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|Written by Heather Gilberds|
|Sunday, 02 March 2008 19:00|
If I were to ask you to formulate an image in your mind that you associate with the word ‘homeless’, what would it look like? Men and women in rags, queuing up outside of the mission on a cold winter night? An intoxicated man panhandling for money outside a liquor store? A transient who jumps on trains and travels from town to town hidden amidst the cargo?
There is no shame in admitting that we all stereotype and often regurgitate well-worn tropes, myths, and caricatures in our perception of phenomena, people, and things in the world. These caricatures of reality are pervasive – disseminated via the industries of mass media, entertainment, and even government. These stereotypes are rampant in popular film. In the December 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith portrayed an individual who became temporarily homeless as a result of a string of economic mishaps. The film was a veritable caricature of the ethos of the American Dream: if homeless individuals just work hard enough, they can overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers and transition from “rags to riches”. This well-worn theme in the film industry can be traced as far back as the silent film era with Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character – The Tramp. Much like Will Smith’s character, The Tramp longs to be a part of the middle-class lifestyle, often failing, with comic effect, in his attempt to mimic middle-class mannerisms and behaviours. The Tramp uses his cunning and humorous antics to survive and to evade authorities, all the while remaining on the fringes of society.
These portrayals reflect popular conceptions of homelessness. Such stereotypes obscure the systemic factors that allow people to fall through society’s safety net. The homeless population is often perceived as homogenous, a single group of people who share similar circumstances, have analogous life histories and are faced with similar challenges to accessing and maintaining stable housing. This type of reductionism has profound implications with regard to public awareness of the issues as well as governmental policy-making. The stereotyping of all homeless individuals as those who represent the most visible homeless population - typically single, male, and suffering from mental and/or physical health issues and addictions - result in the implementation of solutions that often fall short of tackling the root causes of homelessness.
For the January publication of (Cult)ure Magazine, I wrote an article about a homeless poet, Crazzy Dave, who is actively working to unravel stereotypes of homelessness through poetry and public engagement. To take the issue further, the following questions remain: What are the implications of such stereotyping in terms of the policy decisions that will reach out to homeless individuals and make a real impact in addressing this widespread and enduring social ill? How do stereotypes of homelessness limit public engagement, advocacy, and activism among people who want to help out, become part of the solution, and, to wrap it in the language of cliché, “make a difference,” but feel impotent to do so? One cog in the wheel of change is innovative, sustained, community-based research. Such research plays a crucial role in awakening sleepy policy-makers to the multifaceted nature of homelessness, comprised of individual and diverse life histories, and the subsequent need for multilateral solutions.
In the Panel Study on Homelessness, a study that involved interviewing hundreds of homeless individuals in Ottawa over a two-year period, researchers from the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, and St. Paul University, in partnership with the City of Ottawa’s Housing Branch and the Alliance to End Homelessness, set out to understand why people become homeless and the factors that inhibit the ability for some to exit homelessness. The interviews conducted in the study illustrated the tremendous diversity of stories of personal hardship that shaped the lives of homeless individuals.
One important outcome of the project is the recognition that homelessness has many faces - single men, single women, families with children, youth, immigrants, and refugees. When the definition of what it means to be homeless is expanded, the myriad faces of homelessness come into view. Fran Klodawsky, a professor in Geography at Carleton University and one of the primary researchers involved in the panel study, explains that the study defined homelessness in much broader terms than the typical perception portrays: “Homelessness means unacceptable living arrangements: living on streets, in temporary shelters, or in housing arrangements that are unstable or unfit for human habitation.” Expanding the parameters of the definition in this way serves to illuminate the different root factors which contribute to situations of homelessness thereby fracturing one giant, immoveable glacier of a problem - HOMELESSNESS - into more manageable parts for analysis and intervention.
People who were interviewed throughout the study gave various reasons for their homelessness: eviction, inability to pay rent, conflict with family, spouse, partner, or roommates, substance abuse, spousal abuse, and moving to the city. However, even though the causes of homelessness vary, there are clusters of reasons and common patterns. While youth tended to become homeless as a result of family difficulties, adults were much more likely to be homeless as a result of economic factors. Although there were a myriad of responses, the common characteristic shared by all participants was living in economically precarious situations. There is not, however, a simple causal relationship between poverty and homelessness. Poverty, when combined with other vulnerabilities, including a lack of personal support networks and physical or mental health difficulties, places people at a high risk of becoming homeless. The extent of such vulnerabilities also largely influences the duration of an individual’s experience of homelessness and contributes to one’s ability to successfully find and maintain stable housing. Tim Aubry, a researcher on the Panel Study and a professor of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, explains that it is important to look at personal vulnerabilities, especially in terms of physical and mental health and addictions from two angles: the extent to which these difficulties contribute to homelessness and the extent to which they are caused by homelessness. In many cases, it is a snake-eating-its-tail type of scenario where personal difficulties contribute to insecure economic, and in turn, living circumstances, but these circumstances also aggravate such difficulties, thereby creating greater barriers to overcoming them.
So, what does all of this mean in terms of policy-making, intervention, social programs, public awareness and engagement? At the level of policy implementation and social programming, the key question the study sought to answer is: What helps people who are homeless find and keep housing? Finding stable housing after a period of homelessness is a difficult task, and is often dependent upon the extent to which individuals are able to access and have a willingness to utilize support services. The findings of the Panel Study indicate that those who were able to procure subsidized housing were more likely to maintain housing stability over time. The use of drop-in centers, community health centers, and employment services also played a role in determining how expediently and successfully individuals were able to exit homelessness and remain housed. Furthermore, a sense of personal well-being, self-determination and having control over one’s life were associated with finding and keeping stable housing. For these reasons, and given the fact that economic instability was an overwhelming factor for all participants, the study indicates a need to increase social assistance levels, minimum wage standards and subsidized housing initiatives. Klodawsky and Aubry stress, however, that money and housing alone are not the answer. Such initiatives need to be integrated within a coordinated system that enables people to access the support that addresses their individual circumstance and challenges. The initiatives include counseling to overcome violence or addictions, flexible and portable support for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, programs for youth who are transitioning out of social services, parenting support for single mothers and services to assist newcomers to Canada in integrating into a new city.
Widening the definition of homelessness and focusing on the root causes rather than the symptoms also has implications for public awareness and engagement. Thinking of homelessness as one large issue is overwhelming; it often obscures the ability to see potential solutions as well as to measure progress. By breaking down the problem into manageable components by understanding the variety of people who are homeless as well as the diverse paths into and out of homelessness, concerned members of the public are able to enter into homelessness activism and advocacy at various entry points and at a level they can personally identify with. For instance, women may be more likely to become engaged as volunteers or donors within homelessness programs that focus on women or single mothers, or young adults may sympathize with youth and become involved in campaigns and services that target youth homelessness.
The Panel Study on Homelessness in Ottawa illustrates the value that community-based research can have to affect policy as well as to awaken public awareness to issues of social importance. Too often, policy decisions target the symptoms rather than the causes of social problems and, as such, provide facile, unilateral solutions to complex and multifaceted problems. Within the public eye, this can have the impact of stereotyping, lack of awareness and feelings of helplessness among those who would like to contribute to social change.
In next month’s edition of (Cult)ure, Part 3 of Homelessness in Ottawa will articulate the personal stories of homelessness that were collected as a part of the Panel Study. By sharing the individual stories of homelessness, it is possible to begin to see a way to give a voice back to those silenced by stereotypes.