Research Shop Project Provides Example of Evidence-Based Change for Impact
At CESI, we believe that community engaged scholarship (CES) has the potential to offer high impact to both community partners and researchers and to spark positive, evidence-informed change within the community. CES is a “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity" (Jordan, 2007). In addition to managing shrinking budgets and increased requests from the populations they serve, community partners are often required to undertake research to support their programming. Research has found that CES partnerships can be an important resource to community organizations, providing them with useful research and information, while also providing valuable experience and capacity building/experiential learning for students, staff and faculty.
One of CESI’s foundational program areas, the Research Shop, trains and employs graduate students to create high-impact CES. Recently, one Research Shop project has emerged as a particularly clear example of how CES can support deep, meaningful change at the community level. Telling the story of this project highlights four key principles of CESI, including a focus on relationships and partnerships, a strong rooting in community-identified priorities, a basis in collaboration, and a commitment to mutual benefit, and demonstrates how CES can lead to significant impact for all parties involved.
Focus on Relationships and Partnerships
In 2021, the Research Shop was approached by an active citizen who was interested in exploring the issue of men’s homelessness in Orangeville. As with many Research Shop projects, this project was born out of an existing relationship – this partner had previously worked with the Research Shop on a project related to municipal elections. In the time since completing that project, they had identified a lack of services for men who were struggling with mental health, addictions, and homelessness in Dufferin County and were interested in working with the Research Shop to further investigate the issue.
Rooted in Community-Identified Priorities
This previous partner provided a connection to the Town of Orangeville, where the mayor had recently created the Men’s Homelessness Committee of the Town of Orangeville as an advisory body to the Town Council on matters and issues related to men’s* homelessness. As of 2019, there were no designated support services for men who were unhoused in Dufferin County, and it was evident that men’s homelessness was an issue of concern. Recognizing that homelessness is a multi-faceted issue with no clear-cut solution, the Committee approached the Research Shop with a request for research, hoping to gain more context and information through a needs assessment.
Based in Collaboration
In this example, the Research Shop and the community partner worked together on collaboratively building the project to meet the research priorities. The final project explored the social services available to men experiencing homelessness in Dufferin County and identified areas for potential development and action. This project was envisioned as the first step in understanding how to prevent, reduce, and ultimately eliminate men’s homelessness in the community.
Together, the project team built a three-part project consisting of a literature review, an environmental scan, and survey-based needs assessment. The literature review outlined the definition of homelessness used in the report and provided an overview of men’s homelessness and rural homelessness in Dufferin County. The environmental scan outlined the services currently available in Dufferin County that support men experiencing homelessness, including gaps and areas for further growth. These elements provided important background for the needs assessment, which included two surveys – one gathering perspectives from social service providers, and another collecting feedback from the general community. These surveys identified several opportunities, such as expanding the reach of current homelessness services, making decisions informed by those with lived experiences by engaging more effectively and considering their unique needs, improving awareness of homelessness services, and creating affordable housing.
As a whole, this report sets a solid foundation for Orangeville Town Council to propose meaningful, evidence-based solutions for homelessness in Dufferin County. By working collaboratively with the community partner on community-identified priorities, the researchers were able to provide findings and recommendations that are both supported by best practices, as well as tailored to the specific rural context of Orangeville and Dufferin County.
Resulting in Mutual Benefit
Although we know that many CESI community partners go on to use research outputs for their own purposes, such as applying for funding, making changes to programs, and developing new services, we are often only able to track these developments anecdotally. In this case, the Men’s Homelessness Committee project is very public-facing, which makes it possible for us to trace the impact of a community-engaged research project in real time and truly see the benefits experienced by all partners.
In February 2022, after a presentation from the Men’s Homelessness Committee informed by the Research Shop needs assessment, Orangeville Town Council passed a motion to appropriate a fire hall for an 8-bed Crisis Care Bed Facility. This type of facility is funded by Ontario Health and provides a deeper level of programming for residents who are in crisis than shelters can provide. Next, the Town of Orangeville will be seeking provincial funding via Ontario Health to develop this facility. This project helped the Committee advocate for the Crisis Care Bed Facility, which, in turn, will help to address the needs of men experiencing homelessness in Orangeville by bringing mental health and addiction treatment to Dufferin County.
This project was also very beneficial to the students involved. Karen Nelson, Research Shop Manager, notes that “this project was a great learning and capacity development opportunity for the Research Shop students who were involved. They had the opportunity to apply their research skills in the real world and to build their interpersonal skills by working closely with the community partner from start to finish.”
Homelessness is an extremely complex issue. Time is required to fully understand outcomes, and solutions need to be developed locally and in partnership with stakeholders and service users. While the research carried out by the Research Shop was not designed to provide specific solutions, it has been essential in supporting the Men’s Homelessness Committee of the Town of Orangeville as they advocate for additional and novel services and approaches. Supported by rigorous research and evidence, these changes have the potential to benefit service users and begin to address homelessness in Dufferin County. Liz Jackson, CESI Director, notes that “this project demonstrates the generative potential of CES when all parties are deeply committed to it - by bringing together campus and community skills sets and knowledge around a community-identified question, we were able to create something tangible that can be used to inform real change on the ground level.”
For more information, read Men's Homelessness in Dufferin County: A Needs Assessment. A summary is also available.
Jordan, C. (Editor) (2007). Community-engaged scholarship review, promotion & tenure package. Peer Review Workgroup, Community-Engaged Scholarship for Health Collaborative, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health.