“The Hotel Study” – bad scholarship that could further institutionalize low-income people

srorallyA UBC psychiatry department report about SRO hotel residents was released in early August. This shocking report, penned by a battalion of doctors and professors, claims that their study applies to 3,000 SRO residents, of which 95% have drug use problems, 74% have mental illnesses, 46% have neurological dysfunction, and 70% have Hepatitis C. If it sounds a bit like shouting fire in the Balmoral bar on cheque day, it’s because it is. The report is very inaccurate and offers a highly misleading profile. Basing itself on a small, select number of SRO residents, it makes broad, false generalization of about thousands of people living in SROs.

The full title of the report is an intimidating mouthful: “The Hotel Study: Multimorbidity in a Community Sample Living in Marginal Housing.” The news release about this study fails to explain that this two-year study was not done of SRO hotel residents at large. It was done in four buildings, with an exclusively and specifically controlled group of 293 residents who live in government-owned, non-profit-run supportive housing hotels.

The cost of admission to supportive housing is to have barriers to housing, like mental health diagnoses, addiction struggles, or a history of homelessness. It should not be surprising, then, that a lot of the residents of these buildings might confess to struggles with mental health and addictions. An ethical researcher would disclose these conditions as a precondition of the study rather than an outcome. At a meeting in June, organized at the Carnegie Community Centre, SRO resident Fraser Stuart said, “This report’s claim that all SRO residents are drug users and people with mental illnesses is like holding a study in an AA meeting and coming out saying 100% of people in society have alcohol addictions.”

“The Hotel Study” is fatally flawed, but the data collected by the hotel study shows how the practice of supportive housing is failing even those who are supposed to benefit from institutional assistance. What’s missing is a much-needed analysis of whether supportive housing institutions are working for people who could benefit from psyche and addictions supports in their homes.

After ten-years of BC Liberal rule the only housing language BC Housing and City Hall know anymore is ‘supportive’ housing, which insists that people are homeless because there is something wrong with them individually. The basic idea of ‘social’ housing, that poverty and homelessness is socially produced and therefore society has a responsibility to provide housing through taxing the rich, is being actively killed off by this individual-blaming (and tax-cutting) philosophy.

Supportive housing is a highly policed and super-surveillance housing model. Residents of supportive housing are typically forced to sign away their legal tenant rights and grant desk clerks the power to enter and search residents’ rooms at any time, to regulate visitors arbitrarily, and to monitor and enforce residents’ eating, medication, and drug and alcohol habits. Many DTES residents who have lived in supportive housing hate it, and a common refrain on the street is “I would rather live on the street than supportive housing.” If, as “The Hotel Study” indicates, supportive housing is not even working for people who struggle with the most severe mental health and addictions, then who is it for? Why not throw the model out? Ironically, “The Hotel Study” seems to present as an argument for more, rather than less, institutionalization.

“The Hotel Study” endorses the dangerous idea that, for poor people, housing is not enough because there is something wrong with them. To believe this finding, one would have to ignore previous studies from the World Health Organization, Vancouver Coastal Health, Health Canada, and many others about social determinants of health – that poverty causes poor mental and physical health and inflames addictions in individuals. “The Hotel Study” is without foundation and tries to extend its findings to people with no relation to the studied group. Using bad science is the wrong way to make broad public policy. Unfortunately, politicians may be tempted to use “The Hotel Study” to justify lowering taxes, cutting social programs and further institutionalizing low-income communities.

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