2. How do we know what we know about homelessness?

As you begin this section, we encourage you to think about the question of how we know what we know about homelessness. This question, like many we will explore throughout this book, seems deceptively simple because we may confuse our own opinions and beliefs with validated knowledge. What we know comes from many different sources, some more reliable than others. Before you hear from the researchers in this section, we encourage you to take a moment to jot down your own thoughts. You may also want to consider related questions, such as where you have learned about homelessness, like your home or school, what experiences you have had that might have influenced your perceptions, and whether you feel the information you have received comes from credible sources. Remember that your answer here is just for your reflection, it may be as brief or long as you wish, and it is not going to be seen by others. 

 

How to complete this activity and save your work: Type your response to the question in the box below. When you are done answering the question navigate to the ‚ÄėExport‚Äô page to download and save your response. If you prefer to work in a Word document offline you can skip right to the Export section and download a Word document with this question there.

It may come as no surprise to you that much of what we know about homelessness in Canada comes from research over the past 40 years. The body of research that has developed over time reflects the different methodologies and approaches researchers have used to learn about this issue. You may be interested to know that much of the interactive content for this book comes from our partners at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which is the largest national research institute devoted to homelessness in Canada. They are also the curator of the Homeless Hub, an online library of over 30,000 resources.

Throughout this book, you will get to hear directly from many influential researchers in the field of homelessness, who have helped to create the research that shapes public policy decisions today. As our knowledge continually evolves, we have made the conscious decision to focus on studies that were published by Canadian researchers within the 5 years preceding publication of this book. In the next set of videos, you will hear from Dr. Kaitlin Schwan and Dr. John Ecker, who provide an overview of how research has changed over time, the importance of peer-review and evaluation, and the impact on modern day policy. 

Dr. Kaitlin Schwan: How do we know what we know about homelessness? 

In this video, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan explains that mass homelessness, as we know it today in Canada, started to emerge in the 1980s. In response, we have tried many policy and program interventions, which have been evaluated using a range of research methods. The knowledge from these studies has been synthesized in peer-reviewed journals and made publicly available, such as through the Homeless Hub website. Dr. Schwan notes the key to understanding homelessness is listening to people with lived expertise, as they have experienced the ways various systems and structures operate to create conditions for those living without housing. This video is 1:46 in length and has closed captions available in English. 

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Kaitlin Schwan: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

  1. Mass homelessness in Canada, as we see it today, started to emerge in the 1980s. Over the past 40 years, we have tried a range of policy and program interventions to try to address this problem.
    • Some of these policies and programs have been assessed through evaluation and a range of research methods. For example, Housing First is an intervention that has a large evidence base.
    • The knowledge from these studies has been synthesized in peer-reviewed journals and made publicly available, such as through the Homeless Hub website.
  2. Key to our understanding of homelessness is the information provided by people with lived expertise. They are drivers of knowledge about homelessness because they have experienced the ways various systems and structures operate to create conditions for those living without housing.

Dr. John Ecker: How do we know what we know about homelessness? 

In this video, Dr. John Ecker discusses the trajectory of homelessness research, from an early focus on investigating the causes and consequences, to a modern day focus on applied research into identifying solutions and empowering people with lived experience. He notes that there are many different types of research, and that they are often published in peer-reviewed journal articles which allows for confidence in what is being reported. Dr. Ecker concludes by acknowledging the important work of grassroots advocacy organizations, particularly those led by individuals with lived experience, in providing information and resources to the general public and to policy makers. This video is 4:04 in length and has closed captions available in English. 

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. John Ecker: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

  1. Since the 1990s there has been a proliferation of research about homelessness, with the earliest focusing on the causes and consequences.
    • Research has progressed to focus on effective solutions, such as through interventions, policies, programs, and nuanced approaches.
    • We are moving towards a more applied way of looking at homelessness in the research and evaluation field, which is what needs to happen to help people experiencing homelessness feel empowered that they can exit.
  2. Research and evaluation studies are often published in peer-reviewed journal articles, so we know they have been vetted by academics and can have confidence in what is being reported.
  3. There are different types of research, which is important as we move forward and try to systematically address homelessness.
  4. Beyond research, we know a lot about homelessness through the work of grassroots advocacy organizations, particularly acknowledging those formed and led by individuals with lived experience.
    • These organizations are close to the ground and able to provide information through demonstrations, the development of educational materials, and by being a public voice. This work provides a different portrayal of homelessness than is commonly found in the media.
    • These advocacy groups are also great at working with elected officials to provide information to help shape policy decisions.

