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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Supporting an aging population experiencing homelessness: SFU research

January 10, 2023

Improving supports for older adults who experience homelessness in three major Canadian cities is the focus of an ongoing study led by Simon Fraser University adjunct professor Sarah Canham.

The research builds on a pilot study that documented evidence-based interventions in shelter and housing services that support persons with experiences of homelessness for people aged 50 and older in Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary – cities that have seen a dramatic increase in homelessness among the 50+ age group. Their new project will evaluate these promising practices to improve services for those who are experiencing homelessness.

“This trend is expected to continue as Canada faces an aging population, increasing urbanization and an ongoing shortage of affordable housing,” says Canham. “Younger baby boomers are particularly at-risk for homelessness due to life course disadvantages associated with competitive job and housing markets and resulting challenges in accumulating assets to protect against housing insecurity.” 

The team will conduct evaluations of 11 shelter/housing practices to determine which are most useful in supporting Aging in the Right Place (AIRP), focusing on four programs in Calgary and Vancouver and three in Montreal. Researchers will conduct interviews with providers and clients, analyze intakes and conduct environmental audits.

Their findings will help to inform decision-makers on issues related to housing, homelessness, health and social service provider’s design and delivery of services. 

Older adults have unique challenges such as health and mobility issues often requiring support to live alone. According to Canham, research shows that they face harassment and bullying in emergency shelters from those who are younger than them. 

Aging in place—for some, that means the home they have always occupied—may not be possible and researchers suggest the focus should be on aging in the right place, with the right supports for the complex needs of this cohort. 

The pilot study identified several categories of shelter/housing for older persons with experiences of homelessness including: 

• Emergency, temporary, or transitional shelter/housing with supports
• Independent housing with offsite supports
• Supported independent housing with onsite non-medical supports
• Permanent supportive housing (PSH) with onsite medical support and/or specialized services
• Long- term care
• Palliative care/hospice 

Other SFU researchers involved in the project include Habib Chaudhury, professor and gerontology chair; Atiya Mahmood, gerontology associate professor; Julian Somers health sciences, distinguished professor; Andy Yan, director of SFU’s City Program; and Rachel Weldrick, postdoctoral fellow.