The ‘why’ of homelessness


Above: From left to right, Harvey Low, Judy Sgro, Stephen Gaetz, Andrea Austen with daughter Cassandra Serafini, Paul Axelrod and Sonja Persram

At age 7, Cassandra Serafini understands there are people in the world who do not have a home to call their own. Her eyes grow shadowed as she struggles to address what the word homeless means to her. “It means sad,” says Cassandra. “I don’t understand why people are homeless.”

Cassandra and her mother Andrea Austen, a policy analyst on issues of homelessness, housing and poverty with the City of Toronto, were at York University to meet Canada’s Minister of Citizenship & Culture, York MP Judy Sgro, on May 14. Sgro visited the University to present a cheque for $45,923 to York researcher Stephen Gaetz. The funds will go to support an upcoming conference on homelessness in Canada which is scheduled to take place next spring.

Gaetz, a researcher in economic strategies of street youth and criminal victimization of homeless people, is also a professor in the undergraduate and graduate programs in the Faculty of Education at York University. In a unique, cross-sectoral approach, he has drawn together representatives from academia, community-based organizations and all levels of government to form a team to consider the “why” of homelessness and to work toward developing solutions. As part of their work, Gaetz and his colleagues decided to organize a multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral research conference to address the issue of homelessness in Canada. The conference is part of the National Homelessness Initiative, a federal agency dedicated to understanding the cause of homelessness and developing solutions to assist the homeless in Canada.

“Why are people sleeping on the streets in Canada? What are the reasons for homelessness?” said Sgro in her opening remarks. “It is important that Canadians seek to understand the reasons why people are on the streets. What is so unique about this initiative is that it brings the many experts on homelessness together to look at the issue of homelessness, to examine where there are gaps in the research and to develop long-term solutions.

“I am pleased to present to you on behalf of the Government of Canada and the Hon. Claudette Bradshaw, minister of labour and the minister responsible for homelessness, with this cheque as a start towards this project,” said Sgro. “It is my hope that in five years time, there won’t be homeless people in Canada.”

In thanking the minister Gaetz said, “This is very exciting. Through this conference, we are trying to make research matter. We will be pulling together existing research, identifying gaps in that research and making suggestions on how to proceed on this issue.

“One of the things that will make this successful is the broad spectrum, cross-sectoral approach that involves government, community-based agencies and researchers,” said Gaetz. “The cross-sectoral approach will also involve the homeless, and not in a token way. They will be active participants in the conference.”

Harvey Low, planning analyst for the Department of Social Development & Administration, City of Toronto, noted: “People talk about homelessness in all areas – how do you cut across the boundaries of health, housing, education, social and economic factors related to homelessness? Everything is interwoven. We are hoping to look at homelessness through all of these various disciplines.”

“Education is key to helping to find a solution to the issue of homelessness,” added Paul Axelrod, dean of York’s Faculty of Education. “This research conference has a multidisciplinary approach which is very important.”

Also in attendance was Sonja Persram of the Festive Earth Society, one of the community partners involved in the conference.