and interventions, as well as measuring outcomes and progress.
This week, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University officially launches the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. This definition, created through a collaborative community process, has now been endorsed by communities, researchers and governments across the country.
You might think, “What’s the big deal? Do we really need a definition? Isn’t it obvious what homelessness is? Well, at a certain level, I think we can all agree that people sleeping in parks or under bridges are homeless. However, you don’t have to move too far beyond that for things to get complicated. Is a young person who is sleeping on a friend’s couch because they were kicked out of their home, ‘homeless’? Is someone who is staying in a mental health facility, but who has no home to go to upon release homeless? These are important issues for policy makers and practitioners. In fact, the breadth and complexity of the issues underlying homelessness create a sense that the issue is unbounded, and difficult to get a handle on, particularly because many people suffer from similar individual and structural problems, but never become homeless. This can also create the ‘illusion’ that it is therefore difficult to solve.
A case can be made that addressing any complex problem cannot be done without first having a thorough understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. After all, you cannot measure the scope of the problem without first knowing who is and is not affected. This notion is precisely the challenge that faces all strategic initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness, and our lack of clarity about what counts and what does not gets in the way of creating comprehensive strategies to address homelessness, evaluate outcomes and progress, and share effective practices.
Check out the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Click here and you will find:
- The Canadian Definition of Homelessness in both official languages;
- A one-pager that includes an easy to use table;
- “Making the case for the Canadian Definition of Homelessness”, which presents the utility of the definition; and
- A background document that brings together the Canadian and international research on definitions of homelessness.
On this page, you will see a list of the many national, regional and local organizations that have officially endorsed the definition.
Finally, Canada joins other jurisdictions, including the United States, the European Union, and Australia in having a national definition to assist in developing effective solutions to homelessness.
Many programs and policies in Canada and around the world have preventing or reducing homelessness as a goal. Do these programs really work? What kinds of programs have been evaluated? What are the different approaches used by researchers to evaluate strategies to end homelessness?
To answer these questions, we have recently developed a literature review that summarizes research on interventions that aim to reduce or prevent homelessness. Here’s a brief summary of that work. We started with the question: What works and for whom? Our specific goals were to understand the different populations for whom interventions have been tested, and the types of interventions evaluated, as well as to create an inventory of the indicators used in program evaluations. We’re hoping this will help people who are planning program evaluations, as well as highlight gaps in the evaluation of initiatives to end homelessness.
Here are some of the highlights from the review:
Different people, different needs: More research is needed on what works for different groups. The main focus of most published evaluations in the peer-reviewed literature was people with mental illness, with little attention given to differences in gender, age, ethnicity, or substance use. This is especially the case for evaluations of permanent independent housing (such as housing first). This is concerning given the increasing number of homeless women, youth, and families, including people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and those with minority sexual orientations. The gap in evaluation of housing interventions for First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples is particularly concerning given the over-representation of Aboriginal people among homeless populations in Canada There is also a lack of research on independent housing programs for people whose main concern is substance use or addiction. Future research on homelessness interventions would benefit from a wider focus on what eases transitions out of homelessness for different groups of people with distinct needs (e.g. women, people with substance use problems, youth).
What about health? Housing and health are closely linked. A lack of housing has dire consequences for health, and people who are homeless suffer disproportionately from many health conditions. We didn’t find very many evaluations that looked at participants’ health outcomes beyond psychological functioning, even though health would likely improve with better housing. There is a need for future evaluation that focuses on changes in health (both physical and mental) related to housing.
What about the social and economic conditions that lead to homelessness? Mostly, the evaluations measured success by looking at whether program participants became or remained housed after leaving the program. They also often reported on participants’ thoughts about how effective the programs were. These are important things to look at, but the evaluations tended to focus on individual circumstances without referring to the broader social conditions that create homelessness, like poverty, racism, discrimination, housing policy, welfare policy, and cost of living. Evaluations that include discussion of these factors would give a fuller picture of the context, which can tell us something about why the program failed or succeeded and under what conditions similar programs could have a positive impact.
Social and economic conditions matter, so why don’t we change them? There are policy-level initiatives to end homelessness designed to address the social conditions that make it so hard for some people to find housing. While we did find some evaluations of policy level initiatives to end homelessness in this review, more are needed. Thus, we suggest an increased focus on evaluating broader systemic responses to end homelessness. The causes of homelessness are complex and require a multi-pronged approach; we know that systemic changes are needed if programs are going to achieve the goals of preventing, ending or reducing homelessness.
In undertaking program evaluation, we need to ask what are the broader social and economic conditions that impact the success of any program and move to questions regarding "what works for whom and in what context?"
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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.