We heard from Dr. Schwan and Dr. Ecker that research on homelessness has changed over the past 30 to 40 years. In 1993 O‚ÄôReilly-Fleming wrote, ‚ÄúOne of the great difficulties which confronts any attempt to deal with and analyse the problem of homelessness in Canadian society is the lack of consistent and reliable data on both the number and composition of the homeless population‚ÄĚ (pg.11). Trying to learn about the number of people experiencing homelessness in any given community is still challenging today because of hidden homelessness. Some populations are particularly difficult to reach and enumerate, such as Indigenous individuals, refugees and new Canadians, women, and youth. For hidden populations, multi-methods like respondent-driven sampling may be needed in addition to more standard census data collection (Rotondi et al., 2017).

 

One of the main changes that has occurred in the past decade is the development of point-in-time [PIT] counts to better identify the number of people experiencing homelessness in a given community. These counts are done on a set day and involve volunteers going to shelters, drop-in centres, and public places like city parks to collect information about the people within these spaces who are experiencing homelessness. These counts do not identify every person, and still frequently miss the hidden populations, but they are one approach we have to better understand the occurrence of homelessness in communities across Canada. Learn more with this brief video from Employment and Social Development Canada.

Here Dr. Erin Dej explains more about point-in-time counts, and why it is important we recognize that not all populations will be equally represented in these efforts.

Dr. Erin Dej: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Erin Dej explains that the emergence of homelessness research in Canada really began with the rise in mass homelessness in the 1990s. Researchers at the time focused on individuals to see who was experiencing homelessness and why. Over time, this research has evolved to focus on broader systemic and structural causes of homelessness. Dr. Dej notes that more recently we have also learned about homelessness through point-in-time counts in which cities do a one-day count of all the people they can find who are experiencing homelessness. While these counts provide valuable information about homelessness within cities and over years, Dr. Dej also cautions that they tend to miss hidden populations such as women, LGBTQ2S+ persons, youth, and Indigenous persons. This video is 3:43 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Erin Dej: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

  1. Prior to the 1990s there was very little research about homelessness, besides work on hobos and vagrancy.
    • With the mass homelessness that began in the 1990s across Canada, we started to see more research. This sudden increase in homelessness led to individualized questions about who was experiencing it and why.
    • Over the past 20 years we have started to look more at the structural and systemic root causes to understand mass homelessness.
  2. We also know about homelessness from point-in-time [PIT] counts, where cities across Canada and North America do a one-day count of all the people they can find who are experiencing homelessness.
    • These numbers provide a snapshot of the number of people found in shelters, encampments, and on the street.
    • The results help to inform policies, practices, and funding investments. This approach is relatively new, within the past decade, and helps provide information about how and whether homelessness has changed in a city over given years.
    • The point-in-time counts provide valuable information, but they also miss people who are hidden, such as those provisionally accommodated or at-risk. These counts are more likely to miss populations such as women, LGBTQ2S+ persons, youth, and Indigenous people who are more likely to experience hidden homelessness.

What do you think?

human head with light bulb as brain graphicPolicy makers often use point-in-time data in their decision-making about what programs will get funded in a given community, but this data often misses key populations like women, LGBTQ2S+ persons, youth, and Indigenous people. How do you think we can improve our efforts to identify these hidden populations to policy makers are aware of their unique needs? 


Collecting data is an important way that ‚Äėwe know what we know‚Äô about homelessness. In addition to point-in-time counts, researchers have also applied mathematical models to better determine where people are located in time across homelessness and housed states (Fisher, Mago, & Latimer, 2020) and used health administrative databases to identify people experiencing homelessness over time (Richard et al., 2019). Likewise, shelter use data can provide valuable information, such as comparisons between usage in different cities (Dutton & Jadidzadeh, 2019) and between populations like single adults, youth, and families (Jadidzadeh & Kneebone, 2018).

