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Podcast: Can homelessness happen to anyone?

Lisa Hehenberger
 Esade Center for Social Impact

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Homelessness affects every country in the world. The last time a global survey was attempted, the United Nations estimated that more than 100 million people were homeless worldwide.

According to the UN, homelessness has become a “global human rights crisis directly linked to increased inequality of wealth and property, requiring urgent attention.”

In this podcast episode, Lisa Hehenberger, Director of the Esade Entrepreneurship Institute, and Nevena Radoynovska, Assistant Professor at Emlyon Business School, take a closer look at the critical challenges of homelessness.

Lisa Hehenberger and Nevena
Lisa Hehenberger and Nevena Radoynovska during the podcast session at Esade (Photo: Esade)


Lisa Hehenberger: We are here today with Nevena Radoynovska, Assistant Professor at Emlyon Business School, who has just presented her work in our Esade Entrepreneurship Institute’s research seminar series. Today I would like to ask Nevena about her fascinating work on homelessness. Could you explain to our audience what your research on homelessness is about and what kind of work you have been doing with homeless people?

Nevena Radoynovska: My research work on homelessness is based on projects I did early in my studies when I was a volunteer and an observer in a homeless shelter in Paris. It is a rather particular context, as Paris is a very saturated city in terms of the needs of the homeless – it has a very severe housing crisis.

I was interested in understanding how these organisations manage the fact that they have very scarce resources and such a high demand, and what treatment of different homeless people looks like in terms of the services they can provide. But also how they have to make very tough choices about who’s allowed to have certain exemptions or certain specialised services and who isn’t.

Lisa Hehenberger: When you were doing this research, you were part of this community yourself. Did this experience allow you to feel closer to the people who were suffering from homelessness?

There are a number of biases and misconceptions that people tend to have about the homeless

Nevena Radoynovska: I was there for three months, every day. It would be hard to say that I completely understood everything about them in that short period of time, but it did give me a very different perspective on the conditions that bring people to homelessness.

One of the things that struck me was how easy it is to fall into this population of homeless people. In many cases, it was people who had just lost a job or maybe were getting divorced, or victims of domestic abuse. In other situations, if this had been dealt with quickly, they could have jumped back. Instead, in many cases, they ended up spiralling into on-and-off homelessness. 

I was part of the organisation and I participated in all the activities. I was there at the welcome desk and I handed out meal cards. But I also had the privilege of being able to step back and go home to write my notes, knowing that I would leave at some point, unfortunately, and the people who worked there, both the social workers and the homeless, were stuck in the situation for much longer.

Lisa Hehenberger: Do you think that people have a bias against the homeless? Perhaps thinking that they deserve to be homeless, without really understanding that they have their own background and anyone could end up being homeless?

Some of these homeless people are very highly educated and have professional careers

Nevena Radoynovska: Yes, for sure. I think there are a number of biases and misconceptions that people tend to have about the homeless. Part of that is understanding that some of these people are very highly educated and have professional careers and, in some cases, for instance, they’re migrants. In any other situation, if they hadn’t been forced to leave their countries, they wouldn’t be on the streets, they would be exercising their professions, like you and me, like anyone. 

The fact that they come to a new country and have no housing puts them in this kind of spiral. One of the very practical things that I was a bit shocked by is how important it is to have a fixed address somewhere. Not even a home, but just a place where you can get your mail for administrative purposes. For getting any kind of government support – such as getting a health card – you need a physical address and this ends up being a huge problem for people who otherwise might have resources to bounce back but are missing the key administrative elements that put them in this very difficult situation.

Lisa Hehenberger: So how could you actually help homeless people get out of that situation?

Nevena Radoynovska: One thing is that a number of these organisations, like the one that I worked in, provide mailing services. They have a certain quota of addresses that they’re allowed to have for homeless people in the organisation. This allows them to receive mail and start all sorts of administrative procedures. But again, the demand is much, much higher than the supply. And so part of our work at the organisation was also to find out what other structures or associations, or even government agencies in some cases, would provide at least this service for them.

A big part of the problem in homelessness is that there are many Catch-22 situations

Lisa Hehenberger: Are there things that we could do as a society to help people to avoid becoming homeless and get to the root of the matter?

Nevena Radoynovska: This is the question I would have ultimately wanted to answer, even in this small project. Funding is, of course, a huge issue. I know of a number of cities, including Vancouver, I believe, that have adopted this housing-first approach.

