Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Consumer Integration and Self-Determination in Homelessness Research, Policy, Planning, and Services. Introduction


In the 35 years since homelessness emerged as a social issue requiring public attention and policy responses, it has become institutionalized in government and civil structures at all levels. So many federal agencies are affected by issues related to homelessness that an interagency council has been created to coordinate their efforts. Our largest cities have full-blown homeless services departments; many not-for-profit agencies are wholly or heavily funded by contracts to provide housing and services to people who are homeless; and a cadre of academics now specialize in homelessness research. Against this background, the new language of ending homelessness announces a disruption of business as usual and issues a challenge to decades of conventional wisdom. Among the new approaches commanding attention are those that claim prominent roles for people who have been homeless  long the objects, but rarely the authors, of either research, policy, planning, or services developed to address homelessness or their own housing and service options.

This paper seeks to contribute to this Symposiums appraisal of knowledge about preventing and ending homelessness by addressing two questions: How are research, policy, and service delivery processes and outcomes changed when they involve or are driven by people who have themselves experienced homelessness? And what happens when people who are homeless make the decisions about the housing and services they need? Guided by these questions, we offer a synthesis and assessment of available information  some of it in the fugitive or gray literature of reports, newsletters, conference handouts, and web postings; some in peer-reviewed and published research  reporting on the involvement of people who are or were homeless in research, policy, planning, service delivery, and on consumer-driven, choice-based homeless services.

For the purposes of clarity in this paper, we use the term consumer to describe individuals who are currently or were formerly homeless. The term is controversial for several reasons, including its connotation that those experiencing homelessness can shop around for services among several available options as well as its links to an economic language of the marketplace. However, in the literature we review, it is the term most widely used to refer to people with current or past experiences of homelessness or those who have received system services. Other terms sometimes used instead of consumer in the mental health movement include psychiatrically disabled (Hensley, 2006) or survivor to indicate people who consider themselves disabled or who have survived psychiatric hospitalization or other trauma. However, these terms apply less broadly, since not all individuals impacted by homelessness have a history of psychiatric illness or hospitalizations or identify themselves as survivors of trauma. The term peer is currently used in the United States to identify people with a collective experience (for example, mental health and/or substance abuse recovery or homelessness) who are working and using their personal experiences and skills to assist others facing the same challenges. When reporting on programs that use the term peer in describing their staffing, we have retained this usage, but because we document participation by people who have experienced homelessness in research, policy, and planning, as well as in service delivery, the term consumer is a better fit than peer with the topic and intent of most parts of this paper.

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