Emily Lam, Diana Juanita Mora, Shreemouna Gurung, Jill Hoselton, Amber Dukart

Five student researchers from the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) Project came together recently to engage in a discussion on intersectionality, what it means, and how it can be applied to older persons experiencing homelessness (OPEH) or housing insecurity.

Intersectionality and Homelessness Defined

The term intersectionality was first coined by a critical race scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in 1989 to demonstrate how gender and race can collectively influence the experiences of black women. In a nutshell, intersectionality promotes the importance of examining the interplay of different social positions, such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, religion, class and more. This perspective believes that inequities are not a product of a single identity marker, but instead results from intersections of various social positions, power relations, and experiences.

In the Canadian context, homelessness can consist of being unsheltered or completely homeless and residing in areas not premeditated for human habitation (e.g., streets). It can also include having to reside in emergency housing and shelters, hospitals, prisons, and couch surfing.

A Snapshot of our In-depth Discussion

What led us to intersectionality in our professional practice?

Many of us learned about the concept of intersectionality through our academic endeavours. Intersectionality is a tool used to understand complex stories, for example, of Indigenous women in Northern Canada who encounter both racism and gender-based violence, often having to choose to fight for just one aspect of their identities.

Others have come across intersectionality through social work experience. When services are frequently focused on a sole characteristic of a population, such as age, the need to consider various other identity markers (e.g., gender, ethnicity, culture, etc.) to address service gaps, became evident. Through working with different populations, some of us have seen, for instance, how older adults in Chinatown and the Downtown East Side of Vancouver experience challenges with securing affordable housing.

Additionally, recognizing our own personal identities has enabled us to understand others’ intersectional backgrounds in our professional practice. We acknowledge our privileges and highlight the importance of building relationships with the communities we work with, providing opportunities for the voices with lived expertise to be heard. Our personal experiences with oppression and discrimination have also helped us realize that identities are multi-layered, and thus, it is critical to carefully examine the social positions and experiences of people, as well as challenge assumptions and stereotypes that lead to oppression.

Why use intersectionality for work related to OPEH?

Intersectionality acts as a useful guide for researchers to question their own set of assumptions and biases while exploring the intricate and complex lives of OPEH who have diverse backgrounds and experiences.  By connecting life stories and outcomes to social positions and power relations, it allows us to identify and understand the inequities that exists in the current housing systems for vulnerable populations. Intersectionality also offers the opportunity to explore the individual experiences of OPEH and rejects the one-size-fits-all approach. Overall, intersectionality allows researchers to locate and work towards eliminating the very source of oppression and inequalities that OPEH encounter on a daily basis.

Why should attention be directed to OPEH or housing issues?

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines core housing need as living in housing that falls below in at least one, of adequacy, affordability, or suitability. According to the 2016 census and CMHC report on senior housing, 1 in 4 older adults live in core housing need and are not living in a place that is affordable, adequate and/or suitable. It is also important to highlight that adults over the age of 50 make up 24% of shelter users in Canada.

Beyond these statistics, it is disturbing how pervasive ageism is in Canada. Older adults disproportionately experiencing homelessness demonstrates both the prevalence of ageism and the broken housing system in this country. Although valuable members of our society, older adults are often overlooked and devalued. A notable mention here is the differences in how older adults are viewed and treated in other countries and cultures; for example, in Latin America, older adults are often the foundation of family units and are an integral part of society. The growing housing need of our aging population, lack of affordable housing, and unfavourable outlook on older adults in Canada necessitates us to direct our attention to OPEH and housing challenges.

How does intersectionality help dismantle stereotypes of homelessness?

With an intersectional lens, we are able to look at the person as a whole and not just the presenting issue of homelessness. For instance, one of the housing sites that the AIRP project is partnered with is targeted towards older adults who have experienced violence or elder abuse. The violence that these individuals have experienced means that they not only need housing, but they also need trauma-informed supports. When we invite intersectionality into the equation, it offers that full picture, which is very important if we are working towards eliminating stereotypes.

What are some challenges with using intersectional lens for OPEH?

In order for intersectionality to be effective, it has to be individualized for each situation; this means not always being able to categorize research data and findings. However, a lot of research methods inherently support the categorization of information at a single point of axis. Similarly, research often influences policy decisions, but it is difficult to individualize large-scale policies to be optimally beneficial for every human being. The approach we take to collect data also does not allow or encourage us to look at intersections of identity, for we can only look at certain parts of identity separately, making it difficult to capture the full picture of one’s lived experience.

We must also acknowledge the intersecting identities of researchers and the implication that can have on participants. Without recognizing our own identities and privileges as student researchers, we are unable to collect and analyze data in a manner that considers the intersectional lens.

What are the consequences of not applying an intersectional lens?

Throughout the years, intersectionality has garnered universal attention and people have become more aware of this concept. With intersectionality as a framework for research, we can highlight the unique stories of OPEH that are shaped by their varying identity markers and the systems they exist in. Without intersectionality, there remains a danger of creating and exaggerating assumptions and false notions about OPEH, as well as missed opportunities for providing targeted interventions that help address housing issues.

We walk away from this discussion with newfound knowledge and urgency to apply an intersectional lens to understand the experiences of OPEH shaped by their various identity markers. As student researchers, we hope to use our positions of power – and we encourage you to use yours – to help spread the stories of OPEH so that policy makers and planners can make informed decisions, based on the lived expertise of OPEH.