Research can contribute to ending homelessness - Interview with Michael Shapcott

Research can contribute to ending homelessness

Michael Shapcott is Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute, an independent, non-profit research and policy dedicated to advancing urban health.

Research is critically important in terms of homelessness for a number of factors.  Getting a basic statistical profile of homelessness is surprisingly difficult in a country like Canada, where we have all sorts of numbers available to us. You can pick up the daily newspaper or log on to the Internet any second of any day to find out how much stock markets are going up and down, and the infinite changes of value of the dollar. Yet as a country, as a province and as a city we don’t have a reliable indicator for the number of people who experience homelessness. We have certain measures that help us to approximate that a number of people are sleeping in shelters, for instance, but we do not have any of those reliable indicators.

One of the most fundamental purposes of research is from the statistical level to give us some sense of what is the reality in terms of the numbers out there.  Why is it important to have numbers? First of all, numbers allow us to set realistic targets.  If there are a thousand homeless people inToronto, you set a certain target.  If there are 10,000 or 100,000 homeless people, then you set other targets; so we really need to have good statistics in order to set targets.

Statistics and research are important as well in terms for assessing and evaluating initiatives that are put into place.  Quite frankly we don’t have any real measures to say if all the things that are being done in terms of homelessness are actually making a difference. Are they reducing homelessness? We don’t know because we do not actually have any reliable numbers statistically on homelessness overall.  So one of the first and most important values of good research is that is helps us to set targets and then helps us to monitor for accountability for success in terms of initiatives we do. 

Research also helps us to understand the complexities of very important issues such as homelessness. In its simplest form, as the name suggests, homelessness means someone who lives without a house.There is a whole complex series of issues that begin to emerge in terms of pathways into homelessness and the routes out of homelessness, the complex interaction between homelessness, health,  income, employment, education, etc. and all sorts of other factors. And good research also helps to understand some of the complexities so we can actually be sure that solutions that we are putting in place address the real complexities. 

Sometimes social policy is developed based on hunches, instincts, whims, intuition and there is nothing wrong with people who have been involved in homelessness issues over the years. They have good instincts. They know what works because they have good long-term experience. But we think social policy needs to be based on more than whims and instincts and so good research helps us unravel some of the complexities and helps us understand what some of the real factors are that contribute to both the increase in homelessness in most urban areas in Canada in the last two decades, and helps us understand where the solutions are that will help us make a practical difference.

Who needs to be involved?

One of the most important things we need to do is we need to have a big table that includes everybody. We think that ultimately, the solution will come when the partnership is robust, when it’s broad and it includes not just Federal, Provincial, and Municipal Governments, although they’ve got to be at the table because they play a significant role. 

Municipal Governments control land use, zoning issues, building standard issues; they’re a very important player at the table.  Provincial Governments often deal with health issues, with supports, and with housing concerns.  Of course, the Federal Government has ahistoric role in housing programs, repair and so on.  So, it’s important that all levels of government are involved meaningfully at the table.  We also need to have Aboriginal organizations at the table.

One of the dirty little secrets about homelessness and of housing insecurity in Canada is that Aboriginal people, who make up just a tiny fraction of the population bear a disproportionate burden of homelessness and housing insecurity, so we need to have Aboriginal organizations at the table.

What we don’t want to do is replicate some of the patronizing practices of the past, where non-Aboriginal people say “we know what’s best for Aboriginal people, we’ll build the housing, we’ll manage it, we’ll do a better job than you can.” So we need to have Aboriginal organizations at the table. 

We need to have community-based organizations at the table.  Some of the greatest housing successes in Canada over the last four or five decades have been successes undertaken by church organizations, by community service clubs, by other faith groups, by various non-profit and community organizations, and by cooperative organizations.  A wide variety of groups in the non-profit and community sector, who have direct experience, who have decades of history, all need to be at the table as experts as well. 

We also need to have the private sector at the table.  There used to be this notion that somehow, affordable housing was different, that it had nothing to do with the private market for housing.  In fact, in the heyday of Canada’s national housing programs, in the 1970s and 1980s, when 10, 20, 30 thousand units were being developed every year across the country, it was private developers who were actually taking on the contract to develop the housing, architects were doing the planning, the contracts were going to private companies and so on, so the private sector has always been involved in affordable housing, and absolutely needs to be at the table.  They have an expertise that needs to be there.

And of course, one other group that needs to be at the table, and I don’t mention them last because they’re least important, is people with direct experience with housing and homelessness.  They need to absolutely be at the table.  Back from 1990 to 1993, when I was managing a housing redevelopment project in Toronto called the Rupert Pilot Project, I was to develop 525 units of affordable housing for homeless people, those with mental health or drug use issues in their lives. One of the things that we insisted on was that the people who were going to be the residents of the housing had to be directly involved with the architectural work and designing the housing, and had to be involved in development, and the operation of the housing.  At the time, for some who were initially involved with the project, they found it a bit odd to think, “what could these people possibly bring to the table?” because after all they were the victims of homelessness and there’s sometimes the notion that people have brought it upon themselves, it’s their individual pathology of their lifestyle choice so they shouldn’t and couldn’t be part of the overall solution.

In fact, people bring in an extremely valuable set of expertise who have direct experience with this so ultimately we think the partnerships at the national and provincial levels have to include all that variety.

When we began talking about this a few years ago, it was a bit unusual but increasingly now governments are recognizing that you have to create that multi-sectoral partnership in order to have effective change, to make progress.  For instance, this past February the government of New Brunswick in setting up their plan to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty has created a new corporation which will oversee the reduction of poverty in that province. The corporation has a 22-person Board of Directors and they’re drawn from the sectors I mentioned: governments, private sector, community sector and people who’ve had a direct experience with poverty.

Governments are recognizing that we need to have this big table approach, bring everyone together, harness the energy, work in a coordinated fashion and ultimately that’s how we’re going to translate the research and policy that we know is out there, that tells us what we need to do, into action.


Publication Date: 
Toronto, Ontario, Canada