Saturday, November 04, 2006


What is happening out there on the street? Do those of us who sit on various commitees and work in social agencies actually know what is happening out there with the homeless and addicted? I have sat in focus groups where one person said something, and that one statement somehow became an accepted fact at the committee level. One guy at a focus group says "We are tired of people talking to us," and the report for the focus group says "They are tired of people talking to them." The committee then makes a motion to "talk to people less," and the misinformation continues. The newspaper then reports that the committee says people should be talked to less, and the local politicians, wanting to have an "ear to the ground" then use the misinformation to create "non-talking" policies. And this says nothing about the contorting of the message that happens as it gets passed through different people. I'm convinced that very few people in this country have an idea of what is happening in the sub cultures that surround them.

Yet we, in our ignorance, are still forced to take actions on a regular basis. Such is life: we never know what the future may hold, but we are forced to act as though we do. To combat this difficult situation, our society has come to rely on the scientific method to give us a "reasonable" view of reality. If enough academic reports point in a certain direction, we can make enough assumptions to proceed. For the homeless, we apply social science, a smattering of sociology, social work, psychology, cultural geography, anthropology and economics. Ethical guidelines are developed, and legions of volunteers and academics rush out to get the scoop on street life.

Science has a difficult time with humans, however. For example, how do you prove what percentage of homeless people suffer from some form of mental illness? You could try and get a sample population and survey them, but the crisis situation that most are currently in will cause certain traits which may appear to be mental illness. Furthermore, how do you get this sample? Do you invite homeless people to volunteer (which will only gather certain types of people) or do you force people to participate (and if so, how?).

Perhaps the whole idea of "studying the homeless" should be discarded in favour of a more humane approach. I suggest we give what is needed while gathering what information we can in the process. For example, a reasonable homeless count can be done by tallying all of the people who use social helping agencies in a given area (so long as the list of agencies is very wide ranging and complete). Accurate records of client situations can be recorded by staff of foodbanks, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters. There is currently no national database or method for doing this, but I think it is time to initiate one. And when I say a national information database, I don't mean that we should bombard the homeless with technical questions, I simply mean we can ask them a few open-ended questions occasionally, and the staff person asking can interpret and record the results anonymously. For example, most people who come into emergency shelters tell their story to the staff member who does their intake. The staff can, after finishing the intake, visit an online database and fill out a basic form.
This data would accumulate, and eventually would give a somewhat accurate picture of what is happening.

Nevertheless, any attempt to get a glimpse into a sub-culture will produce a limited result, and we should keep this in mind. For this reason any study or data collection carried out with homeless people be done in conjunction with the handing out of tangible resources like food, shelter, etc. We cannot ensure an accurate reflection of reality, but at least we can make sure our time, and the time of clients, is not completely wasted.