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Reframing public dialogue about homelessness: Building housing solidarity during COVID-19

Reframing public dialogue about homelessness: Building housing solidarity during COVID-19

Professor Luisa Sotomayor’s new SSHRC Partnership Engage project examines community responses to the siting and development of new homeless shelters and supportive housing in Toronto. As Sotomayor explains, “the introduction of new housing for a low-income or vulnerable group in a community is typically not without local conflict. In fact, the acronym NIMBY—or Not-in-My-Backyard—refers to an increasingly common response by which some neighbours organize to protect against change or to avoid a perceived loss in property values. Their argument may recognize the importance of the service, but they will fiercely oppose it in their own community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has called for a number of public health measures, such as physical distancing, frequent handwashing, and preventive self-isolation, all of which start with access to safe housing. With a growing housing affordability crisis and overcrowding in Toronto’s emergency shelter system, “building housing solidarity, as well as support for people who are experiencing homelessness and may need community services has never been more crucial,” says Sotomayor.

Sotomayor’s research methods for this project involve an international jurisdictional scan of public engagement experiences in the siting of new homelessness housing and services, as well as an in-depth examination of Toronto’s current public engagement practices in the siting of five new facilities. With Covid-19, the City is currently innovating in the way it engages and communicates with the public about these new services. The efficacy of the new tools–many of them now online–are yet to be assessed.

According to Sotomayor, public engagement strategies matter a great deal in the siting of social housing and services. As urban planners are faced with the task of engaging publics who may not be necessarily sympathetic, especially if the public does not regularly “see” homelessness, “they must be able to foster an ethic of collective care within communities for services to be both beneficial and accessible to the service users and integrated successfully into the fabric of the community”.

Sotomayor’s research and teaching interests are focused on the various dimensions of urban inequality, housing, community planning, equity planning and governance.