by John Blewonski - CEO, VincentCare Victoria
The recent profile of the ’typical’ Australian published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics was the ‘trailer’ in the lead up to the first release of comprehensive 2016 Census data by the ABS on June 27th this year.
Many of the measures we will look to construct an enumeration of homelessness will appear in this first major data release.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2017. Who is our ‘Typical’ Aussie? Online article published 11-4-2017 at http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/newsboard170411
There was an intense, almost passionate, debate that occurred in the homelessness sector in the lead up to the 2011 national census about operationalising definitions of homelessness to distinguish between people, for example, who lived in a caravan as a retirement adventure, compared to those whose caravan existence was about life on the margins as social and geographical fringe dwellers. How could the census distinguish between the rite of passage existence of teenagers share-housing, while embarking on their university education, from other teenagers couch-surfing to escape the constant fights with their parent’s new partner?
In the homelessness and human services sector more broadly, an important shift has occurred and momentum has gathered over recent years in the collection and analysis of data to understand human problems. This includes the scale and characteristics, the degree and duration of these problems, where they are occurring and how they are changing over time. The data also seeks to shine light on whether the various interventions we create - prevention, early intervention, crisis or longer term recovery, are having effect, not only amongst individual clients, or those of our service delivery organisations, but across the community populations as a whole.
Several years ago, VincentCare Victoria’s Board established a Research and Evaluation Framework. Our involvement as a partner in the Trauma and Homelessness Initiative confronted us with many of the ethical issues surrounding the undertaking of homelessness research. All data collection about homelessness that we consider in this issue of Parity cannot escape the requirement to be performed to ethical standards. These ethical standards apply to the direct engagement with people who are or have been impacted by homelessness (including the availability of support or debriefing), the honest and accurate collection, analysis, reporting and interpretation of data (in all its forms) and the purposefulness of the data collection exercise itself. One of the consequences of the establishment of a Research and Evaluation framework was to ensure that all data collection that involved any of our organisation’s service users addresses these fundamental ethical concerns.In a recent online article Durrant and Coghlan , countermand five myths which, the authors say, are often heard about research, and particularly its relationship to international development:
1: Research is the domain of university professors, not of those implementing development programs
2: Research produces data or findings which are time-consuming and difficult to interpret or apply
3: Research is expensive for the return
4: The value of research is locked behind paywalls of exclusive academic journals
5: Different motivations make it difficult for academics and development professionals to work together
Durrant, K. and Coghlan, R. 2017. Partnership in practice: dispelling myths about research in international development. Published 16 Nov, 2016 by Australian Council for International Development at: https://acfid.asn.au/blog-post/partnership-practice-dispelling-myths-about-research-international-development
We should consider that these myths apply equally to data collection about homelessness as a form of research enterprise. These “myths” could also be re-stated as a series of “risks”. These five risks can be summarised that any data collection about homelessness risks creating a disconnect between the exercise of gathering data about homelessness, the people experiencing homelessness and what we are planning to do about it. In other words, the whole process of collecting data risks not being well connected to all stakeholders and not leading to something useful.
It is also critical when we set about to collect data on homelessness to keep front of mind that we are gathering information about people. When we think hard about all the different experiences of ‘homelessness’ in any data collection, we are actually in more fundamental terms talking about the many different experiences that people have.
The Trauma and Homelessness Initiative was a sharply focussed data collection about people who had experienced chronic homelessness in Melbourne. The Trauma and Homelessness Initiative gathered data through a structured interview which revealed that people who experience chronic homelessness have experienced trauma at a ratio 24 times that of the general population. It was a data collection about Trauma and about Homelessness and the interaction between both of these human problems. The data collection also revealed that 88 per cent of people in the sample met the diagnostic criteria for a current mental illness. This all reminds us that a data picture about people experiencing homelessness can be just as much a data picture about mental illness, alcohol and drug use or family violence – the many issues that can lead to homelessness.
O’Donnell, M., Varker, T., Cash, R., Armstrong, R., Di Censo, L., Zanatta, P., Murnane, A., Brophy, L.,& Phelps, A. (2014). The Trauma and Homelessness Initiative. Report prepared by the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health in collaboration with Sacred Heart Mission, Mind Australia, Inner South Community Health and VincentCare Victoria. The report can be accessed here.
In late 2016, the regular and long-standing ABS Survey Disability Ageing and Carers (SDAC) released the findings of its 2015 survey which examined the characteristics and experience of 75,211 people with disabilities and long term health conditions, and their carers across Australia. It is possible through SDAC data to also examine many of the socio- demographic characteristics including the nature of people’s dwellings, occupancy and landlord types, even unmet need for dwelling space using the Canadian Occupancy Standards. In other words, there is data of interest from a homelessness perspective, yet gathered through a survey primarily focussed on other issues.
This raises the question about how people who respond to ‘homelessness’ surveys regard themselves when we are attempting to count homelessness or collect data about homelessness in some way? When we set out to collect data about homelessness, should we always assume that the person sees their homelessness in the same way that we do? The challenges of accurate SHIP data collection is a daily reminder for homelessness service providers to avoid this assumption. Moreover, when we start to design service responses for people experiencing homelessness, based on data gathered through homelessness surveys, do we end up designing service responses that risk missing out on other things that may have been of equal or greater importance to the person being surveyed?
No doubt this leads us to ponder how we can avoid this risk of disconnection. We need to ensure that any major homelessness data collection exercise both consults and collaborates well with stakeholders. The City of Melbourne Street Count, for example, is commendable for using Council to Homeless Persons Peer Education Support Program volunteers to help inform and guide Street Count teams.
An important lesson for anyone designing a homelessness data collection initiative is to plan and allocate resources for the involvement of relevant consumers and stakeholders. In this way we can help to ensure that we do not become so focussed on the homelessness data itself that we lose sight of the people who are at the centre of this human problem and whose needs we are continually trying to understand and solve.