Jan. 15, 2019

‘We’re not ready for the shelf’: UCalgary hosts documentary premiere about older homeless people

Number of older adults experiencing homelessness in Calgary is on the rise, yet they remain largely misunderstood and invisible
George is one of several older adults who tell their stories in Haskayne documentary.

George is one of the older adults who tell their stories in the public health-themed documentary.

O’Brien Institute for Public Health

Anne Cartledge is a mother, poet, artist, advocate and part of a rapidly growing population of older adults who are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“I was in a panic,” says Cartledge, who, after living arrangements with one of her children fell through, found herself not knowing where to go. “I had no idea what kind of supports were out there. Survival became my main focus and that has taken its toll.”  

Cartledge is one of several older adults who tell their story in Beyond Housing: “We’re not ready for the shelf,” a documentary produced by a team of University of Calgary researchers as part of a larger study that focuses on older homelessness. Co-hosted by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work, the documentary will make its Calgary premiere on Jan. 27 at the Calgary Central Public Library’s Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall.

Eventually Cartledge moved into a unit at Horizon Housing, an inter-generational and mixed income building, where she has been living for the past 14 years. Dr. Christine Walsh, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work, and member of the O’Brien Institute, says Cartledge’s story isn’t as rare as you might think. 

“We’re seeing an increase in people who are finding themselves homeless for the first time after age 50. This can be caused by things like an injury, a job loss, a breakup of a relationship,” says Walsh, who was one of the researchers involved in making the film.

“Steps need to be taken to provide the right kinds of housing support for homeless people in general, but particularly for older homeless people because they have a greater level of need.

They have higher rates of chronic illnesses, mobility problems, and other issues that are exacerbated by being homeless.

While homelessness is often perceived as an individual sleeping on the street or in emergency shelters, people experiencing hidden homelessness can find themselves couch-surfing with friends or family, sleeping in cars, or other temporary, insecure accommodations. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to this type of homelessness, says Walsh.

Older adults are also particularly vulnerable to those specific health problems associated with homelessness. Hilary Chapple, also featured in the documentary, became homeless after leaving an abusive relationship. She suffers from PTSD, which she says was made worse by her unstable living situation.

“We know that about 50 per cent of the homeless population suffer from mental health issues. When they are in the shelter system, they can’t get the necessary care to get better,” Chapple says. 

Chapple now lives with her wife, dog and cat in her wife's house. “It’s a safe space. It’s something I know I can come home to, and nobody can tell me to leave. To know I’ve got somewhere to come home to, where I’ve got my tea, I’ve got food, I’ve got a dog that kisses me to death, I’ve got a safe family — that’s what home means.”

Walsh recognizes that documentary film isn’t the first medium that comes to mind when one thinks of academic research, but says that’s where the film’s strength lies.

“These are people that want to be seen and they want to be heard, so I think that engaging in our work in ways that recognizes the humanity of these folks is really important,” she says. “Whether you’re a researcher, a policy-maker or a practitioner, I think that's the beginning step for how we can work with people who are dealing with housing insecurity and co-create solutions that meet their needs.”

The film was made as part of a larger Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded project led by Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work, which explored how seven older adults with homeless histories created a sense of place after being housed.

With the help of local filmmaker Joe Kelly and a team of social work collaborators, which includes Walsh, Dr. Jennifer Hewson, PhD, and PhD student Natalie St. Denis, Burns wanted to do more than just write another academic paper. She wanted to give older individuals experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories, in their own words, and become visible.

“Victoria and I have worked with this population for a number of years and if you do the same old business of writing papers and presenting at academic conferences, the message only goes so far,” says Walsh. “Giving older individuals experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories is really powerful in terms of engaging and mobilizing people around this issue.”

Register for the Beyond Housing: “We’re not ready for the shelf” Calgary premiere.

As part of the O’Brien Institute’s 10 years of IMPACT celebrations, Beyond Housing: “We’re not ready for the shelf” will be the first offering in a year-long public health-themed documentary series.

Victoria Burns, Jennifer Hewson and Christine Walsh are members of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health