It wasn’t so long ago that I would lament the lack of impact of research on the homelessness crisis in Canada. You often used to hear people say, “We don’t need research – we know what the problem is and we know what the solution is.”

I used to think, well, wrong on all counts. I could understand people’s impatience with the lack of progress, but really, I couldn’t think of any other crisis – whether it be HIV/AIDS, cancer or global warming – where people would see no need for research. What made this crisis so special?

The good news is that things have begun to change in a big way in the last several years. Communities across Canada are starting to see the value of research, and many researchers finding better ways to engage with service providers, communities, government and with people who have experienced homelessness in order to conduct research that contributes to solutions.

There are in fact many clear ways in which research can make an important contribution. First, there is conceptual research. This is research that inspires shifts in how we think about, understand and talk about the problem of homelessness. Research that poses the question, ‘can we and should we do things differently?’ Here I’m thinking of Hal Pawson’s work on homelessness prevention that has been so influential around the world, or Culhane and Metraux’ work on chronic homelessness in the United States. The recent CHRN Canadan Definition of Homelessness, produced through a collaborative process involving researchers, service providers, people in government and those with lived experience, is conceptual work in that it gives us clear language about how to think about homelessness.

The second kind of research that matters is instrumental research. This is research that helps us understand the effectiveness of our responses to homelessness. In other words, we can no longer just assume we are doing the right thing; we need to better understand, what works, why it works, for whom it works and under what conditions. There is growing recognition in the homelessness sector that we need to do more work on evaluating programs, using data management systems to understand the work at the systems level, and develop robust case study analyses of policy, systems and program level responses that will allow communities to share and adapt promising practices. The At Home / Chez Soi project (funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada) is the most extensive research project on Housing First ever conducted, and is already showing amazing results. This research will help us really understand how Housing First works for different sub-populations, and in different urban and rural community contexts.

Finally, there is the symbolic use of research. That is, we can use research as evidence to help make the case for retaining what works, or what to do differently. Research can inform policy makers, practitioners, politicians and the general public about homelessness, its causes, conditions and solutions. A good example of this is the recent report: The Real Cost of Homelessness – Can we save money by doing the right thing?, which has inspired conversations across the country about the fact that while we might think that addressing homelessness through emergency services allows us to deal with this issue ‘on the cheap,' it is in fact really quite expensive, and not particularly effective.

So research does seem to matter after all. The challenge in making an impact is taking the evidence and having the learnings applied in real world situations. Communities like Calgary have become leaders in taking an evidence-based approach to solving homelessness, as has the Province of Alberta. All of this makes me optimistic that we can solve homelessness, especially if we draw from research evidence, and involve people from different sectors and walks of life working together to create solutions that treat people with dignity and give them hope.

About Stephen Gaetz
Dr. Stephen Gaetz is the Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and an Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at York University.

International Homelessness Research Conference
CALL FOR PAPERS to the International Homelessness Research Conference: Advancing the Policy and Practice of Crisis Response Systems, to be held Monday, June 3 to Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. More details here.
This blog post originally appeared in the Calgary Homeless Foundation's blog.
Stephen GaetzProfessor & Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless HubYork University