Experience of homelessness

A picture is worth a thousand words.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

So when five homeless people captured the photos of the spaces and places they visited every day the images were telling.

Sneakers demonstrated the importance of a good pair of shoes on the street.

Two backpacks and a large shopping bag showed the amount of stuff a homeless person may carry around everyday.

The photos are part of an ethnography approach to a Red Deer homelessness study. It is based on observation and conversations with people who are experiencing homelessness, said researcher Brendon Neilson, who works in the city’s Social Planning department.

Neilson recently released his research paper The Experience of Homelessness in Red Deer: An Ethnographic Perspective for the city.

The visual and narrative study got underway at the end of May and wrapped up in August.

“The main thing was to achieve a better understanding of the people that are experiencing homelessness in Red Deer, ” he said. “So we designed a project with that as the primary goal, specifically the nature and texture what that experience is like.”

The information will allow the city to design and adapt programs to minimize the barriers for the individuals and fill the gaps missing in some services.

Using the combined methods of photography, observations, formal walk-along interviews and focus group discussions, the research gives a perspective from the eyes of the people experiencing homelessness.

Neilson observed at the shelters and soup kitchens and walked around with the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society’s NightReach team. Neilson built relationships with about 12 people who are part of the report but many others who are not included in the document during his three months of fieldwork.

“I had never worked with people experiencing homelessness before,” said Neilson. “So it was a bit of an unknown in the beginning. I realized really quickly that people are not scary. Nothing about the experience of homelessness makes you more dangerous. With that gaining of knowledge and that gaining of relationships, it gives me a much better perspective on our city and how, through relationships, you can make a difference.”

In total 98 photos were submitted from the five participants. They depicted photos of camps, places that were out of the way of foot traffic, the CPR bridge, McDonald’s and other visuals.

“We wanted to get visuals in and around our city,” he said. “Maybe things we don’t normally see or don’t see in that way. It was really self-guided on their part. The instructions were to just broadly take pictures of the places and spaces that they visited on a day-to-day basis.”

Neilson had three formal walk-along interviews where he went with the people as they went about their days. A map of the walks are included in the city report.

He went with Jonathon on his bottle picking route on the south side. Neilson said he was sick of being homeless. He was a self-admitted alcoholic from a fairly young age and had some run ins with the law in the past.

“I ran into him last week and he had just gotten housing,” said Neilson. “He was about to go into his first night in his first apartment for the first time in years.”

He said most people were very pleased to give voice to their experience and what living in Red Deer was like to them throughout the study.

One of the main takeaways will be there is no homelessness in general, said Neilson.

“There is no one story of homelessness in Red Deer,” said Neilson. “Each individual has their own set of traumatic past, things that have happened to them that led them to that spot and things that are keeping them there.”

He also learned there is no one pattern of mobility or survival. It depends on the date, the person and their circumstances, he said.

One thing that came up throughout was that idea of these people are not any different than anyone else.

For example, one man had a good job in the oil industry. He had cars, toys and a house. After an injury and a broken relationship, he turned to self-medicating through an addiction.

“Eventually he lost everything,” said Neilson. “Part of what I tease out is that I don’t think the problem lies with these people in and of themselves. But there is something broader that goes into creating homelessness. But on the other side, the housing system here in Red Deer is effective. People are getting housed. There are a lot of people I have met throughout doing this report that are housed now. They are no longer experiencing homelessness.”

Neilson has four recommendations in his report including moving to a more proactive approach in its Housing First programs. He said right now individuals have to pursue their own housing. Other recommendations include increasing education, collaborating with stakeholders and community engagement.

“For a lot of people, it is an unknown,” he said. “For most people in their lives they don’t experience homelessness. It’s something they don’t have any first-hand experience. That education piece, in terms of community stakeholders and policy makers … if it becomes less unknown it becomes less uncomfortable. That has ripple effects.”

Scott Cameron, the city’s Social Planning manager, said there is no one magic bullet solution. When last year’s temporary warming centre closed, the city wanted to find out more about what happens to the people during the summer months.

“As we continue to learn and how this report influences that is we have taken those voices and perspectives so what in our next call for proposals do we need to do to help reduce some of those perceived barriers amongst that population,” he said. “When we begin to learn more about the individual circumstances that people are facing, it actually connects us to other supports and services available.”

He said the project is one of a number of tools that the city and its partners are using in efforts to end homelessness.

Find the research paper online at