The To Go Or To Stay research is primarily an exploration of the relationship between the decisions of the migration decisions of rurally-raised youth - to go or to stay - and their longer-term risk of homelessness. It focused on when, how, and to what effect they used formal (institutional) or informal (family, personal) resources in this process.
The primary finding is that risk of homelessness has a direct and on-going relationship with inclusion. A blue-ribbon group of Ontario-based experts, after a year of discussion and consideration, offered in 2004 a carefully constructed Canadian definition of inclusion. They defined inclusion as the reality and feeling of belonging. Both elements are essential; the absence of either precludes inclusion. The reality of belonging is a formal process; the feeling of belonging is a personal process. Legislation or regulation or membership gives a person the right to be in a place or to participate in an activity, but unless these rights are made available in such a way that the person feels welcome to be there, inclusion does not exist. Inclusion is personal connection.
Homelessness – having no fixed address – is the ultimate form of exclusion: there is literally no place in society in which the person belongs. The road to homelessness is paved with conditions and acts of exclusion. Alternately, conditions and acts of inclusion reduce or reverse risk of homelessness. The Housing First philosophy is based on this reality: settle a person in a place where s/he feels s/he belongs, and then work on other impediments to participation in mainstream life.
The rule of thumb derived from this research is simply to consider whether any condition or act delivers the reality and feeling of belonging. If it does, it reduces risk of homelessness; if it does not, it increases risk of homelessness.
Families are the primary place where people are likely to experience the reality and feeling of belonging. When they fail to do so, when informal or personal resources are inadequate to the needs of a person, that person becomes dependent on formal resources. Because formal resources are at some level impersonal, the person is, as a consequence of having to use them, at increased risk of homelessness.
This rule of thumb provides a simple and consistent orientation for evaluating formal systems whose task it is to intervene with risk of homelessness. The test for legislation and regulation is the extent to which it delivers the housing people need to feel included in society. The fact that the number of people who do not have the homes they need is increasing is proof that our housing legislation is exclusionary. All the reasons in the world about why that situation exists do not change that fact.
The rule of thumb is also useful in evaluating the extent to which inclusion is accomplished at the level of programs and practice. The participants in this research said, compellingly, that to be inclusionary, interventions need to be personalized, persevering, and empowering. Aisling captures it:
You have to care. You have to actually care! You have to see this person and see this kid in front of you and not think about he or she looks like or the things that they say or the things that they do because they’re scared. They’re terrified. They want someone to care. They want someone who will stop at pretty much nothing to help them. Which is pretty much what [two shelter workers] did for me. They gave me a mom when my mom couldn’t be a mom. And I think that’s what helped me the most when I had to do what I had to do. And now I don’t even have to ask them, I just hear their voices in my head saying everything’s going to be all right, just smarten up, just get my shit together. I can’t imagine what this place would be like without them. I don’t know if they even know how many kids they’ve saved.
…The world’s a better place because they influenced me to be like that. I think that’s what makes me be a better mom, be a better person.
Personalized: When interventions are by-the-book, robotical, just-doing-my-job, they are exclusionary because they do not convey the feeling of belonging. Not only are they not helpful, they are also very likely harmful, in that they reinforce an understanding that helpers are on the other side of the fence that divides insiders from outsiders. This makes future engagement less likely, more difficult, more expensive.
Persevering: The process of being included in one’s world is never accomplished for keeps; it is an on-going process, a constant repositioning along the teeter-totter of inclusion-exclusion. Here’s a simplified example of how it works: Susie has moved. She goes to the school that services her new neighbourhood. The secretary greets her warmly and ascertains that she is in the place where she belongs: Susie feels included. The secretary takes her to her new home-room, where the teacher who does not expect her and already has a large class says coldly “Come in, then, Suzie, and find a seat. We’re on page 127 in the math text.” Susie feels excluded until Nancy, another student, calls out “There’s a seat here, Susie, and you can share my book”. Susie again feels the possibility of belonging, of inclusion. And so the day proceeds.
Policies and programs tend to want a ‘quick fix’, a magic pill that will cure the particular ill that gives the person the right to receive service. Service providers need to own their expertise, their understanding of the process of exclusion/inclusion, in order to hang in long enough to engage the individual and help him/her to learn how to become included in (for shorthand) mainstream society. This requires courage and effort, Aisling’s ‘stop at pretty much nothing’. She expects this of more than front-line workers:
People higher up in the ‘food chain’ shouldn’t let politics or administration or whatever ever come between helping somebody. Because that’s so wrong and I see it all the time. People have their hands tied and either can’t or won’t help because of regulations or red tape, policies and administration.
Empowering: Subjects, in grammatical terms, are nouns – person, place or thing – that take action. Objects, also nouns, are acted upon. To the extent we are the subject of our lives, we are in charge of our lives; we make choices, for better or for worse. When we are the object of our lives, our lives are in charge of us; we are blown hither and thither by external forces. Empowerment is creating the conditions under which a person becomes the subject of their lives.
This requires creating the conditions under which a person believes that s/he has the capacity to take action, and that taking action will have consequences, for better or for worse. Toddlers are the embodiment of empowerment in process. Progress is learning to choose actions that have the desired consequence. This is achieved through practicing a two-step process: one, take action; two, analyze its impact in order to choose the next action that will move one’s life toward the desired goal.
The inclusiveness of programs and personnel, individually and collectively, can be measured by assessing the extent to which they offer personalized, persevering and empowering interventions. If service users believe that a worker cares, this is empirical evidence that that worker is inclusive. If, in addition, service users can stay in program or move among programs without interruption, this is evidence that that program is inclusive. If the program/workers support the service user to make choices, own the consequences, and learn from the experience, it is evidently inclusive. Every element of every program can be easily and frequently assessed using this rule of thumb, and unceasingly tweaked to improve inclusivity, user by user, worker by worker, element by element.
People say that the solution to homelessness is quite simply people having homes. Similarly, the solution to moving people away from homelessness or risk of homelessness is quite simply providing conditions and acts of inclusion.