For this, the final post on the Here At Home webdoc blog, we asked Stephen Gaetz for some final thoughts. Gaetz, who has written for us before, is director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Homeless Hub. These projects are dedicated to mobilizing homelessness research so that it has a greater impact on policy, planning and service provision, thereby contributing to solutions to end homelessness in Canada. Dr. Gaetz is also Associate Dean, Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto.

From NFB interactive, Here At Home is a cutting-edge documentary experience that offers a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment was the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it tested: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes. 

The At Home/Chez Soi project is a fantastic example of research impact.  For many years I have argued that our progress on ending homelessness has been impeded by a curious anti-intellectualism – people, often frustrated, would tell me: “We don’t need research – we know what the problem is, and we know what the solution is”.  I used to think: “Wrong! On all counts!”

Now in 2013, we are seeing how research really does matter!  Recently the Homeless Hub (Canadian Homelessness Research Network) in partnership with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, released “The State of Homelessness in Canada – 2013”, the first national report card on homelessness.  The report paints a pretty grim picture.  At least 30,000 people are homeless in Canada on a given night, and minimally over 200,000 in a given year.  Many others are at risk, as we are suffering from an acute shortage of affordable housing in Canada.  Since the 1990s, we have seen incomes decline for approximately 40% of Canadians, and at the same time housing prices rise and low rent housing becomes more and more scarce.

I would argue that since that time we have become all too comfortable with the presence of homelessness in our communities.  In some cases it is our prejudices that permit us to not care; our belief that people who are homeless choose to be so, or are lazy, or just want to live on benefits (a national poll conducted for the Salvation Army in 2011 suggested as much).  The research does not support any of these beliefs.

Our complacency is mainly a reflection of our exasperation and resignation with the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness – the belief that emergency shelters and soup kitchens, while not an ideal response, are the best we can do in the current context.  The At Home/Chez Soi project busts all of these myths.  The research from this project clearly demonstrates that you can take the most hard core, chronically homeless people with complex issues – those who you might believe will always be homeless – and place them in housing with the supports they want and need, and something amazing happens.  They remain housed! Not only that, their health improves, they begin to address addictions issues (if they have them), and they reconnect with communities.  Not only that, there is compelling evidence that this approach is no more expensive than keeping people mired in homelessness in and out of emergency shelters for years. Housing First works!

The body of evidence emanating from this project, attests to the positive outcomes of Housing First –  how it works, and its cost effectiveness – is most certainly impressive.  The At Home / Chez Soi project has already produced a large number of peer-reviewed articles with many more to come.    However, this research isn’t just sitting on the shelf only to be read by academics.  The knowledge produced by the project, which includes the fantastic film series “Here at Home – in search of the real cost of homelessness”,  is having a major impact on policy and practice in Canada.  From the recent renewal of the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy with its emphasis on Housing First, to the growing interest in communities across Canada that wish to implement the model, the At Home / Chez Soi project has been instrumental in inspiring a fundamental paradigm shift in how we are responding to homelessness at the national, regional and local levels.

We have come a long way, and while we still have a long way to go in dealing with the affordable housing crisis, it is good to know that in the homelessness world, research now matters.