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Homeless people ‘perform’ to access support services, UBC Okanagan study finds

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A new UBC Okanagan study has found that homeless people must learn to “perform” in certain ways to receive life-sustaining resources.

According to the report, UBCO researchers say there’s a tendency to play up vulnerabilities or deficits.

The research revealed that people who live on the streets feel performances are critical in their interactions with service providers to receive help.

According to the study, one participant stated “it’s about looking homeless, but not too homeless.”

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The study, which was was done by School of Social Work researchers Shelley Cook and Rachelle Hole, looked at the relationship between people who live on the streets and the services they depend on for survival.

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Cook said people who live on the street depend on service providers as their main source of material and social support — not their relationships with each other.

“It’s a necessary survival strategy that people use to increase their odds of making it on the street,” said Cook.

“In a situation where need greatly outpaces the ability of the service system, where there’s only so many beds or bus tickets available. Performing those representations of homelessness aligned with the service setting is all the more important.”

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The fieldwork took place in downtown Kelowna, where a number of men and women identifying as homeless were interviewed. The subjects were between 23 and 55 years old.

“In trying to make sense of where they took their cues from for their performances, participants discussed how they were often encouraged by service providers to ‘play up’ their social support or health-related needs,” said Hole.

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Hole said previous research has shown that homeless people not only recognize what homelessness representations were being promoted, but also adapted their performance to reflect those indicators.

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Cook said it’s clear that many who live on the street are trying to fit into a ‘service box’ in order to get the resources they need to survive.

“I think it’s clear that we need to think about how the policies and practices aimed at addressing homelessness may actually be contributing to people’s subjectification as a homeless person,” she added.

While the research was done on the streets of Kelowna, Cook stated the issue is not exclusive to the region and is consistent with other communities.

The study doesn’t come as a surprise to many social service providers.

“The research results did not surprise me and I don’t think anyone working our sector would be surprised by those results,” said Patricia Bacon, executive director for the John Howard Society for Okanagan and Kootenay.

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Bacon said Kelowna has a large homeless population. When combined with a limited number of services, the challenge is delivering support.

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“You wind up with the situation where you have resource limitations and you have a demand that exceeds that,” Bacon told Global News.

“We have a number of people who are really struggling and so they take on the research that people sort of perform, or take on a persona of what homelessness looks like, so they can get services. That’s what happens in a resource-limited environment.”

Bacon said the study demonstrates that more work needs to be done to address homelessness, such as policy changes and the addition of more resources, including funding.

“Our ultimate goal needs to be that people who are out on the streets don’t need to learn how to perform to get services,” she said.

“Because the real goal needs to be that we are uplifting people up and out of homelessness, permanently.”

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