Hot! No place like a homeless shelter

No place like a homeless shelter – Opinion – No place like a homeless shelter
July 30, 2008. Carol Goar

“I’m quite cynical about research on homelessness,” said David Hulchanski, who runs the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto.

It was a surprising admission for an academic, especially one who has written 170 papers on homelessness, housing and poverty.

But it got the audience’s attention and allowed Hulchanski to explain that his centre’s latest study isn’t another head count or hand-wringing exercise.

Better Off in a Shelter? looks at a very specific segment of the homeless population: women with children. It was undertaken to find out what had gone wrong in their lives, why they ended up in a shelter and how long it took them to find a place of their own.

“We’ve got to get beyond the phrase `the homeless,'” Hulchanski said. “They are not an amorphous group.”

With that in mind, a team of researchers fanned out to six Toronto shelters and interviewed 91 single mothers. They tracked the women for a year, doing three in-depth interviews. About half the participants were immigrants; half were Canadian-born.

Hulchanski and his colleagues wanted to compare the two groups, look for common risk factors and come up with policy recommendations. They also wanted to see whose lives got better, and whose got worse.

The first finding – which gave rise to the study’s title – was that most of the women were better off in a homeless shelter than they had been before or would be afterward. They were safe from abusive partners, free of discrimination, out of dangerous neighbourhoods and no longer plagued with rats, roaches and money woes. But when it came time to leave, all the barriers that kept them out of decent housing in the first place were still there.

“There’s no happy ending,” Hulchanski said. “They entered the same system they were in before.”

The second discovery was that the biggest difference wasn’t between the immigrants and the Canadian-born participants; it was between the landed immigrants and the non-status migrants.

Women without status (refugee claimants, domestic workers, visitors who overstayed their visas and girlfriends who slipped into the country) were the most vulnerable to abuse, eviction and exploitation. They stayed in shelters longest and left with the fewest choices.

The third revelation – a disturbing one for single parents – was that a significant number of the women were in homeless shelters involuntarily. They had been told by child welfare authorities it was the only way they could maintain (or regain) custody of their children.

The good news is that virtually all of the women in the study were well served by Toronto’s shelters. They got the help they needed. They were treated fairly regardless of their immigration status or skin colour. Their children were welcomed.

The bad news is that family shelters, meant as an emergency stopgap, are being used as transitional housing because there is no place else where single mothers with children can get the support they need.

The saddest realization for the researchers was that childbirth, which is normally a cause of celebration, was a life-shattering crisis for many of the women in the study. They could no longer work, no longer pay their rent and no longer hide from immigration authorities.

The authors make four specific recommendations:

Income-support programs should take into account single mothers who face violence at home and can’t afford to move out.

Priority should be placed on building subsidized housing for families.

All mothers, whatever their immigration status, should be entitled to family-planning services, prenatal, delivery and postnatal care.

Social service agencies should designate seats on their board for homeless or formerly homeless people.

They also call for more affordable housing of all types, more subsidized child care, higher social assistance rates, speedier resolution of refugee claims and residency applications and improved training programs for single parents.

There were no major surprises or breakthroughs in the paper.

But it provided a rare – and badly needed – glimpse behind the statistics and stereotypes.

Carol Goar

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