Feb. 17, 2015

Social work prof sheds new light on helping the homeless

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff researches housing-first programs, rural trends and wellness of front line workers
Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff has long been interested in the complex issues of homelessness and mental health.

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff is interested in the complex issues of homelessness and mental health.

Angie Boyler Photography

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work, has spent her professional and academic career at the intersection where the issues of homelessness, mental health and addictions meet. Each issue on its own is incredibly complex, so opportunities abound for researchers to make a difference in the lives of marginalized people.

Earlier this month, Waegemakers Schiff presented her research findings about “housing first” programs in Alberta and Ontario to a national audience during a webinar organized by Employment and Social Development Canada. Under housing-first models, homeless people are provided with housing quickly and then offered services as needed. Waegemakers Schiff co-presented with Carol Zoulalian of Toronto’s Houselink Community Homes, which uses a housing-first approach to support homeless people with mental health issues and concurrent disorders.

Waegemakers Schiff explains: “We found that organizations that include service recipients in decisions about how [the organization] runs and delivers services are very effective. The other important aspect is allowing recipients to define what recovery and wellness means for them.

“Housing stability is much higher for the clients of organizations that integrate these components into their operations.”

Working with fellow researcher Alina Turner, Waegemakers Schiff has also been looking at rural homelessness across Alberta and Canada. The research identified communities of need and the fact that there has been a lack of substantive support for homeless initiatives in smaller, rural communities. In Alberta, they found that there are about 3,000 homeless people outside the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. The Alberta Rural Development Network distributed $12 million in funding for homelessness-related services in rural Alberta last year and subsequent to their report.

Taking care of the workers

Waegemakers Schiff’s current research is investigating the psycho-social needs of front line staff in the homeless service sector through a focused survey of workers in Edmonton and Calgary.

“Issues like burnout, work overload and vicarious traumatization appear to be a huge problem in the homeless sector. We need to have a better understanding of how much workers experience these types of problems and what, if any, supports their employers have in place to help them function under difficult circumstances,” Waegemakers Schiff says.

She adds, “Too often in the past in human services, it was seen as a personal failing if a person couldn’t do their job or was burned out, rather than it being the responsibility of the organization to ensure they weren’t running their staff into the ground.”

As a result of what she’s learned through her clinical and academic work, Waegemakers Schiff recently published Working With Homeless and Vulnerable People: Basic Skills and Practices, a book that addresses training and learning needs of frontline staff who have relatively little experience working in the field.

“I wrote this book to help ensure that they those working with homeless people — an incredibly vulnerable population — have the knowledge and tools they need,” Waegemakers Schiff says. “It’s a very complex field. Working with homeless people requires having an understanding of basic social work skills like engagement and cultural sensitivity, but it also means looking at and being conversant in areas like mental health, addictions, housing, case management, legal issues, and the social service delivery system, to name just a few.”

Given that about 235,000 individuals experience homelessness in Canada each year, it is critically important to get the programs and support for both clients and workers right.