Homelessness solutions need input from people experiencing it, expert says
A homelessness expert says possible solutions to addressing the problem won't succeed unless policymakers consult with people who have experienced it themselves.
Western University professor Cheryl Forchuk said that's part of what she learned while recently conducting interviews with more than 400 homeless people across Canada as part of a research project.
"What we found is the homeless population is incredibly diverse. This is really important because we need to understand who's homeless to have appropriate services," Forchuk said at a homelessness forum where she presented some of her findings at the Prince Albert Indian & Métis Friendship Centre on Thursday.
Forchuk, who's also assistant director at the Lawson Health Research Institute, has been working with federal government agencies to get more accurate numbers on homelessness across the country.
Since January 2021, her team has travelled to 28 locations across Canada to meet with organizations and homeless people.
She said the homeless population is more diverse and larger than ever, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This includes young adults, people with autism and other intellectual disabilities and elderly people with dementia. In some communities, the majority of these homeless people are Indigenous, Forchuk said.
That diversity is why it's crucial to start asking homeless people what specific help they need. Some people she spoke to said peer support is a big help, for example.
"What do people mean by that? Is it addictions? Do they want to talk to someone who's made that recovery?" she said.
"Is it help with mental illness? Is it a cultural thing, if they're an Indigenous person or a refugee? They want someone with a similar background. Is it veteran status?"
Forchuk said some potential solutions can happen at the local level, while others are provincial, such as reinstituting a Saskatchewan government support program to pay rent directly to landlords.
Delegate Brian Howell, who works for Prince Albert affordable home provider Riverbank Development Corporation, assisted Forchuk's research group when they interviewed people there.
"I think research is very important. It's fundamental to good policy, and there's been very little of it around homelessness," he said.
Howell agreed with Forchuk's assessment that a lack of research means homeless numbers are likely underestimated in rural, remote and Indigenous communities.
"We're overwhelmed," he said. "Things are on a downhill slide. We really have to get together and deal with these issues, and just the overall state of our communities."