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Interview: Shining a Light on the Homeless in Montreal


Dr. Victoria Burns

Dr. Victoria Burns

The number of homeless older people is expected to rise as a result of unmet need and an aging population.

Victoria Burns examined the plight of adults who became homeless for the first time in later life in Montreal, Canada. Her research offers invaluable insights into the emotional lives of the homeless, and it highlights how homelessness could happen to anyone.

The study appeared in the December 2016 online edition of the Journal of Aging Studies.

Dr. Burns is currently postdoctoral research fellow at the Urbanisation, Culture Société Research Centre at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montréal, Canada.

AHB reached her in Montreal.

Ruth Dempsey: Why did you focus on adults living in homeless shelters?

Victoria Burns: After completing my bachelor of social work degree, I worked for several years in home care with older adults. A particularly challenging part of home care is working through the relocation decision-making process (most often to a long-term care facility). I came to understand that the decision to stay in place or relocate was always an incredibly complex and emotional process because each person had a unique relationship and attachment to their homes and neighborhood.

As a person who has moved and traveled a lot over the course of my adult life, I became increasingly intrigued by the concept of "home" and the place-making process in particular. I began to question what leads a person to feel at home?

How does a house or other location become home? Can people feel at home in unconventional places, such as public spaces? What is the role of the physical and social environment in relation to feeling more or less at home? How does a person's relationship to home change with age as a result of physical and social losses?

These questions eventually led me to pursue a PhD in social work, focusing on the meaning of place and home for older adults, who literally did not have a place to call home as they were encountering their first episode of homelessness in later life.

RD: What are emergency shelters like in Montreal? Can you give me a brief description?

VB: Montreal has the highest number of homeless people in the province of Quebec and is the hub for homelessness resources. There are 738 emergency shelter beds and 232 transition beds.

Most emergency beds are for male populations (89.1 per cent compared to 10.9 per cent for women). There are four main emergency shelters for men, all of which are centrally located. The shelters have dormitories with 150 to 200 beds.

Men's shelters tend to be organized around two main types of programs. First, emergency short-term programs, where access is granted without a fee for services (bed, food and clothing). Residents accessing free services are commonly referred to as "night clients" and are required to leave during the day.

And second, transition or residential programs. These require a daily or monthly fee and provide temporary residence while an individual looks for work and stable housing. Transition programs tend to be in the same physical building as the emergency night shelter but are often on a separate wing or floor.

Historically, Montreal's women's shelters were established later than the men's. In fact, two of the men's shelters began operating in the late 1800s. The first women's shelter was established in 1932, while the others opened their doors in the 1980s and 1990s.

Women's shelters are geographically more spread out over the city and vary more in terms of size, rules, regulations and services. Most require a reservation, while few require women to leave during the day. The shelters range from having private to semi-private rooms to large dormitories with 40 beds.

RD: Your study examined the lives of 15 single men and women, ranging in age from 50 to 80. They were newly homeless, what led to their becoming homeless?

VB: All of the participants were "new" to homelessness, meaning that when I met with them for an interview, it was the first time in their lives that they were on the street or required to use homeless shelters.

The population in my study differs from the long-term or "chronic" homeless person who has aged on the streets. As you can imagine, homelessness is extremely complex and there is not a single cause.

However, it was interesting to discover two distinct pathways among participants. About half became homeless gradually while the other half had more rapid pathways.

Those with gradual pathways tended to have long histories of mental or physical illness that prevented them from working. Their homelessness tended to be related to longstanding housing issues, such as poor heating or bedbugs that became increasingly unmanageable with age.

Participants with rapid pathways tended to have led more "conventional lives" in the sense that they maintained stable employment and housing over the course of their lives. Many participants had university degrees and careers spanning 25 years or more. But, after experiencing intense social losses, such as the death of loved ones, loss of job or a health crisis, they found themselves homeless with little warning.

