Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Characteristics of Home: Perspectives of Women Who Are Homeless

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Characteristics of Home: Perspectives of Women Who Are Homeless

Article excerpt


While there has been a steady decline in academic and media attention devoted to homelessness since the mid-1980s (Buck, Toro, & Ramos, 2004), the issues related to homelessness are now garnering increased attention. Today an estimated 25 percent of the homeless population is women, a rather new phenomenon that has sparked a resurgence of interest in academic circles, if not among the media and policymakers (Coryn & Borshuk, 2006). Previous research indicates that women experiencing homelessness have significantly different needs than homeless men. The literature shows that only a small number of women who are homeless use shelters, and those who do are less comfortable in shelters than men (Rahder, 2006; Whitzman, 2006). In addition to the stigma associated with staying in shelters, women avoid shelters for various reasons.

Many women prefer to stay with relatives or friends when they cannot find suitable housing, while others will remain in abusive relationships to avoid shelters (Acosto & Toro, 2001; Evans & Forsyth, 2003; Rahder, 2006). The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR; 2006) noted that women in Canada are often prevented from leaving abusive relationships due to the lack of affordable housing and inadequate assistance. Furthermore, women with children do not want to disrupt the lives of their children by changing their environments (Whitzman, 2006), and women who are homeless (with or without children) strongly prefer to avoid shelters for abused women. Women have concerns for their safety due to the perceived and actual dangerous, criminal elements in shelters. They are also fearful of their susceptibility to physical and sexual abuse by men (Evans & Forsyth; Novac, Brown, & Bourbonnais, 1996; Scott, 2007; Whitzman). While transition shelters can be an effective short-term solution to the housing crisis, it is not tenable in the long term. Although the goal should be aiding people to exit homelessness, appropriate temporary shelters may still be required as a stop-gap until longer-term housing solutions can be found.

This research project was conducted in Calgary, Alberta, Canada between May and August 2007 under the auspices of the Downtown Community Initiative, a partnership between The Salvation Army (TSA), a large inner-city homeless shelter, and the University of Calgary Faculties of Nursing and Social Work. The Downtown Community Initiative is an on-going project with the goal of building a foundation for co-learning between the inner-city population and TSA staff with students and faculty from the university for the purpose of improving the health and well-being of all involved (Rutherford, Walsh, & Rook, in press). This project arose from the previous work conducted within the DCI and the findings from this study informed work that followed.

Calgary in this period has experienced unprecedented economic growth due to its burgeoning oil and gas sector. While many have benefited from this substantial growth, many others have suffered from the lack of infrastructure, inadequate social planning, and available affordable housing: In fact, the rate of homelessness has increased 650 percent in the last decade (Calgary Committee to End Homelessness, 2008). This study attempts to fill a gap in current research by focusing on women's experience of homelessness and, in particular, what they perceive to be necessary for "home." The primary goal of the research project was to better understand the nature of home according to women who are homeless. A secondary objective was to document and use innovative community-based participatory research methods to enable and empower participants to share their concerns and advocate for their needs.

In this paper the focus is on an exploration of the characteristics of home as described by women who are, have been, or are at risk of being homeless. By understanding how this target group perceives home and the qualities they deem necessary for home, we can begin to construct home from both a service and design perspective that meets women's needs for stable and safe housing. …

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