Researching homelessness - is that politicising science?
By Steven Arnfjord (PhD, Department of Social Work, Ilisimatusarfik)
During this autumn session, the Greenlandic parliament Inatsisartut discusses a proposal of building 100 homes for homeless people - and most parties support the initiative.
The proposal fits perfectly into a Greenlandic anchored cross-university research project: "Social Dynamics of Homelessness", where we work to improve the situation for homeless people.
But, where is the line between research and policy?
Part of Mimi Karlsen's (member of Inatsisartut) original proposal read as follows:
"Among the homeless are people, who are looking for a place to sleep every night. We live in an Arctic climate, so people cannot sleep outdoors. It is necessary that a warm bed is provided. In Nuuk, there is a place where people can stay the night, but it is not a home."
There has been a good media focus on homelessness in Greenland during the last 3 months. The NUNAMED 2016 conference also focused on the issue.
Among other things, the challenge is how decision makers gain insight into the problem. Decision makers often ask for knowledge that can be measured in one or the other form - e.g., how many homeless people do we actually have? Greenland Statistics is frequently quoted, as is a 2013 report on homelessness. At the last count, we had 700 homeless people nationwide in Greenland.
But counting the number of homeless people is an almost impossible task.
We know from a comparative study in Alaska, Canada and Greenland (forthcoming) that it is difficult to agree on what homelessness actually is. The study further concludes that it is too flawed and simplistic just to understand homelessness by counting.
So, when researchers analyse and interfere in the current political debate - then we get an improved and more qualified basis for discussion - and this is where our politicians then better can make the right decisions.
Increased analysis of homelessness will show that it is not only about the numbers. There are people behind the numbers - all with their own unique stories and futures.
Elsewhere in the Arctic, they have successfully been working with a Housing First principle (meaning: first a place to stay, and then focus on integration and treatment).
In the North, they are building alternative homes - which are alternative forms of housing for people who cannot cope with the normal. It is housing with services concerning prevention and treatment. The alternative-housing-effort has been evaluated several times.
From a research point of view, it makes sense to build 100 homes in Greenland - and they should start building right now. But in this context, decision makers could also utilize our knowledge from research: therefore - build alternatively. Include our research and make use of ongoing evaluation. This gives us all opportunities to learn new aspects of the Greenlandic welfare state, while we build it.
This is research with social justice as its theme. It is political, but not partisan. Instead, we can call it science with the cards face up.
Read more about the research project Social Dynamics of Homelessness.