For both groups, contributing factors included high incidences of addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Those with gradual pathways seemed to have longer, ongoing histories of substance abuse, while the rapid group had increased substance abuse closer to their homeless episode.

RD: Participants moved back and forth between private housing and homeless shelters. For instance, after 22 years, Anna found it increasingly difficult to live alone in her poorly maintained subsidized apartment. Faced with eviction, she found a comfortable place at the women's shelter.

VB: It's not that participants physically moved back and forth between private housing and homeless shelters, it's that once they became homeless they paradoxically felt more "at home" as they were no longer battling deplorable housing conditions. Individuals with histories of domestic violence and substance abuse felt safer as a result of surveillance. And they felt less isolated because they had established positive ties with shelter residents and staff.

RD: Several men and women spoke of the frustrations of constant surveillance. But Nicole, a victim of domestic violence welcomed the security: "I am finally starting to feel safe at the shelter. There are only women and there's 24-hour surveillance."

VB: Yes, this was another interesting paradox. Surveillance is often considered as the antithesis of "home" yet many participants felt an increased sense of comfort and security knowing they were under constant surveillance at the shelter.

RD: I was surprised to learn that the maximum stay times at shelters is 15 days for men and six weeks for women. This gives older adults little time to pull their lives together, and begin the process of finding employment and suitable housing . . .

VB: Yes, maximum stay policies are put in place to avoid "shelterization syndrome" which basically means getting stuck and dependent on the shelter system.

However, as you point out, maximum stay times give them little time to find work and housing. It's also important to highlight that when people come to shelters they have often fled traumatic experiences, such as suicide attempts or domestic violence and need time to rest and heal.

Constraining shelter conditions and regulations lead people to be dependent on shelters longer. The stress of being forced to leave and start over at another shelter reduces the likelihood that the person will have the energy or resources to successfully exit homelessness – once again another paradox!

RD: How did older adults relate to shelter staff?

VB: It depended on the person and the shelter. Some indicated staff treated them with lack of respect, calling them by number and not their name, for instance. However, many spoke positively of the relationships they had with shelter staff, even referring to them as their family.

RD: Your research showed four interrelated dimensions of place helped participants to feel "settled." They are control, comfort, privacy and security. What does your study recommend?

VB: The research article is based on my doctoral thesis which makes reference to a number of short and longer term recommendations. I cannot go into all the details here.

That said, by focusing on the meaning and importance of place in later life, this study points to a number of practice and policy implications, particularly regarding place-based solutions for older homelessness.

In many cases, homelessness could have been avoided had participants received additional support in managing their housing issues and greater access to decent affordable housing options. So, in addition to implementing more outreach programs that target precariously housed older adults, we must increase the supply of suitable affordable housing to allow older persons to age in place.

Given 49 per cent of Montreal shelter users are over the age of 50, homeless shelters must adapt their design and policies to accommodate older residents. Lack of elevators in some shelters and forbidding the use of walkers, in some cases, limited participants' access to shelter spaces.

The need to adhere to rigid schedules was especially difficult for participants who were required to take medications at certain times of day, but had to wait until designated meal times. And health and mobility issues made leaving the shelter during the day particularly hazardous.

As well, older residents, who needed more time to recover from traumatic pre-homeless experiences found it challenging to respect maximum stay times.

Some Montreal shelters have begun to adapt their policies to better cater to the needs of older residents. For instance, allowing older residents an earlier access time.

But more needs to be done, in terms of shelter design, policies and programs, to give older adults the opportunity to heal and plan for the future.

RD: Any last thoughts?

VB: Negative perceptions and stereotypes about homelessness require a major overhaul.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding and stigma around homelessness. For instance, the belief that people choose to be homeless. I have not yet met a single person who chose to be homeless, addicted to drugs, live in precarious housing or a homeless shelter.

My hope is that this study sheds new light on homelessness and older homelessness, in particular, by demonstrating that it can happen to anyone and that punitive strategies will not help people overcome their struggles.

Editor's note: To receive a copy of Dr. Burn's thesis, contact her at