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Kat Johnson Discusses the Institute of Global Homelessness

Homelessness is a problem waiting to be solved everywhere around the globe. The Institute of Global Homelessness was launched in 2014 to be a resource to solve this problem and believes that the cause is not hopeless. DePaul University and Depaul International partnered to establish the IGH.

It is located at DePaul University in Chicago and is the brainchild of Depaul International, a charity based in London. The university is the largest Catholic University in the U.S. The charity is the parent organization of a group of charities that supports the homeless and marginalized people around the world. Both organizations were founded by the Vincentians, a congregation of priests and brothers, who follow the values of St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th century French priest. Throughout his life, St. Vincent dedicated himself to serving the poor.

IGH focuses its efforts to solve global homelessness on research, leadership and responding to need. On June 1-2, 2015, less than a year after its opening, IGH hosted its first bi-annual research conference, Homelessness in a Global Landscape, at DePaul. Kat Johnson, the Director of IGH, has previously worked for nine years around the globe on issues related to housing and homelessness in various support and leadership roles.

What were the reasons for establishing the Institute of Global Homelessness at DePaul University?

The idea for IGH came from the realization that there was nothing operating at the international level that could act as a resource and consulting hub for leaders around the world who are working to end homelessness.

Mark McGreevy, group chief executive of Depaul International in the U.K., often fielded requests for advice and expertise about ending homelessness by policymakers, service providers and nonprofits and realized there was nowhere to refer them. McGreevy contacted DePaul University in Chicago knowing that aiding the poor is central to the university’s Vincentian mission. DePaul University’s belief in coordinated, effective public service informed the institute’s aim to provide research, leadership, consultancy and shared resources to those working to end homelessness.

Why is DePaul interested in global homelessness instead of focusing on homelessness in Chicago (since it is one of the top 25 cities in the country with a large homeless issue)?

The idea behind IGH is that by connecting effective practice and tenacious leaders across regions, we can accelerate an end to homelessness everywhere. It is DePaul University’s hope that the institute’s work will directly contribute to ending homelessness here in the city. In fact, the day following the conference, we worked with five Chicago-based homelessness organizations to host tours and exchanges with the international attendees.

Since assuming the director role for the institute, I’ve met many professors and students who work closely with the Steans Center for Community-Based Learning, University Ministry and academic programs at DePaul University that look at homelessness from various angles or volunteer with programs addressing homelessness around the city. The decision to lead the IGH has only strengthened DePaul’s drive to contribute to and support the efforts of Chicago’s homelessness advocacy organizations.

How did DePaul come to host the Homelessness in a Global Landscape Conference?

We wanted to gather the best and brightest minds working in the homelessness field in a room and to begin building a global movement to end homelessness. We also used the opportunity to get feedback on our global framework on homelessness, which attempts to set out a common vocabulary and broad definition of homelessness to enable collaboration.

What is your overall reaction to the conference?
The conference convinced me that a global movement to end homelessness is possible. Although we had a back-to-back schedule, people approached us between sessions with the desire to discuss concrete steps toward building a global movement. As a result of those informal conversations, we rearranged the second day’s agenda to include facilitated discussions.

It was one of the most heartening things I’ve seen—delegates from places as varied as India, Canada, Chile and Kenya raising their hands, saying, “I’m ready to see an end to this problem. What will we do to make sure that happens?”

Did the conference fulfill its purpose?

The conference was a success. We saw a robust exchange of ideas, knowledge and sharing of best practices among leaders from almost 30 countries. Our proposed definition and framework of homelessness was largely accepted by attendees, and a willingness to join a global movement emerged.

Could you give some examples of what homelessness means across the globe including an example from a developed country and a developing country?

Soon, we will be sharing widely the final framework, which captures variations of what homelessness can mean. We break homelessness into categories and sub-categories. Any given country will see some of these categories as homeless and others not. Our first category identifies people without accommodation. If you went to Delhi you might hear people talking about “pavement dwellers,” who stay on the pavement in a consistent location. In the U.S., you would more likely hear the term “street homelessness” or “unsheltered homelessness” to describe pavement dwellers. In a third category, there is considerable variation across countries for people defined as living in severely inadequate housing. Some places might consider someone staying on a relative’s couch homeless, others not. I was recently in Pretoria, South Africa, where we saw an informal settlement with structures that consisted of a few boards of wood as walls and a piece of corrugated metal along the top. The structure provided very little protection from weather and no sanitation services. Some people you ask would absolutely consider that homelessness; others would say it isn’t.

When we set out to write a framework of homelessness that would resonate globally, it was important for us to capture all the complexities in naming and defining homelessness in order to offer common language to discuss the various circumstances that can be described as homelessness. So it’s not that any one country would consider everything in our framework as homelessness, and we aren’t pushing anyone to do that. But for the first time, we have a menu with language that will make it possible to compare apples to apples.

Finally, I’d like to note that within this broader set of categories, IGH drew a very clear line around our own focus populations, which are people without accommodation as well as some forms of people living in crisis or temporary accommodation (for example, homelessness shelters or women and children living in refuges for those fleeing domestic violence).

Did you come any closer to a universal definition of homelessness?

We presented our proposal for a global framework of homelessness and received feedback during and following the conference. We are now in the process of refining the definition and expect to publish the final version soon.

Measuring homelessness was a goal of the conference. Is homelessness measured by the reasons people are homeless? Is there any way to tell the numbers of homeless based on the reason for homelessness, such as extreme poverty, natural disasters, runaway youth or LGBT issues?

We begin by looking at a person’s living situation. For example, “people sleeping in the streets or LBGT in other open spaces” will measure exactly that. In most of the world this basic level of measurement is not happening; getting those basic numbers will be paramount at a high level in assessing trends and determining how policy affects the issue. But, of course, to solve the problem we need to know why people experience homelessness and, ideally, also know the individual people experiencing homelessness in a particular place by name and housing need. We see basic measurement as necessary but not sufficient to end homelessness outright. So we will be working on causes—and even more importantly, solutions—alongside the measurement work.

What are your plans for future conferences?

We plan to hold a conference every other year, so look for the next one in 2017. We anticipate narrowing the focus to a specific topic within homelessness. Of course, between now and the next conference, we will continue to run small convenings to support and connect regional networks and gather people.

Janet Quinn

Sources: Institute of Global Homelessness, DePaul University
Photo: DePaul University