Thinking differently about homelessness

Paul Mayne // Western News

Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing professor Abe Oudshoorn is the recipient of the 2016 Western Humanitarian Award for his ongoing work addressing the issue of homelessness in London and on a national level.

One of the leading voices in approaching homelessness as a solvable problem in London, and increasingly in Canada, Abe Oudshoorn has been named the 2016 Western Humanitarian Award winner for his work in exploring the intersection of homelessness, housing and health.

“The challenge with the way things are done now is, a lot of it is about managing people while they’re experiencing homelessness, which is the emergency shelters. But those systems don’t necessarily solve the problem,” said the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing professor. “Folks who are in shelters, or don’t have their own home, see their health and social life decline. So really, if we want to solve the problem, it’s to get people into housing.

“Managing is one thing; solving is another.”

Established in 2010, the Western Humanitarian Award recognizes faculty, staff and students engaged in a range of efforts directed toward improving the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), this award provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.

While Oudshoorn understands there are always new people who will experience homelessness, the system needs reworking so it responds to the crisis with a more permanent solution – something he feels is doable.

“The evidence helps us understand who needs what so we’re investing the right resources into the right areas,” he said.

The most common length of stay in an emergency shelter is just one night. So significant investment there is not needed, Oudshoorn said.

“The other group though has chronic stays in shelters. That’s where we want to focus, helping those folks get the extra supports they need to make their move out successfully.”

Over the last five years in London, through various programs, more than 200 chronically homeless people found homes and are now out of the system. At the same time, the number of emergency shelter beds in the city decreased from 380 in 2011 to 330 today. Approximately 3,300 unique individuals were accessing emergency shelters in 2010, but today, that number is down to 2,600.

Oudshoorn cited the Salvation Army of Hope shelter, located at Wellington and Horton streets, converted an entire floor with emergency shelter beds to single apartments for people who are now renting.

“We can take that money and reinvest it into housing supports. By doing things differently, we can make differences,” said Oudshoorn, who is currently a committee/board member on 11 different organizations.

Growing up, Oudshoorn watched his older brother experience homelessness. It was through his experience, the younger Oudshoorn was first drawn to the subject. He completed his final nursing practicum at the London Intercommunity Health Centre in their health outreach project for the homeless.

“At first, it was a bit of a personal interest. Then I got to meet so many others and hear their stories, their complexities and their frustrations. I knew I had to look at this at a systemic level.”

Oudshoorn’s brother now works with an emergency shelter. This first-hand knowledge is key in working toward a solution, Oudshoorn said. Hearing from those with lived experience with homelessness plays a crucial role in capacity building, engaging scholars and pushing policy change.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, formed to create a national movement to end homelessness in Canada, is hosting its national conference Nov. 2-4 in London. The funding from Oudshoorn’s Humanitarian Award will provide the opportunity for 10 individuals who have lived homelessness firsthand to attend the conference.

While heavily focused on service providers, the conference will feature 100 individuals who have experienced homelessness to participate in the three-day conference.

“Now, we are getting more refined. We’ve had some initial success with chronic homelessness. But we are now seeing particular populations with particular needs – youth, Indigenous and women,” Oudshoorn said. “The pathways into homelessness look different for women, many dealing with violence and trauma. It’s taking what we know about successfully rehousing people and being even more focused. We can’t get to that level of nuance in understanding unless we’re listening to those populations.”

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HUMANITARIAN WINNERS

Established in 2010, the Western Humanitarian Award recognizes faculty, staff and students engaged in a range of efforts directed toward improving the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), this award provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.

Previous winners have included:

  • Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Sandra Smeltzer and Ecosystem Health professor Charles Trick in 2011;
  • French Studies professor Henry Boyi and Western Heads East pioneer Bob Gough in 2012;
  • Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor David Cechetto in 2013;
  • School of Kinesiology professor Darwin Semotiuk and Medical Sciences/Biology student Joshua Zyss in 2014; and
  • Communication Sciences and Disorders professor Jack Scott in 2015.