When Dr. Alissa Overend tasked her with a research project in SOCI 402 Critical Disability Theory, Shelby Hays, Bachelor of Arts ’22, wanted to focus on houselessness and disability.

“I saw a link to be found between disability, houselessness and spoon theory,” says Hays. The spoon theory, created by Christine Miserandino, equates units of energy to spoons. Someone with a chronic illness or disability starts their day with fewer spoons than a person without those conditions, and they must decide which activities they can go without in order to ensure they have enough energy to get through the day. 

“I started to think that houselessness could be viewed in that same way. Think of all the spoons that one has to spend in a day just on staying warm and dry and trying to put food in their body, and then trying to go to work and save money to get back on their feet. There’s spoons that have to be spent on survival in an urban environment, which is not nearly as easy as some people would like to think. It feels a lot like disability, in that you may have been able to do something until society put other obstacles in your way.”

Spoon theory wasn’t the only overlap that Hays found between disability and houselessness. She also discovered that individuals without any type of disability are at an increased risk for developing one when they are houseless. 

“Being houseless is a disability,” says Hays. She adds that there is an increased risk for disabled individuals to become houseless due to issues with income, caretakers and discrimination.

Her research led her to investigate a housing-first project in Medicine Hat that was launched in 2009 and resulted in the city being the first in Canada to effectively end chronic houselessness in 2021. Since then, however, the number of houseless individuals in the city has been on the rise. Hays notes that housing-first initiatives like the one in Medicine Hat can produce better outcomes than ones that put treatment first

“Treatment-first usually implies that someone must be in psychological treatment or addictions treatment or that sort of thing before they’re eligible for or delegated shelter or housing,” says Hays. “But we know that it’s hard enough to face one’s demons with warmth and shelter and working appliances. Housing-first focuses on giving people shelter, with few or no strings attached, and then offering and making readily available treatment options for addictions or traumas or whatever the case may be.”

The research project has made Hays more aware of how houselessness is discussed in local politics. “Mayor Sohi uses the term ‘houselessness,’ and I think Mayor Iveson did as well. Vocabulary has a certain power, and it’s not that these people are without a home. Home is what you make of it, home is community. So I’ve definitely enjoyed seeing media from local actors using this updated terminology, which suggests that they understand the updated priorities on this.”

To learn more about Student Research Day or to apply to participate, visit MacEwan.ca/StudentResearchDay.

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