Dublin Part I

Guy Johnson and I at the trailhead of the Wicklow Way at the start of a 5-day hike through the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. 2015.

Guy Johnson and I at the trailhead of the Wicklow Way at the start of a 5-day hike through the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. 2015.

Last week was Calgary, this week it’s Dublin.

Another conference is on tap this week, titled “Homelessness Theory and Research: Future Directions?” It's a group of about 30 or so homelessness researchers from North America, Europe and Australia will go over papers that recently came out in the 10th Anniversary Issue of the European Journal of Homelessness. My part in this conference is to again give a commentary – this time in response to Guy Johnson’s presentation on homelessness in Australia.

In contrast to Calgary, where I knew almost no one going in to the conference, there will be many familiar faces here. The global community of homelessness researchers is small, and I've gotten to know many over the years, mostly by running into them conferences like this. I’m looking forward to a fun time.

Guy has become a good friend. He spent a year in Philly in 2014-15, where we got to know each other. Last time I was in Dublin, in Fall 2015, we took a week and hiked the Wicklow Way (where the above photo was taken) and still liked each other after that. I also spent a couple of weeks out in Melbourne last summer, which he and another colleague graciously arranged. So, in full disclosure, I’ll likely give him a harder time with my comments than if I didn’t know him. :)

As part of putting together my remarks, I would like to try some thoughts out here. I’m going to post these remarks/thoughts in two parts, as what I want to write is too long for one post and breaking them up gives my thoughts some time to simmer.

First off, I invite you to read the paper “Homelessness in Australia: Service Reform and Research in the 21st Century” (Nicolas Herault and Guy Johnson coauthored the paper). The article provides a clear and easy to follow narrative, but in case you don’t get to read it the rest of this post is essentially a critical recap of the piece.

Herault and Johnson give an overview of the course of Australian homelessness policy, with an extended focus on Journeys Home, a marquee Australian research project. The policy narrative is consistent with my perspective on this: the stars aligned in 2008 when a newly formed left-leaning government made homelessness a top priority and devoted considerable amounts of resources and thoughts into eliminating it. Subsequent inaction by the non-profit and research sectors, as well as the rolling back of resources by subsequent right-wing governments led to the current state of affairs, which the authors regard as an opportunity squandered.

Journeys Home is a government funded, multi-million dollar national longitudinal study that followed a sample of people who were homeless and at-risk for homelessness for a period of five years. The scope and the scale of this project were unprecedented anywhere else in the world, and as such it was a big deal to us homelessness researchers. I have worked some with these data, as Guy, myself and Yi-Ping Tseng have a study going (albeit slowly) where we look at the sequencing of health issues and homelessness to assess the extent to which people become homeless after they get sick, vice versa or both. It is the only dataset in the world that can inform such a basic question. Unfortunately, to the public and policy worlds, Journeys Home has yet to make much of a splash. As such, Journeys Home is a microcosm of what was and might have been with Australian homelessness policy.

The first section of the article is a policy overview that chronicles a series of events that were quite extraordinary in that a federal government took it upon themselves to commit sizable resources to increase the evidence base on homelessness and that led to Journeys Home. Then the article takes an abrupt right turn and spends the next five pages upon the nuts and bolts of Journey Home. Interesting stuff, but to a different audience. From policy to methods. Not many folks out there who straddle both the policy and research domains so that they are interested in both how the policy window opened and how the sampling strategy was devised. The third section goes back to policy, looking back on the initiative that funded JH as the high water mark in government involvement and reflecting back on how the country got to where Australian responses to homelessness have stagnated since then. They contrast the exciting things going on with JH and a country that seems largely indifferent to it.

That is the cleavage that I will focus on with my comments. The article gives some speculation as to why JH has not caught fire beyond the types that will assemble this week in Dublin, but I’d like to dive deeper into that. Part of the problem, I fear, is obvious in the article. The authors summarize some key findings that JH research has already produced, but what gets spotlighted comes across as wonky – rigorous methodologies that address interesting questions – dynamics of substance use, how people exit homelessness, and the like – but give findings that translate poorly beyond academic audiences. This disconnect between research and policy is not unusual, but I think there are some circumstances, unique to Australian homelessness, that have brought this on.

And with that cliffhanger, I will sign off. Tune in to my next post, I hope the suspense does not get overbearing.

Stephen Metraux