 

According to Echenberg and Munn-Rivard (2020), ‚ÄúDefining and enumerating homelessness is essential in order to understand the nature and extent of the problem, who is affected by it and how to address it‚ÄĚ (pg.i). They continue by noting that despite the visibility of homelessness in Canada, it is challenging to count people who lack a permanent address, often remain hidden, and may move in and out of homelessness. Take a moment to read their background paper below, to learn more about the different types of data collection methods used, and how they help us know more about the problem of homelessness in Canada.


Featured Reading:

open book graphicEchenberg, H., & Munn-Rivard, L. (2020). Defining and enumerating homelessness in Canada: Background paper. Ottawa, ON: Library of Parliament.

Background Paper: Defining and Enumerating Homelessness in Canada (parl.ca)


As you have just read, there are many different ways we collect data about who is experiencing homelessness. In the next video Dr. Stephen Gaetz expands on this and cautions that while this information is valuable, it only tells us about people who are visibly homeless and in crisis at that moment in time. Listen in as he discusses the limitations of our current data collection approach. 

Dr. Stephen Gaetz: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Stephen Gaetz explains that much of the data we collect about people experiencing homelessness comes from administrative data, national point-in-time counts, and shelter records. He notes that while we are getting better at collecting data, the information only tells us about people in crisis, such as those who touch the system. Dr. Gaetz explains that our data collection efforts are improving but are still focused on people while in homelessness, and somewhat on exits from homelessness, but are not currently designed to provide information about homelessness prevention. This video is 2:04 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Stephen Gaetz: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

  1. We are getting better at collecting data on who is experiencing homelessness. The information we have comes from administrative data from service providers, national approaches to point-in-time counts, and shelter data.
  2. The information we have is good but incomplete because it only tells us about people experiencing homelessness, such as those who touch the shelter system. We cannot make assumptions based on limitations within the data.
  3. Our data is improving, and collection efforts are becoming more coordinated, but are still focused on people while they are experiencing homelessness. We have some data about people exiting homelessness but are very weak on pathways into homelessness or cases where homelessness was prevented.
  4. This data may help us understand emergency responses, and perhaps how to help people exit homelessness, but it is not designed to help us prevent homelessness at this time.

Data collection are important strategies for enumerating the extent of homelessness in Canada and for developing policies thatinform best-practice approaches. Yet, what is most valuable for understanding homelessness in Canada is that we listen to the knowledge of people with lived experience. The importance of authentic lived experience representation has been a central theme throughout the researcher videos, such as in our conversation with Dr. Nick Falvo.

 

Dr. Nick Falvo: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Nick Falvo discusses the range of sources of information about homelessness. He notes that it is important to talk to people with lived experience, as much of what we know comes from hearing their stories. Dr. Falvo also notes people who do frontline work at the community level are incredible sources of information. What we know about homelessness also comes from government-coordinated data gathering efforts and researchers located in universities and the community. Dr. Falvo concludes that social media can be an important source of information but that we must be cautious about believing all the information we receive. This video is 2:10 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Nick Falvo: How do we know what we know about homelessness?

  1. It is very important to talk to people with lived experience of homelessness. Much of what we know comes from individuals sharing their stories.
  2. People who do frontline work at the community level with people experiencing homelessness, are an incredible source of information that researchers do not talk to enough.
  3. We also know about homelessness from data gathering efforts, coordinated by various orders of government, and from university-based researchers and community-based consultants.
  4. Social media sites, such as Twitter, can provide useful information as well but have to be critically assessed as they may not offer the most balanced information.

Today it is common for people with lived experience of homelessness to be paid members of research teams and to inform all aspects of the project‚Äôs design, data collection, and analysis. This brief video from United Way Ottawa demonstrates the importance of lived experience driven research.

Developing our understanding of homelessness ‚Äď how we know what we know ‚Äď requires strong partnerships between researchers, people with lived experience, policy makers, and the community. Dr. Cheryl Forchuk speaks about the importance of community partnerships in all of her research projects.

 

Dr. Cheryl Forchuk: Collecting data with community partners

In this video, filmed at a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Cheryl Forchuk discusses the importance of relationships with community partners, including people who have lived experience, because addressing homelessness is not something anyone can do alone. She notes that these relationships are essential so people can work together to come up with creative solutions. Dr. Forchuk argues that while community partners may know an issue exists, it is often difficult for them to get policy change unless they can point to data to help increase the political will. This video is 2:44 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Cheryl Forchuk: Collecting data with community partners

  1. Researcher relationships with community partners, including people with lived experience, are important in addressing homelessness because it is not something anyone can do alone from within their own sector.
    • Through these relationships people can work together to come up with creative solutions. It is all about creating these partnerships and connections so that the work can be done together.
  2. Policy change requires political will. Although community partners may know an issue exists, it is difficult to change policy without published data.

