My name is Danielle and I am a third year Health and Society student here at the University of Calgary. I’m also a participant this year’s ucalgarycares Homelessness at Home (aka H@H) project, which aims to help students learn more about the issues surrounding homelessness in Calgary through an immersion experience. We will spend about four days in Reading Week living at a house downtown, going to shelters and, as much as possible, learning about people who are homeless in Calgary and sharing some of their experiences.
When I told my friends and my family what I was doing over Reading Week, reactions ranged from confused to disapproving to worried. People just didn’t understand how this project could be safe or really why I would want to do it at all.
So here’s my answer:
Reason 1: Understanding and learning. As I mentioned, I am a Health and Society student. Most people have never heard of my major, but they probably have heard of the work we do and the things we study. We look at things (aka social determinants of health) like income, social status, education, occupation, gender, ethnicity and (of course) housing and we try to determine (1) how these things affect (determine) our health and (2) what we can do to improve health and prevent illness and injury. My particular area of research for the last year or so has been on poverty, health inequities and food banks. So I thought I knew a fair bit about poverty, inequality and marginalized/vulnerable populations and what creates the system we live in and sustains it and the effect it has on people. But here’s the thing – I have a reasonably good academic understanding of poverty and inequality. But I do not have a robust personal understanding of poverty and inequality. I joined this project to develop my own, personal, understanding of what it is like to experience homelessness.
Reason 2: Taking action. I also joined this project to find out how I could use that understanding and do something with it. In my research on food banks I sometimes feel like a cold-hearted cynic, because a lot of the work I do is around why charity can sometimes be bad. I don’t mean to say that charity is always problematic – some great work is done by charitable organizations – but charity is not always beneficial either. The reasons for why charity can be ineffective and even harmful are complex and so I felt that participating in this project would help me to understand what I could do. It’s not (always) as easy as volunteering at the food bank or making sandwiches for the Drop In Centre. This is another part of what my major is about – we can’t just study what makes people healthy or sick. If we know what will help improve people’s lives, then we are obligated to help make sure that our knowledge is used to improve people’s lives.
We were asked to make goals for our experience and mine are very closely related to why I signed up. Goal 1 is to understand what it is like for people who experience homelessness and to understand more about the social exclusion and stigma people face when they become homeless. Goal 2 stems from Goal 1: to study critically the services provided to people who are homeless, to talk to people that I meet during the experience and to create a personal plan to respond to homelessness.
During the immersion experience, I will be blogging about my experiences and my progress towards my goals. This is part of Goal 2: sharing what I’ve learned is part of my plan to respond to homelessness. Before we leave, I have a bit to share about what we learned in the preservice workshops – but that’s for the next entry.