University of Calgary

Homeless study

Jan. 19, 2009

Homeless are not all drug addicts or alcholics

The Salvation Army's Centre of Hope

The Salvation Army's Centre of Hope.

Not all people who live in homeless shelters are drug addicts, alcoholics and gamblers, according to a recently published study.

Co-authored by the U of C’s Karen Benzies (nursing), Christine Walsh (social work) and Gayle Rutherford (nursing/social work), the study looked at a small segment of the homeless population residing at The Salvation Army, Centre of Hope. Conducted though the Downtown Community Initiative, a partnership between the university and the Centre, the aim was to better understand inner city homeless shelter residents within the context of a city experiencing rapid economic growth.

Using interviews, the authors identified three groups of homeless shelter residents—those who were employed and just needed a leg up before moving on to get a place of their own; those who relied almost completely on external resources; and those who were teetering on the brink of moving on or becoming embedded in the ‘system’. Residents teetering on the brink needed extra resources to move them toward independence and out of poverty.

“Generally, this group was managing their lives, albeit with an occasional crisis,” says Benzies. “However, mental illness and sometimes unrealistic expectations could push a lot of them to give up and become life-long dependents on community social services. Our study indicated that with more focused resources, such as information about structured work experiences, this group could become more independent and productive.” Stigma attached to homelessness was also a barrier to independence.

The results highlight the need for earlier and more intensive interventions, adds Benzies. “It could mean the difference between being an effective member of society or forever becoming part of the system.”

The article was published in the most recent issue of Currents: New Scholarship in the Human Services.  Other co-authors were John Rook (Salvation Army) and Alison Nelson (Alberta Health Services).

The Faculty of Social Work hosts the second national conference on homelessness, Feb. 18 to 20.  For more information, visit