Canada is Everyone
A point in time from my thesis proposal for my Graduate Liberal Studies degree at Simon Fraser University, back in 2017.
Helping Canadians to Bring the Homeless into “the Circle of Human Concern”.¹
Keywords: Homelessness, Othering, Design for Behaviour Change, Community-based Research, Social Justice, Social Innovation, Co-creation
“The most important good we can distribute to each other in society is membership”²
Postscript: It’s interesting to see where I was a couple of years ago, when I was still trying to shape my thesis proposal for what ultimately became my successful work in earning my Masters of Liberal Studies in December of 2019. This was written in 2017, with the idea that I would be finished in spring of 2018…bah! This is the hardest work I have ever done, but I loved it. I will ultimately post my final work on this blog when it has been logged into the SFU Library.
Homelessness in Canada became an emergent social issue in the 1980s after mental institutions began to be decommissioned. Around that same time, disinvestment in affordable housing also began, the economy took a downturn, and changes in the way funding for social services and housing in general were handled (Gaetz et al. 12) all created a kind of perfect storm of growing poverty and reduced access to housing.
In Greater Vancouver, real estate prices are growing at alarming rates, consequently pushing rental rates out of reach for more and more low-income people. Although physical housing has normally been cited as the priority issue, there are other, more sinister factors at play that point to the battle between those who support housing for marginalized groups and those who don’t want that housing anywhere near where they live or work. This not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) attitude appears to be particularly intense where large homeless camps have existed for some time, including the City of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada, where this project will focus as a micro study of othering behaviours around homelessness. Reaction to the homeless living in urban areas has resulted in threats and violence in a number of Lower Mainland (Greater Vancouver) communities, including Maple Ridge. Many residents will claim support for the homeless —but not where they live. There are numerous studies that show that society feels hatred toward the poor and homeless and blames them for their situation.³
My particular source of interest in this project is personal. I lost a brother 20 years ago. He had ended up homeless, ultimately dying of a drug overdose. We were a comfortable “west-side” family with hidden traumas that ultimately pushed my brother to become drug dependent. He was a bright, kind, articulate human being. And yet, as a homeless addict, he was invisible and, admittedly, frightening in many ways, even to his own family. He was seen as beyond help by many people. Why does that shift happen? Can it be mitigated, if not entirely changed?
The perception that weak moral character⁴ is somehow the root cause of mental illness, drug dependency, poverty, and random misadventure hinders meaningful work on solving homelessness. As long as Canadians and various levels of government continue to view the homeless as “less than” and to pass the problem back and forth between them, it cannot be adequately addressed.
“Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging means being able to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures. Belonging means the right to contribute and make demands upon society and institutions.” ⁵
If we as a society begin to operate from the premise that a small percentage of the Canadian population will always need social support and that, as a civilized society we bear a responsibility to care for them, we can then begin to work in earnest. Can we adapt our thinking to include these human beings in our societies?
This project seeks to seed a meaningful shift in Canadians’ perceptions of people who are homeless.
Through Simon Fraser University’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program and the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Lab at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, this project will look at ways to generate effective communication solutions through community-based research⁶. The research methods will include co-creation⁷, design thinking⁸ and co-design⁹. involving the community in the design of the research methodology. These people (and possibly others) will be brought together for facilitated workshops that will help them think in cross-disciplinary ways, where real innovation can be achieved.
Homelessness is an uncomfortable issue for Canadians. Many just want it to go away. People not directly affected by it don’t want to see it in their communities, often blaming the homeless themselves for the situation. Problems like homelessness are tangled, complex issues. Known as “wicked problems,”¹⁰ these kinds of challenges can often be more effectively addressed through multidisciplinary co-operation guided by people like designers who, through their experience and innate abilities to problem solve creatively, can assist experts in other fields to see new ways of solving problems.
This focus of this thesis is to seek a seminal shift in attitudes through the use of design for social innovation. It intends to find ways to sensitize Canadians to the humanity of the homeless through a solution or solutions informed by community-based research. Rather than addressing homelessness itself, which is now being done on many fronts, this project seeks to identify the causes of negative attitudes towards people who are homeless and, finally, create a design brief that might inform a solution to deal directly with these causes. How might the homeless be seen less as others and more as part of a community? This project uses design-thinking and community-based research methods, giving the community itself the tools to develop innovative ideas for shifting perceptions of the homeless.
Research Goals and Methods
The research in this project has several different phases and typologies. First, there is a need to have a global understanding of homelessness issues and approaches to the situation itself. Specific to this project is gathering some understanding of the societal behaviours around othering and social marginalization, looking for causes and possible mitigative approaches. After this survey has been synthesized, the work will begin on community-based research.
- observation of public meetings about housing the homeless in the
community, watching and listening for what people express as their emotional responses to this issue.
- solicit names of participants for survey, if possible
- submit research plan to Research Ethics Board at SFU for approval
May to September:
- work with the members of the Anita Place Homeless Camp in Maple Ridge to more clearly define their feelings towards the “housed” and what kinds of behaviours they want to see reflected towards themselves from this group.
- Involve participants in creating research content for workshops in the community.
August to September:
- Conduct 2–3 public workshops of 3 hours in length in the City of Maple
Ridge using imagery, words, group work and discussion to test what kinds of stories and images resonate with them on a sympathetic and empathetic level in relation to homeless people.
September to December:
- Work with third-year communication design class at Emily Carr University of Art and Design to create a design brief that crystallizes the goals of a
communication design project to shift public perceptions around the
homeless in our communities. These students will work in design teams to then create responses to this brief, either digital or in print.
September to April:
- Finish writing thesis.
This project will provide as its deliverables the research documentation thus far collected, as well as what will be done in the coming months, as a graduate level thesis paper. This paper will include the process involved in informing design from a community-based research perspective, the process of created the design brief based on this research and the process of the group work on creating design responses. This will also include documentation of the design work and recommendations for further steps.
¹ john a. powell, The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging, (Othering and Belonging), Issue 1, 32.
² Ibid., 32.
³ Sara Rankin, The Influence of Exile, The Maryland Law Review, Vol. 74, 4,
⁴ Jo Phelan et al, The Stigma of Homelessness: The Impact of the Label
“Homeless” on Attitudes Toward Poor Persons. “Social Psychology Quarterly”,
vol. 60, no. 4, 1997.
⁶ Halseth G, Markey S, Ryser L, Manson D. Doing Community-Based Researc
Perspectives from the Field. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2016. pp. 8. in
Community Based Resarch, “The task is to ensure that the community
relationship is honoured by making research matter.”
⁷ Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders, Pieter Jan Stappers. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. pp. 9. “We take co-creation to refer to any act of collective creativity, i.g.,creativity that is shared by two or more people.”
⁸ ibid. 25. “Designers are expert prototypers and natural facilitators of collective prototyping activities”.
⁹ ibid. 23. “…the person who will eventually be served through the design process is given the position of ‘expert of their experience’.” ibid. 23.
¹⁰ Rittel, Horst W.J., Webber, Melvin M. Dilemmas in a General Theory of
Planning. Policy Sciences 4. El. “Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create another problem.”