Vernon North Okanagan RCMP talk to one of the last residents of a homeless camp off Highway 97 in Vernon. (Morning Star file photo)

Stories unite Canadians on homelessness action: UBC study

A University of British Columba study says Canadians value stories over statistics

A new study by researchers at UBC and the University of Toronto has determined that people, regardless of their political stripes, will respond charitably to those experiencing homelessness if they learn about their personal stories.

Assistant Professor Carey Doberstein says people’s attitudes towards social welfare expenditures are explained by both their socio-political values and perceptions of deservingness. Doberstein, who teaches political science at UBC’s Okanagan campus, says there is a stark difference in the way conservatives see how much help the homeless should receive compared to those who lean to the political left.

However, his research has determined there is an independent effect of a shared sense of deservingness that cuts across the political spectrum.

For the research, Doberstein and Alison Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, surveyed more than 1,500 Canadians. They created vignettes of five pairs of hypothetical homeless people. Each pair had randomly varying features including age, gender, ethnicity, length of time homeless, whether they were victimized and their estimated ‘cost’ to the system by virtue of being homeless in terms of police services and hospital visits for example.

Related: B.C. poet shines bright light on struggle with homelessness

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Respondents were tasked with dividing a pool of funds directed at housing and support services to those hypothetical people. Each survey respondent was also asked for their view on the role of government in society.

The experimental design of the survey allowed the researchers to isolate what primarily drives Canadians to support investments in housing and support services, Doberstein explains. Is it their political ideology or the story of the person experiencing homelessness?

“There is evidence that the respondents differentiated their investment patterns on the basis of trauma or victimization (how the hypothetical person became homeless) and their views on the role of government,” says Doberstein. “Specifically, conservatives and progressives agree on the need to support investments for those with severe mental illness.”

It’s a polarizing issue among Canadians, says Doberstein. His survey revealed that many conservative respondents believe the government spends too much money already, often stating stereotypes of laziness. On the other hand, progressive respondents expressed the belief that the government does not spend enough to tackle homelessness, which they tended to view as a high-priority problem.

Related: Reaching out to Okanagan homeless veterans

Related: Column – Learning he was homeless, I invited him for coffee and Linda’s cookies

But he also points out, governments of all political stripes—including the federal Conservative Party of Canada, the Alberta Progressive Conservative party, Vancouver’s progressive mayors and the federal Liberal Party of Canada—have enhanced investments to some degree towards addressing homelessness.

His study results directly challenge a major assumption among academics and activists in Canada that to appeal to conservative-leaning voters, we should appeal to them by framing homelessness investments as offering the potential to save money to the taxpayer in the long-run.

“We find no evidence for this,” he says. “In fact, the opposite. The more a person ‘costs’ the system by being homeless, the less conservatives are willing to invest in that individual, even if that investment would save taxpayer resources in the long-term. Unless that person is described as suffering from mental illness. Then both progressives and conservatives tend to deem them as deserving.”

Doberstein says the research gives a clear indication that advocates and policymakers should stop emphasizing the potential cost savings associated with addressing homelessness as a way to generate public support to enhance investments for those chronically homeless. Instead, he suggests, they emphasize the stories of people and their unique experiences that led them to become homeless.

The study was recently published in the International Journal of Social Welfare.

Related: Greyhound exit leaves gap for homeless, domestic violence shelters

Related: Premier acknowledges homeless issue ‘a serious challenge’


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