Safety, support and community: The path to end chronic homelessness

A still from social work phd student Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro's [IN]visible video collaboration with Sylvia Nickerson. The video is part of Vaccaro's research into chronic homelessness in Hamilton.

Social work PhD student Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro's [In]visible project on chronic homelessness included a video collaboration with artist Sylvia Nickerson, who incorporated art from the women in Vaccaro's research.

“I was on the street from when I was nine years old. I was in 22 foster homes.”

“I lost my apartment while I was in the hospital, and everything I owned. Everything.”

“I’d like a stable housing building, different from a shelter, that has more safety nets for women.”

“I’d just like to have a safe building with no bugs. Be able to pay the rent there. Not a dump.”
— From the [In]visible project

People often think all a homeless person needs to get back on their feet is an apartment, says Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro, a PhD student in McMaster’s School of Social Work. But her research shows  that’s not at all the case for chronically homeless women.

In fact, living alone in an apartment often leaves some of these women feeling isolated and unsupported. What they want, her findings show, is housing that offers them safety, support and a sense of community.

Vaccaro, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from McMaster, has been a front-line worker at Mary’s Place emergency shelter for six years. In that time, she’s seen a lot of the same women cycling in and out the door, again and again. Periodically, someone would find housing, only to be evicted soon after, or to leave it to escape violence.

“It made me question what women actually need and want to stay housed, and why,” Vaccaro says.

So she started asking them.

The result is [In]visible, an arts-based research project that explores the experiences of chronically homeless single women in Hamilton, and offers first-hand insights into what kind of permanent housing they think would help them stay off the streets. Vaccaro will present the [In]visible project and her findings at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ national conference next month in Hamilton.

She started by interviewing 40 chronically homeless women in Hamilton about their experiences. More than half reported that violence and abuse led directly to their homelessness, but there were other reasons as well.

“We heard stories about women who’d been hospitalized for long periods of time, so their social assistance stopped paying their rent. They got evicted, their stuff got thrown out, and when they left the hospital, they were homeless,” Vaccaro says.

“We had women who aged out of foster care into homelessness, women who lost their home while they were incarcerated, women whose partner died suddenly and it started a vicious cycle of grief and trauma that ended in homelessness.”

Armed with those insights, Vaccaro and the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative arranged art-based brainstorming sessions with 30 women who have experienced chronic homelessness, using art projects to help describe their vision of supportive permanent housing.

“I think women share things differently when they’re using art or photographs or collaging,” Vaccaro says. “The art that the women created was quite powerful.”

It was informative, too. Despite her familiarity from working with this population, Vaccaro was surprised by the findings.

“Many of these women weren’t saying, ‘If I could just go and get a one-bedroom apartment, I think everything would be okay.’ They were identifying needing a higher level of support, with community connections with other women, as well as staff support and check-ins,” she says.

“In many ways, this was surprising, but given their histories of violence, trauma and loss, it also makes sense that these women would identify a need for support and connection in their permanent housing.”

Safety was also a top housing priority for the women in Vaccaro’s study. “They spoke of housing with front-door security, cameras, perhaps a staffed front desk where they could go if they feel like they need support,” she says.

And because many of the women are seniors or have been homeless for decades, they described wanting support that was accessible and allowed them to age in place.

While Vaccaro’s study specifically looked at women who don’t have children in their care, “a lot of them are mothers who’ve lost their children to child welfare agencies,” she says. “So they spoke of wanting a home with programs and support on site to support reuniting mothers and children.”

Hamilton doesn’t have the kind of community-based, low-barrier supportive permanent housing the women in Vaccaro’s study described, but it does exist in other Canadian cities, most notably Vancouver.

[In]visible was funded by the Women’s College Hospital, and Vaccaro hopes to secure funding for the next phase of her research, which would focus on using chronically homeless women’s insights to help develop low-barrier, supportive permanent housing for women in Hamilton.

She also wants to build on the experiences of projects from Vancouver and other cities, as well on the expertise of local stakeholders, like the YWCA and Good Shepherd – both of whom are now looking into developing similar programs.

“I want to involve the women from my study in sort of a co-design process of thinking through what that housing building would look like,” she says.

“Some of these women have been homeless for 25 years. Whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working for a core group of women in Hamilton. We need to move to asking them what they actually want and then trying to make that happen.”

Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro will present her [In]visible project and its findings at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness national conference next month in Hamilton.

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