How do you survey, or get more information from homeless people to help them, while respecting their life and what they are going through? It is a huge question. Tons of homeless "counts" and surveys have been carried out in almost every city in North America, and the question of how to do a respectful study is still looming. I am currently consulting with a local non-profit (Victoria Cool-Aid S'ociety) in doing the second Homeless Count, now called the "Homeless Needs Survey. The first few steps have been to gather the various local agencies and discuss what the motives and methodology will be for this project. Overwhelmingly, everybody in the room at these meetings has a desire for some concrete action about the problem wrapped into the survey.
That brings me to "PAR," or Participatory Action Research, a method of studying a social problem WHILE taking action, involving and empowering the clients through the process. PAR happens in a spiral fashion, actions taken are analyzed, and a new action is formulated through collaboration with the community in focus, while the social challenge (hopefully) gradually shows steady improvement.
That's probably a gross generalization and over-simplification of PAR, but it seems pretty cool. One of our staff on the Homeless Needs Survey project suggested we use this method, and I'm interested. I am particularily interested in how we will involve the homeless in this survey, and I also like the idea that the survey itself can be a form of compassionate action. Our last homeless count had a "rough count" portion, where volunteers (about 150) went out to find people sleeping rough, and interviewed those who were willing. The volunteers carried a packback full of goodies... food, drinks, and medical supplies. It was, in essence, a massive one-day street outreach.
Look, if we want to get numbers and crunch them for grants or to justify the work we do as social agencies, the least we can do is provide a helping hand in that moment, a form of direct compassionate action. Another part I like about it is the opportunity for people to meet street folks in a different context, a situation where both parties can learn more about each other. It's a very concrete and simple way to bridge the cultural gap between society and the street.
Agency workers also brought up the issue of people being given the chance to "tell their story." I remember reading an article in a local paper where a homeless person said "you can find a bowl of soup or a sweater, but try getting somebody to listen to you for 5 minutes..." This is such a true statement. As we get the wording down for the survey, I hope we have some open ended questions on there like "What got you here?" As well, I want people to have some time to spend during the survey. Telling one's story is a very important part o the healing journey. If we still need stats and numbers, we can get them from a qualitative analysis of the stories, but during the survey, we can still provide a listening ear.
Well, the whole project is still being developed. I will say that we have a lot more of the social work community involved this time, and the ideas have been nothing short of revolutionary. More to follow at some point...
For more information on PAR, try these links below: