When I am on the road, I never stay in shelters when I have the option of staying with family or friends. This means that when I am in Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Calgary, Nelson and Kamloops (sheltered there last year, now I have friends to stay with), I don’t stay in shelters. My exposure to the shelter industry in these places is through visits to drop-ins and soup kitchens and discussions with clients and professionals. You see, I discover very early in this little journey that I am a really crappy liar LOL. I suppose that is a good thing. So in these places I am unable to honestly say, “I am homeless”.
In other cities I am in fact homeless… I don’t have a place to stay… I don’t have money to stay in a hostel or hotel… ergo homeless. Some people would say I could have chosen to stay in Calgary, where I had a job and a place to sleep. Truth is that like myself, many of the people staying in shelters have options which, for personal reasons they choose not to exercise. I chose to learn more about homelessness than any university course could possibly teach me.
If I had not made that choice… what I have learned from this experience would still be a mystery. It remains to be seen if this new knowledge will benefit the industry, my clients or our communities; that will depend on how the information is used or not used as the case may be. But without being immodest, who better to do this type of experiential research into homelessness than me. I have no financial commitments (mortgages, car payments etc) to tie me down. My children are grown and independent. No pets to feed ;-). I’m not trying to get a tenured professorship at some university. My job at the DI was great and I’m pretty sure they would let me come back when I’m ready.
This objective, inside look at homelessness and the shelter industry is unique. The occasional journalist has spent brief periods of time living with one population of homeless, be it New York, L.A. or Philadelphia to name a few. Journalists are looking for a good story and often sensationalize the experience; focusing on the worst aspects of street people and shelter life. My only objective is to learn… and the only way the information becomes useful is if it is truth, good or bad.
Researchers look at the shelter system from the outside, through observations, statistics and / surveys. These are all good tools for developing information. I explained it once by saying homelessness is like a building in the middle of a block. Some people don’t even notice it is there; others know about it being there but don’t care much one way or the other. Researchers, social workers, and volunteers care enough to approach the building and peer in through windows and doorways… getting a pretty good look at the inside. But some angles will always be obscured by walls, corner and curtains. Angels of the Road is about entering that building, seeing all of it, up close and personal. Finding out what is, as yet unseen. This kind of inside perspective is called an observer/participant study. While I participate in shelter life with other homeless people, I am observing; the system, clients, staff, and community. Their interactions and inter-connectedness.
You might think, why not just ask someone who is already homeless, they certainly have seen the shelter industry from the inside. Unfortunately the inside view of clients is limited to their individual exposure and coloured by their personal drama, their perspective and opinions do matter. Surveys are used to collect the perceptions of homeless people; and from a large number of survey results certain extrapolations can be accurately made. Every research study must have constants and variables. In a survey, the constant is the panel of questions and the variables are the subjects (participants). For Angels of the Road the constant is ME and the variables are locations, agencies, demographic breakdown, community and government. Resulting (I hope) in an unbiased overview of the homeless situation in Canada.
Angels of the Road has visited many cities in more than half of Canada; after my sabbatical we will continue the journey and visit the other half of the country. I am looking at agency practices and protocols; finding what is and is not working within the industry. Examining the priorities of government at all levels and how that is affecting the industry and in turn what impact this has on the clients and staff. Mostly, I am out to find the best of what the shelter industry has to offer and create from that a working prototype; which we can use to plan facilities and programs to truly help people move forward with their lives.