The gap between research and practice has persisted for too long. Evidence-based research should be accessible, practically relevant, and inform policies. This is particularly important in the COVID-19 pandemic era, as there is not much research that can guide practice. In the homelessness sector, the pandemic has created many barriers, challenges, and uncertainties for service providers. 

This blog explores reflective practice and how it could be a potentially useful tool to respond to the challenges encountered by researchers and service providers. In this blog, I will unpack the types of reflective practice that can benefit the homeless-serving sector and discuss some lessons for researchers and service providers while they navigate their work through COVID-19. 

What Is Reflective Practice? 

In 1983, Donald Schon, in his seminal work, argued that there is often a disconnect between theory and practice: what is taught and what is learned through experience are different. He developed the concept of reflective practice to help bridge the gap between thought and action by making the lessons learned through experience available in training and educational materials.

Reflective practice is based on critical reflection, which involves drawing meaning from experience to develop a higher form of learning. Reflective practice can take two forms: 

  1. Reflection-in-action describes how practitioners reflect while engaged in action. It involves improvising or deciding how to address challenging and unexpected situations without much planning in advance. In other words, sometimes, we are reflecting as something is happening, and we have to decide and act quickly. 
  2. Reflection-on-action involves a retrospective thinking process or reflecting after something has happened. Sometimes, practitioners reconsider the situation and think about what they could have done differently. This way, they can decide what needs to change for the future based on the new insights they have gained through practice.  

Both types of reflective practice involve observation and critical reflection. In reflection-in-action, the processes of thinking and doing are complementary. Reflection-on-action involves reflecting on previous experiences and applying lessons learned to improve service delivery. 

Reflective Practice in Homelessness Research and Practice

How can we use reflective practice in homelessness research and practice? And what can we learn from the past two years since the onset of the pandemic, so we respond to homelessness more effectively? To answer these questions, in the following, I focus on three themes: housing affordability vs. affordable housing, case management and support services, and barriers to homelessness research in the COVID-19 era. 

Housing Affordability vs Affordable Housing    

I’ll start by looking at housing affordability. Canada’s housing affordability challenges are well-known. If we started reflecting critically on the past two years, it would become clearer that, at the policy level, we are still struggling. In part, this is because policymakers most often have focused on providing affordable housing, but in reality, this is simply not enough, and at best is considered an afterthought. Housing affordability is different than providing affordable housing. Affordable housing can include a broad range of social housing options, including rental, owner-occupied, and co-op housing. On the other hand, housing affordability means what proportion of our average total income is spent on housing costs.  

In 2017, the Federal government released the first-ever National Housing Strategy (NHS): A Place to Call Home. Over the next decade, this strategy promises to “remove 530,000 families from housing need, cut chronic homelessness by 50% and change the face of housing in Canada forever.” But does this strategy consider housing affordability? For example, in Ontario alone, between 2011 and 2021, while average incomes have only grown by almost 38%, average house prices increased by 180%. 

What do we learn when looking at all this with a reflective practice lens? One lesson is that “location” matters. Housing affordability is also about location since at-risk households (i.e., low-income households with unstable employment) have to commute long distances to work. What this means is that transportation costs should also be included in the 30% shelter cost-income ratio that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) recommends. Research shows that transportation costs are a household’s second-largest expenditure by as much as 15%. When we learn from experience, it is clear that it is high time to include these transportation costs in the equation for housing affordability. This would in turn explain why government solutions to the housing crisis have so far missed the mark.

Case Management and Support Services

Let’s focus on when people experiencing homelessness display symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19. Healthcare workers acknowledge that individuals experiencing homelessness often congregate in environments where social and physical distancing may be limited or impossible. What does it mean to use reflection-in-action in such circumstances? Service providers often have no choice other than relying on their intuition to develop a solution. An example of this is service providers working with local public health authorities to develop a collaborative plan to provide temporary and safe housing or shelter to people experiencing homelessness so they can quarantine. 

What about reflection-on-action? Service providers more often than not are engaged in these kinds of reflective practices, even unknowingly. For example, it is a common practice across the sector to reflect on what could have worked better or what should have been avoided. What can they do to better tailor case management services to the needs of different ethno-racial backgrounds and across the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identities? 
During the pandemic, measures to prevent the spread of the virus were common, including in the homelessness sector. We can again put on our reflective practice glasses and pose a reflective question: what would have happened if we were responding to homelessness as if we were dealing with the pandemic? Similar to social distancing and mask-wearing mandates, we would need to prioritize prevention. Homelessness preventive-focused measures could include a range of programs, such as housing subsidies, eviction prevention, shelter diversion, and collaborative, cross-sector interventions.

Barriers to Homelessness Research in the COVID Era

Finally, let’s consider how reflective practices can be included in research. Social distancing mandates from public health authorities meant that researchers needed to put in safety plans when engaging with research participants. This has made it difficult for researchers to maintain their rapport with participants, especially those with a lived experience of marginalization. 

By far, Zoom has become the most common means of communication, reducing the need to have in-person meetings. However, this poses some problems. Reflecting critically on technological barriers to conducting research involves paying attention to the environment in which research activities occur. For example, some participants might not be comfortable turning on their cameras over Zoom or would rather connect with the researcher over the phone. As well, providing an equal chance for everyone to speak and raise their concerns virtually is especially challenging. Additionally, the researcher should be mindful of the participant’s capacity to consent, which might be hard to assess online. And does the researcher know how to respond to situations such as when the participant thinks about suicide? 

These are questions that researchers have encountered while practicing during the pandemic, and they are not easy to answer. However, they can be a starting point for reflective practice and have already led to the emergence of new best practices for coping with the realities of the pandemic. 


The themes covered in this blog aimed to engage a broader audience in reflective practices. With the onset of the pandemic, researchers and practitioners have faced many challenges and barriers in their work, which have limited their capacity to function effectively. Reflecting on what we could have done better to address homelessness demonstrates the importance of prevention. Efforts aimed at reducing and ending homelessness need to prioritize prevention in ways in which we can continually raise the public’s awareness of preventive-focused approaches to homelessness. 

Note: This blog is based on my article: Reflective Practice in Homelessness Research and Practice: Implications for Researchers and Practitioners in the COVID-19 Pandemic Era, recently published in the International Journal on Homelessness. I would like to thank Kimberly Duong for her research assistance in the writing of the blog. I am very grateful to Cedar Michel for her copyediting and insightful comments on the earlier draft of the blog.