From Homeless Person to Unhoused Neighbour: Ontario Researchers Advocate for a Shift in Perception as Communities Grapple with Unprecedented Visible Homelessness

Jessica Braimoh, Erin Dej and Naomi Nichols among leading line-up of speakers at Congress 2024, Canada’s largest humanities and social sciences conference, taking place June 12-21

Photo of Erin Dej (photo contributed)

Toronto, ON – Every night some 35,000 Canadians have nowhere to sleep — reflecting an 88% increase in visible homelessness from 2018 to 2023 that is causing what used to be a big city problem to show up in smaller communities for the first time. And it’s making people living in those towns uncomfortable, afraid and uncertain about what to do.

Now, after being approached by the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association (OMSSA) to shed light on challenges related to homelessness, a team of three Ontario researchers say the solution lies in shifting the narrative away from individual blame and actions that deepen hate, towards recognizing homelessness for what it is: an erosion of the public safety net over decades that could affect any one of us.

Photo of Jessica Braimoh (photo contributed)

“People are upset about having to bear witness to visible homelessness, having to see it in communities where they’ve never experienced it before, and a lot of those feelings come from a place of fear,” said Erin Dej, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, noting that the kneejerk reaction of shutting down encampments isn’t going to solve the problem.

“They’re saying they don’t feel comfortable going to the library or that they feel scared when waiting for a bus,” she added. “We need to acknowledge that fear and help people understand that this is a shared problem, and that all of those people who they see suffering on the streets are actually neighbours who need their help.”

Dej, along with Naomi Nichols, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Community-Partnered Social Justice, at Trent University and Jessica Braimoh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science (Criminology) at York University, will present findings from their research into homelessness in Canada at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2024), Canada’s largest academic gathering and one of the most comprehensive in the world, taking place June 12 to 21 in Montreal.

Billed as a leading conference on the critical conversations of our time, Congress 2024 — themed “Sustaining shared futures” — serves as a platform for the unveiling of thousands of research papers and presentations from social sciences and humanities experts worldwide. With more than 8,000 scholars, graduate students and practitioners expected to participate, the event focuses on what must be done to bring forth solutions for today and sustain the systems of tomorrow, with the goal of inspiring ideas, dialogue and action that create a more diverse, sustainable, democratic and just society.

At Congress, the researchers will provide an honest look at homelessness based on their experiences working in their respective communities to shift the narrative away from hate and criminalization towards active strategies aimed at inclusion and belonging. In particular, they will highlight the need to focus on listening as the starting point to any solution, allowing people to articulate how they are feeling without judgement and then using that public dialogue to identify local action and policy shifts.

For example, Nichols will share how her lab at Trent University is working with local stakeholders in Peterborough to develop a roadmap for change, applying a grass roots approach to action planning that is based on ongoing information sharing, including hearing from those experiencing homelessness as well as those providing services. Whereas the go-to reaction to homelessness is criminalization — including actions such as issuing trespass notices or arrests — the researchers stress penalizing people for trying to survive together in encampments isn’t the right approach.

Photo of Naomi Nichols (photo contributed)

“What we’re seeing now is evidence in our face that homelessness is not the result of individual failings. It is the outcome of systematic policy making over the past 20 years that has eroded everything communities need to function safely with wellness and resilience,” said Nichols, pointing to cuts in public housing, welfare programs, public education and access to mental health and addiction supports that have exacerbated the problem, and sharing how her own perspective on homelessness changed after more than a decade of working in a research capacity with people who have been homeless.

“We need to be more willing to see one another as differently impacted by the same set of social forces that are making us all feel less secure,” she said.

Not only are more Canadians experiencing homelessness but they also represent a more diverse group, including people who use substances and those who have never touched one, people who have been without a home since a young age and those who are experiencing it for the first time in retirement because their pension no longer covers their increasing rent.

From their research into homelessness and NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), Braimoh and Dej have discovered that few people refuse the idea of any kind of help to people who are homeless. Rather, they express a sense of being afraid and overwhelmed, and comment that their neighbourhood isn’t the right place for a warming centre or shelter.

The researchers also found examples of misinformation and rumours among community members, such as the notion that people who are homeless are being purposefully bused from one municipality to another where resources are less strained. In reality, most municipalities in Ontario require people to demonstrate a connection to the community before being eligible for services, they emphasized.

“That’s where people are getting stuck,” said Braimoh. “They can’t handle homelessness in their community and they don’t like to look at it, so it’s easier to think ‘these aren’t our people’ and it actually results in inaction.”

“When municipalities are struggling to respond, the default is criminalization,” added Dej. “It is imperative that we start to respond in a different way.”

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in partnership with McGill University, Congress 2024 is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Universities Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, University Affairs, Sage, and The Conversation Canada.

Registration – which includes 140+ keynote and open Congress sessions, with a virtual attendance option for many presentations – is $30. Visit to register for a community pass and access the program of events open to the public.


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