Sept. 6, 2018

Short documentary shines a light on invisible, older homeless population

Social Work prof’s film project receives $10K Telus StoryHive grant thanks to UCalgary voters; release set for Sept. 6
Victoria Burns uses film as a research vehicle to shine a light on the growing issue of older Canadians experiencing homelessness. She calls film the language of the heart, and says it has great strengths as a collaborative research tool for participants.
Victoria Burns uses film as a research vehicle to shine a light on the growing issue of older Canadi David Kotsibie

Last spring UToday readers helped social work professor Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, and her team win a $10,000 Telus StoryHive grant to produce a short documentary, called Beyond Housing. The mini-doc shares the stories of two older Calgarians with histories of homelessness.  Burns and filmmaker Joe Kelly spent a large part of the summer completing the 10-minute digital short, which will officially be released on StoryHive’s Facebook and YouTube pages on Sept. 6, 2018, at 1 p.m.  

The short documentary is part of a larger SSHRC-funded study that focuses on older homelessness.  

“We have people who are aging in shelters, aging on the streets, or living in substandard housing, unfit for living,” explains Burns, who has focused her research on this population for the last 10 years. “They’re not getting enough, or the right type, of services and are invisible.”

Not just another journal article

To shed light on these issue, Burns wanted to do more than just write another academic paper. She wanted to give older individuals experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories, in their own words and become visible.

"What better medium than film to become visible?" asks Burns. "There are lots of assumptions of what it means to be 'older' and 'homeless', this documentary will hopefully challenge some of those stereotypes by seeing the whole person and not just the 'homelessness.'"

The short documentary features George and Hilary, two of seven Beyond Housing participants (Linda, Steven, Anne, Bruce, and Laura) who will be featured in the full-length documentary, which is set to be released in 2019.

The Beyond Housing digital short shines the light on two formerly homeless, older Calgarians, George and Hilary. More than 6,000 votes helped get this innovative social work research project completed.

The Beyond Housing digital short shines the light on two formerly homeless, older Calgarians.

'Handing over the mic' to research participants

As Burns explains it, the rationale of doing visual research and a documentary film in particular, is to “pass the mic” directly to the participants. And the participatory element was a very strong component of the team’s research design.

"All too often older adults are left out of discussions about policy and research," says Burns, "so it was important that participants collaborated in this project at each stage. We met several times individually with participants in their homes, to build rapport and trust. We went out into the community with participants, filmed their interactions on public transit, in restaurants, and at public events. The participants even helped edit the footage. We also held a focus group this summer where participants had the chance to meet for the first time; it was neat to see relationships and a community forge between participants. One of the participants even gave some of her old clothes to another participant — it was really touching.”

Overall, Burns says the team is thrilled with the direction the project is moving. The UToday story and related social media campaign resulted in more than 6,000 votes for Beyond Housing and generated a buzz, which has really energized the project.

“I said to the team, ‘Even if we don't get the money, it's raised awareness.’  I actually found one of the participants who saw the link on Twitter, contacted me and said, ‘I'm part of the invisible homeless, can I be in your documentary?’ So already, it has created buzz around the project and awareness about older homelessness without even getting the money.”

Come see the film

To celebrate with the campus community, the winning 10-minute Telus StoryHive short for Beyond Housing will be screened on campus on Sept. 21, from noon to 1 p.m. in PF 3257. The screening will be hosted by the Faculty of Social Work’s Gerontology Interest Group, and  feature a short discussion about the issue of older individuals experiencing homelessness, with the research team and participants featured in the film. Pizza, snacks, and drinks will be provided.