The following appeared in the January 13th, 2011 edition of the Western News, the paper of The University of Western Ontario. It captures well my work and our group:
Homelessness is a complex experience, with causes almost as plentiful as the number of people who experience it. And Abe Oudshoorn should know.
As a London InterCommunity Health Centre nurse, he treated the needs of (and created friendships with) the homeless community. Now an academic — year four co-ordinator (Collaborative Program and Lecturer) in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing — Oudshoorn’s passion for wanting to make a difference with London’s homeless community hasn’t waned.
The creation of the London Homelessness Outreach Network (LHON), a grassroots organization developed out of the passion to act on homelessness in the city, began as Oudshoorn was disseminating research from his doctoral dissertation on homelessness and health.
“We are a diverse group of individuals with diverse talents, but with a common desire to take action on issues around homelessness in London,” he says. “Recognizing the complexity of the issues, we seek to work at multiple levels, including policy, public perceptions, and personal relationships.”
In his travels, Oudshoorn kept running into people interested in getting involved in some way on these issues. A small group of 10-12 people got together last spring to discuss what could be done, and wondered about what issues people face in experiencing homelessness in London.
The group grew to 20 by the summer months, and to more than 35 by fall. Everyone from doctors, nurses and occupational therapists to academics, students and social activists made up the ever-growing LHON.
“Seeing this growth, we realized that we didn’t have to find the one right thing to do, but could rather become a network to support many different actions,” Oudshoorn says. “In this way, we are conceptualizing ourselves as a community of practice, a diverse group of individuals gathered around a common concern.”
For Oudshoorn, it was a personal struggle when he left the London InterCommunity Health Centre to switch to full-time academic – which is the reason behind LHON.
“It was very difficult because I had all these relationships with the people I’ve been working with and with the agencies. I was feeling fairly disconnected and that wasn’t okay with me,” he says. “For myself, as an academic, it meets that triangle of service, research and education. A lot of what we’re doing will have research built into it, and I’m hoping for an education component to be built into it.”
Oudshoorn adds homelessness in London is hidden to most, as it is relegated to a limited area, with few people sleeping on the streets like they might in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
However, it is no small concern, with London having more than 600 shelter beds, the London InterCommunity Health Centre’s Health Outreach for People Who are Homeless having more than 1,000 clients, and countless numbers of people living in precarious housing situations such as couch-surfing or group homes.
The first step, Oudshoorn says, is to change the public perception around idea that homeless is simply another word for lazy. Although mental illness and addictions are relevant factors, less than 60 per cent of homeless persons experience a mental illness, and less than 40 per cent experience an addiction.
And for 90 per cent of people who experience it, homelessness is not a chronic state, but a temporary transition.
“This means that we need to continue to support agencies that work with homeless people, to make sure that as many people as possible exit homelessness as quickly as possible,” Oudshoorn says. “Perception is the lynch pin in that three level structure (policy, perception, personal involvement). If you don’t change that perception, the policies and the politics won’t change and no one is going to want to get personally involved.”
LHON’s current looks to create a healthy policy structure to address homelessness in London.
Oudshoorn has been amazed at how quickly LHON has progressed in just under a year and is excited to see change in the community.
“I believe that if we can grow public will to eliminate homelessness in our city by assisting everyone out of it, as opposed to driving it away through criminalizing poverty, political will is bound to follow,” says Oudshoorn. “This is essential, as homelessness is something we actually choose to have in our city based on our health and social policies.”