Read Stephen Gaetz’s “Editorial: The Struggle to End Homelessness in Canada: How We Created the Crisis, and How We Can End it” to learn more about the Canadian response to homelessness. It’s part of the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services”.
Stephen Gaetz of Canada’s Homeless Hub was into punk rock in the 1970s. His experiences as a teenager have helped inform his work as a researcher. He is committed to reframing how research and policy support decision-making for street youth. “Everyone thought punks were dangerous freaks. But for me it was an important identity that helped me to find meaning. I was interested in the tension and dissonance of being punk,” explains Stephen. Stephen is also an Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at York University.
For his doctoral research, he studied community development and youth unemployment in Ireland. “When I finished my Ph.D. in 1990, I realized that I did not want to work in a university setting,” says Stephen. Following the completion of his graduate work, Stephen worked at a community health center for youth experiencing homelessness in Toronto.
Direct work with youth exposed Stephen to innovative and creative service approaches. At the time, the youth homeless population was dramatically increasing. Stephen points out that the community response was framed by pre-existing beliefs that street youth are “bad.” Many people advocated a “get tough” approach. “I came to understand that there was a huge gap between the research and policy responses. It ultimately had an impact on programs and youth,” says Stephen.
Service agencies did not have the interest or capacity to pursue research. The sharing of information about program models was infrequent. Public discussions around youth issues centered on beliefs that youth were lazy, had gone astray, had poor values, and should be criminalized. “Having worked directly with youth, I knew this perspective was garbage. When agencies working directly with youth talked about youth, nobody listened.” Stephen recognized that more research was needed to help change people’s perceptions of street youth.
He conducted a research study on street youth’s strategies for making money. He learned that street youth have very conservative attitudes toward work. “They wanted to work for their money. They were very interested in having regular jobs. Many had left home as a result of abuse. We developed an understanding of how and why street youth made money. Our findings clashed with public perceptions,” says Stephen. Purposefully, he published his research findings in accessible language, hoping it would influence public policy. The report, “Making Money: the Shout Clinic Report on Homeless Youth and Employment” had a powerful impact on the public perception of street youth.
“This showed me,” explains Stephen, “that there is a role for research. We cannot shoot from the hip. We must have research to impact both policy and practice.” His subsequent work for the City of Toronto showed him that accessing research on homelessness could be challenging. After a year of working in city government, Stephen returned to a university setting. He wanted to dedicate himself to mobilizing research on homelessness to have a greater impact on policy and practice.
Stephen Gaetz has played a central role in the establishment of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Homeless Hub, a clearinghouse for homelessness research. He credits his background in the non-profit sector, academia, and government for providing an understanding of how different systems work. “If I had just stayed in academia, I wouldn’t understand how government operates. Because of my experiences in the three areas, I see the challenges and opportunities of using research to address solutions to homelessness.
Stephen also serves on the Advisory Steering Committee of the Homelessness Resource Center. Stephen believes in the importance of collaborations across borders, especially between the United States and Canada. “When you look outside your borders you learn to look at your own practices critically. You learn to ask: Why are we doing things this way?” Stephen observes that the United States has a more coordinated and strategic response to homelessness. In contrast, he notes that Canada has strong community-based programs and a health care system that provides greater access to essential services.
Stephen thinks it is a mistake to identify people experiencing homelessness as a group that is separate from the rest of society. “Homelessness is a form of extreme poverty. I believe we have to deal with poverty more broadly. We must address poverty to address homelessness.”
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