When people who have lived experience of homelessness are asked to speak about the issues impacting their lives, prominent themes include a lack of money, home, privacy, and support, discrimination based on Indigeneity or African descent, living with mental illness and/or addiction, the lived impact of rent, housing, and mortgage policies, and the need for greater awareness of government support systems and services (Ahajumobi & Anderson, 2020).

 

Quote Source

Listening to people with lived experience is critical to understanding homelessness and generating knowledgethat could be used to inform sound policies. However, while there are active efforts to involve people with lived experience in research, this may not always translate into their voices being included in policy. Benmarhnia et al., (2018) caution that the concept of ‚Äėvulnerability‚Äô is often used in shaping public policies, but the populations who are identified as vulnerable are rarely consulted about whether the term applies to them. Terms like vulnerability, sensitivity, and marginality may be applied indiscriminately (Van den Hoonaard, 2018).In the next video, Dr. Bernie Pauly speaks about how we can move beyond listening to people with lived experience, to having real and authentic engagement.

 

Dr. Bernie Pauly: The critical importance of listening to people with lived experience

In this video, Dr. Bernadette [Bernie] Pauly advocates that in whatever role we have, whether practice, policy, or research, it is essential to engage with people who have lived and living experience of homelessness in real and authentic ways. She notes that it is not enough to listen, but that we must believe people when they tell their stories and not be judgemental. Dr. Pauly encourages people in planning and leadership roles to ask themselves how they are engaging with people who have lived experience in a way where they are recognized partners. She concludes that the knowledge they share may be hard to hear, but that we must recognize the system is broken and truly listening is the only way to fix it. This video is 2:45 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways ‚Äď Dr. Bernie Pauly: The critical importance of listening to people with lived experience

  1. In whatever role we have, whether practice, policy, or research, engaging with people who have lived experience of homelessness in real and authentic ways is critically important
  2. It is important not only to listen, but to believe people when they tell their stories, and to not be judgemental.
  3. People in planning and leadership roles, should ask themselves very seriously, ‚ÄúHow am I engaging people with lived and living expertise in our work? How am I doing it in a genuine and authentic way in which people are true partners?‚ÄĚ
    • True engagement does not mean bringing people to the table as tokens or to simply agree with us.
    • People with lived and living expertise may point out challenges and issues with the system, which may be hard for leaders and planners to hear. We need to recognize the system is broken and truly listening is the only way to understand how to fix it.

What do you think?

human head with light bulb as brain graphicZhang and Kteily-Hawa (2018) write that telling one‚Äôs story can be an act of agency and advocacy for human rights and personhood. We have heard from many researchers about the importance of listening to people with lived experience. What do you think governments and policy makers can do to move from token engagement to authentic engagement?


In this section, we considered the question, ‚ÄúHow do we know what we know about homelessness?‚ÄĚ Through a series of videos and readings, we can see that our knowledge comes from many different sources. We have seen how research, point-in-time counts, and administrative data, such as shelter usage and health records, can be used to better understand the scope of homelessness and to inform policy decisions. Along with these sources, you may recall we also saw some of the shortcomings, like the hidden populations that tend to be missed and the increased efforts that are needed to learn about people at risk of homelessness.

 

We concluded this section by focusing on the critical importance of truly listening to people with lived experience. While they are the experts, they are not always consulted in authentic ways that respect the knowledge they hold. How we know what we know is important to keep in your mind as you move through the book and continue to learn about homelessness from these various sources.

Podcast: How do we know what we know about homelessness? (20:13)

Click the link below to listen to all of the researchers answer the question ‚ÄúHow do we know what we know about homelessness?‚ÄĚ in audio format on our podcast!


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Listen to ‚ÄúHow do we know what we know about homelessness?‚ÄĚ on Spreaker

 


 

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Understanding Homelessness in Canada Copyright © 2022 by Kristy Buccieri, James Davy, Cyndi Gilmer, and Nicole Whitmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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