“My survival strategy is to stay unnoticed.” (Lived expert)
Homelessness is not new across all types of communities, but its visibility in mid-size cities is. The pressure on those cities to act quickly has come up against their ability to adapt to the changing needs of the community and to respond in a way that leads to long-term stability and equity for all.
"Rewriting the Narratives on Homelessness in Mid-Sized Canadian Communities" draws from our case study analysis interrogating perceptions of homelessness crime, and public safety in a mid-sized city in British Columbia. To ensure the participants’ privacy, we are withholding the name of the community.
We looked to answer two questions: 1) How, and in what ways, do the experiences and narratives surrounding homelessness, crime, and public safety converge and diverge among various stakeholder groups? And 2) What opportunities for growth exist in mid-sized cities to promote community resilience?
The goal of this research was to create a fact-based counter-narrative on the experiences of homelessness and community safety.
To do so we engaged 54 people across 3 stakeholder groups in in-depth interviews and focus groups. In total, we spoke to:
- 18 people with lived experience of homelessness
- 14 other community representatives
- And 16 police and bylaw officers
The Increasing Visibility of Homelessness in Mid-Sized Cities
They don’t want us people in the community” (Lived Expert)
The increasing visibility of people experiencing homelessness in this mid-sized community has been central to the public understanding and socio-legal response to homelessness.
So now we've got a lot of people in this community that are still streetwise people who may be in sheltered housing who are not ours. (Service Provider, emphasis added)
Concerns over who is meant to use public space and how that space should be used are currently motivating the response to homelessness in this community, and we strongly suspect many others. These concerns have shaped perceptions of community belonging, use and access to social services, and public safety. Importantly these concerns have also shaped how law enforcement has become involved in the response to homelessness.
So in all honestly, homelessness in the downtown core, unless they’re stealing and open drug use, it’s not a police issue. It’s really not, it’s become a police issue because everyone wants to make issues the responsibilities of the police, but it essentially isn’t ours […]. (Police Officer)
What Can Be Done?
“Rewriting the Narratives on Homelessness” presents an opportunity to engage mid-sized urban cities across Canada in challenging misperceptions about homelessness, safety, and security. We provide suggestions on how to make progress towards ending homelessness by evaluating and reimagining mid-size cities’ working relationships with people experiencing homelessness, Indigenous Peoples, all levels of government, local service providers, and law enforcement.
Drawing on this research, we offer 9 opportunities to change the way mid-sized communities across Canada respond to homelessness. Taken together, these recommendations seek to promote community resilience. Central to developing community resilience is the ability to create opportunities for inclusion, address sustainable and affordable housing, poverty reduction, and access to a continuum of healthcare and mental health resources. Community resilience is influenced by social, cultural and structural resources, constraints and opportunities.
Opportunity #1: Current understandings of homelessness in mid-sized cities may not reflect the everyday experiences of people experiencing homelessness.
BREAK THE NARRATIVE Rewrite the misperceptions and misunderstandings on homelessness by working with people with lived experience of homelessness, local media, and various social media platforms.
Opportunity #2: Encampments result from housing policy failures. Until people have access to safe, permanent, and affordable housing, encampments will continue to exist in mid-size cities and should be responded to in a manner that reflects the dignity, needs, and rights of encampment residents. When engaging with Indigenous Peoples in encampments, any response must maintain enshrined Indigenous rights to land and self-determination.
RESPOND to encampments through a human rights lens that is “guided by the obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil Indigenous Peoples’ distinct rights” (p. 4).
Opportunity #3: Not all community stakeholders share the same perspective. However, some community members were vocal that people experiencing homelessness are not members of their community and thus not deserving of local services and care. People experiencing homelessness are members of mid-sized communities.
CREATE an awareness campaign around the causes and conditions of homelessness.
Opportunity #4: Many mid-sized cities actively offer a variety of services and supports, yet a dedicated community space for people experiencing homelessness or who are housing insecure may be missing. Without such a space, people experiencing homelessness may not be able to access resources they need to survive and may not feel included in the city.
BUILD AND SUPPORT spaces for people experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, and/or living in poverty to create community and offer access to resources
ENHANCE city-wide competency around Housing First
Opportunity #6: Concerns about people who are homeless moving from one community to another when resources are limited create silos, rather than connection, between surrounding communities.
DEVELOP a system of interagency collaboration across all orders of government and systems coordination as well as surrounding municipalities
Opportunity #7: All stakeholder groups raised concerns about drugs and safety in mid-sized cities, yet nuanced differences exist about what these concerns entail. On the one hand, community members have concerns about public safety in relation to the increasing number of people using drugs outdoors. People experiencing homelessness, on the other hand, are concerned about how the supply of drugs is increasingly producing ‘unsafety’ for users. Adding to these concerns for all stakeholder groups is confusion about the availability and variety of services in mid-sized cities to address substance use and mental health challenges.
DEVELOP a continuum of care to provide appropriate health, mental health, and substance use services to reach people where they are at, including harm reduction services
Opportunity #8: A lack of awareness exists about the availability, coordination, and limitations of services and supports in mid-sized communities.
CONDUCT a systems mapping exercise of homelessness, mental health and substance use services, leveraging existing services and identifying gaps for new services along the continuum of care
Opportunity #9: The criminalization of homelessness leads to public misperceptions about the relationship between homelessness and crime.
DEVELOP and implement a street outreach program that connects street-involved or otherwise under-serviced people with community supports as an alternative to police involvement.