A big part of the problem in homelessness is that there are so many Catch-22 situations in which if you don’t have a home it’s much harder to keep a stable job. And if you don’t have a stable job it’s much harder to keep a stable home. And so people essentially don’t know at which end of the spiral to begin.

In some cases, governments have taken very clear stances and said, forgetting all the other issues, that it may be a mental health issue or an employment issue. And so their approach is to start by providing people with some sort of stable housing and take the other questions from there.

The other way that I experienced this in the organisation was the system that social workers have for redirecting people to other institutions that might help them. A single-entry point where everybody can come and be properly informed about whether they are, for instance, eligible for refugee status, in which case they then go on to a certain type of organisation. Much of the work that we were doing was dispatching people, and that takes its toll both physically and emotionally once you’ve been transferred a number of times.

It is really important to get those who are in an emergency homeless situation back on their feet as soon as possible

Lisa Hehenberger: You mentioned before that there are certain communities that could be more prone to becoming homeless, such as migrants or women who have suffered abuse. Are there particular activities that could be done for vulnerable communities?

Nevena Radoynovska: One of the things I experienced, one of the questions I had while at the organisation, was the issue of what to do with people who are chronically homeless. Those who have been on the street maybe five, ten, or fifteen years, and have been removed from the labour and housing system. In some ways, those who are chronically homeless require a lot of resources. There are social organisations that work with people who have been unemployed for a long time and try to get them back into a schedule, a rhythm of life, because that is one of the things you lose most when you’re homeless.

But the other aspect, I think, is to understand the difference between the chronically homeless and those who are in an emergency homeless situation. Especially for the latter, it is really important to get them back on their feet as soon as possible because as soon as they spend a month or two on the streets, they start deteriorating very quickly. It is a crucial time when you can help them redo their CV, connect to other organisations and validate their employment or housing status, whatever needs to be dealt with first. 

Lisa Hehenberger: What can we do as citizens to help alleviate this problem? Should we be volunteering or setting up a social enterprise? What would you suggest?

Nevena Radoynovska: There are a number of ways. The demand is so high that everything you can do would be helpful to some extent. One way is certainly volunteering for organisations, helping on a day-to-day basis, but also with aspects that involve meeting higher needs.

In the organisation where I worked, someone founded a theatre workshop. It started as an activity that the homeless could do and it became something that they were very proud of – they even ended up making a documentary about it.

This example involves working on the cultural aspects and changing the perception we have of the homeless as someone who just needs money and a shelter. The homeless also have cultural needs like the rest of us do, and so volunteering in ways that might be more specific to your personal skills as a citizen would also be helpful.

There are also a number of organisations that work more on the ground because there are homeless people who don’t feel comfortable approaching establishments or organisations and they prefer to carve out their space on the streets. And so other citizens volunteer for vans that patrol certain areas and hand out medical utilities or food, or simply go up and talk to people and provide some sort of human connection, which is often missing as well.

Lisa Hehenberger: Based on your research on the topic, can you make any suggestions that would enable social organisations to increase and improve the impact they have on the homeless? 

Nevena Radoynovska: I think it goes beyond just the homeless and the organisations that deal with homelessness. It expands to those who deal with social issues like unemployment, precariousness or discrimination in a work setting.

Initially I was surprised how little connection there is between organisations that seem to be doing similar work. I had the benefit of going to different organisations and hearing about what they were doing and who their beneficiary populations were. I found many connections among them, but I think these organisations are often so on the ground and caught up in the day-to-day work that it’s hard for them to spend time networking or figuring out what other actors are doing along similar lines. 

This aspect has improved since the time I did the research, but figuring out who’s doing similar work was one of the major issues.

There is also competition among some of the organisations, for both government resources and volunteers. Something needs to be done – I’m not entirely sure what, but we should make it less of a competitive system. There is one idea of having a central, single point of entry which could then dispatch people and understand where their needs could best be served. This isn’t always happening right now because it might be in the interest of a particular organisation to keep a beneficiary who’s not best served by what they are able to offer.

Lisa Hehenberger: So, sort of self-perpetuating themselves and the problem.

Nevena Radoynovska: In some ways, yes. Not consciously, but in the sense that if we don’t have enough beneficiaries to prove why we’re being useful we will be faced with a funding cut which poses other problems.

Lisa Hehenberger: Returning to your role as a researcher, it must be quite tough to be in this environment and see a lot of suffering. Did that take a toll on you personally during this time? Was it difficult to sleep at night when you had seen certain difficult scenes or suffering?

