The shift to end homelessness | A Q&A with Stephen Gaetz

We can't continue to stand at the bottom of the hill, catching bodies that fall. We need to climb the hill and prevent people from ever starting down that slippery slope into homelessness.

NIsa Drozdowski - 12 October 2017

Stephen Gaetz is a professor in the Faculty of Education at York University and the director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a research institute that conducts and mobilizes research that contributes to solving homelessness.

The School of Public Health will welcome Stephen Gaetz for the 2017 Douglas R. Wilson Lecture to present a prevention-based strategy for ending homelessness.

We spoke to Gaetz to learn more about the condition of homelessness and what needs to happen if we are to solve this public health crisis in Canada.

How did you become passionate about the issue of homelessness?

After finishing my PhD, I worked at a community health centre in Toronto with people who faced a lot of challenges. I became aware that our views on homelessness didn't make sense. There was an underlying belief that we already knew the problems and had the solutions; we didn't need to do research.

I was compelled to explore the causes and conditions of homelessness to develop a different way of thinking about solutions. By engaging with the homeless community, we can conduct research that has an impact through more informed policies and practices.

What are some of the misconceptions people have about homelessness?

The biggest misconception about homelessness is that it's a choice. Many people believe that a person experiencing homelessness is lazy-they don't want to work; they just want to collect welfare. Motivation is not the issue; finances usually are.

To debunk another misconception, most individuals who are homeless in Canada cannot overcome the application barriers, or do not meet the strict criteria to receive welfare benefits.

Some people choose not to understand or care about the homeless because they see them as different. For the most part, their attitudes and values are similar to yours and mine. Homelessness results in terrible human suffering. How can we not care about that?

You've said that to end homelessness in Canada, we need to shift our focus to prevention. What do you mean by that?

Canada has invested in a crisis response to homelessness, including emergency shelters. If we shift our thinking and investment to tackle the root causes of homelessness, we reduce the need for shelters in the first place.

Australia is a country that has done this well. In the 90s, Australia was experiencing an increase in homelessness. They realized that prevention strategies needed to begin as early as possible, so they targeted schools. Many times, there's an adult in a child's life who knows something is wrong at home, but they don't know what to do. Through education, people were able to better identify those at risk early on, and help them get the support to avoid homelessness.

What do you believe needs to happen, in terms of programs and services for prevention?

There are a number of things that we can do to ensure no Canadian ever experiences homelessness. They include:

  1. Equip people exiting public institutions or systems like mental health care, child protection and corrections with support and resources they need to transition successfully.
  2. Provide safety nets for those whose housing is at risk through eviction, for example.
  3. Increase supports for mental health and addictions.
  4. Expand the affordable housing supply.
  5. Act on the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations that address poverty and other inequities that put Indigenous people at a disproportionate risk for homelessness.

What can Canadians do to encourage this shift to end homelessness?

Canadians can effect change by being vocal about the need to make this shift to prevention. Pressure your local, provincial and federal elected officials to put resources, programs and funding into place. Encourage innovation and support creative thinking in the organizations that are working on the front lines to make this shift happen.

We can't continue to stand at the bottom of the hill, catching bodies that fall. We need to climb the hill and prevent people from ever starting down that slippery slope into homelessness.