Nevena Radoynovska: It is tough both emotionally when you’re there and afterwards in terms of what you are able to do with your research. I still feel inadequate in some ways about whether I’ve done enough to report back and tackle the questions that you’ve just asked me. 

It’s something that I grapple with a lot but sometimes our own daily lives of publishing and writing our papers also take a toll on that and make it harder to connect back to what we actually saw and how we could improve it. 

I tried to be very conscious throughout of not being 100% involved in my research or a role that wasn’t called for. There were situations where you would be half observing, half taking action. And sometimes you needed to completely leave one role aside and realise a human relationship needed to be taken care of, and forget about the interview, the observations and the data collection. That part is hard. 

The last thing is something that I mentioned before: this consciousness that I’m able to leave when I decide to, leaving behind the people who are still there doing this day in and day out. I feel a moral obligation to work more in terms of what can be done to solve this problem.

Lisa Hehenberger: You take a very humble stance on your work. I’m sure you’ve also had an impact on that organisation just by being there, which is difficult when you’re an ethnographer because you’re supposed to be a bit of a fly on the wall. But it’s hard to be like that when you’re a part of an organisation that has issues and problems. How do you deal with trying to be objective while being a part of the organisation?

Nevena Radoynovska: I think in some ways, it’s about carving out some space for yourself. There were hours in the day when I would switch off my observer and ethnography hat and just be in the present moment. Also trying to bring more engagement with the people who have decision making roles and trying to share with them my experience and observations to see if it might be useful information for them to help their own services, without assuming that I know what would be best for them. 

The distance part is quite difficult. Some days I certainly needed to take off, which could mean one day not being physically present or working entirely as a volunteer.

Lisa Hehenberger: Do you think taking this role of being part of the organisation and not just being a bystander has been helpful for you and your research?

Nevena Radoynovska: For sure. I think as long as one is reflective, it can be very helpful. And specifically, in instances where there were moral dilemmas and I had to decide whether I wanted to include these when I tell the story. Recognising how you feel in these situations is also something that brings to light why you do the work, but also how you interpret it. It provides a different humility and understanding of a problem of this size and how it is impacting people on a very real, tangible level on the ground.

Equality means that everyone receives the same treatment, whereas equity would mean that you take into consideration people’s specific needs

Lisa Hehenberger: In your research, you distinguish between the concepts of equity and equality. Could you explain the difference between these two terms?

Nevena Radoynovska: Equality simply means that everyone receives the same treatment, for instance, whereas equity would mean that you take into consideration people’s specific needs, and so it might mean that they actually receive something less or more, depending on how much need they’re experiencing. 

You can see one concrete example of this in one of the tasks of the organisation: to hand out monthly meal cards to the homeless that they can then use in restaurants or places that would offer them meals. 

From an equality perspective, everyone would receive one card on a first come first served basis, and that’s fair. But in reality, what often happened was that they took a much more equity type approach, which meant that some people probably needed this meal more than others: that could mean pregnant women, or people who weren’t there the month before and it wasn’t clear where they had got their meals... It could mean newcomers to the organisation, so it was assumed they’d just arrived and didn’t have any contacts or networks. 

In those cases, they might put aside a few meal cards for these people and there was no longer fairness on a first come first served basis. 

It was basically the social workers’ interpretation of who might need this more. All said and done, it was probably equitable, because those who needed more received more, and those who needed less maybe received less.

Lisa Hehenberger: Do you have any recommendations for PhD students or young scholars who want to get into this field and do this type of ethnography research?

Nevena Radoynovska: My advice, I don’t know how pragmatic it would be, is to not shy away from this kind of work if it’s something that’s important to you. I think young scholars can sometimes get advice on what’s the best strategic way to advance their career and how to complete their work for a deadline. 

And if it’s an issue that really matters to you (this is a topic I was very passionate about even before doing the research) that should drive the research. Practical considerations do come into play; it’s tough emotionally and in terms of spending time getting to know the organisation and building trust with the people there. But I believe it’s ultimately worth it.

So my advice would be to follow your heart in that sense, if it’s something that interests you. There are quite a lot of people who are increasingly doing this kind of work, sometimes in different fields. So you might also reach out to people from anthropology or other disciplines that deal with this issue. Sometimes it’s also about finding that community that can boost your confidence in the worthiness of what you’re doing, why it’s possible and why you should pursue it.

Lisa Hehenberger: Thank you so much Nevena for sharing. 

Nevena Radoynovska: Thank you very much.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.