OPINION18 August 2021

Using participatory methods to boost homelessness research

Inclusion Opinion Public Sector Trends UK

In the second instalment in a series reporting on Walnut Unlimited’s MRS homelessness challenge research, Bessie Pike shares the importance of involving individuals with lived experiences of homelessness.

Person sleeping on sofa

Excitingly, we are now underway with the first stage of our primary research and are soon to conduct our quantitative survey with sofa surfers and those that host them. One critical element which has enhanced our research so far is the inclusion of individuals with lived experiences of homelessness, and sofa surfing specifically. This is a form of participatory research and will carry through the entirety of the project.

Participatory research conducts research with rather than about a group of people. You might have heard terms such as co-production, or peer-led or community-based research, which are different ways to describe giving participants with lived experience a greater role in research.  

Traditionally, in market research there are clear distinctions between researchers and participants. In practice, participants’ influence is minimal and often limited to the data collection stage (taking part in a survey, focus group or interview).

Participatory research draws upon and values the knowledge, experiences, and capabilities of participants at every stage. It aims to bridge the gap between researchers and participants, by balancing out the influence and control researchers have.

We believe lived experience is crucial to creating meaningful insights in this context. While our team are the experts in research methodologies, we are far removed from the experiences of homeless individuals. Our goal is to facilitate an environment which bridges the knowledge gap, turning a participant’s role from passive to active and involved. Eventually, participants become co-researchers and as a collective we can ensure their voices are heard.

Using a combination of existing relationships with homelessness charities and traditional qualitative recruitment, we have hand-picked four people with previous experience of sofa surfing to form our lived experience forum. They will be guiding us on all aspects of our research to ultimately ensure it represents the voices of those who we are aiming to help.

A member of the forum said: “I got involved with this project because I want to make a difference and help people get the support they need.” 

We meet online with our lived experience forum at key points throughout the project:

  • To steer the direction, approach, sample, design and analysis, ensuring we are researching sofa surfers suitably and sensitively
  • To inform and shape questions and topic areas most important for us to understand
  • To add additional context and understanding to the experiences that people face
  • To provide ongoing training sessions throughout the research to teach them the principles of market and social research. Specifically, we wanted to ensure our lived experience members could gain tangible skills and enhance their role as a co-researcher.

The first challenge we faced when designing our quantitative phase was defining our sofa surfer audience. Despite previous research focusing on sofa surfers, there is no fixed definition to describe sofa surfing. Definitions vary depending on the types of sofa surfing experiences the research intends to capture.

However, another challenge is that sofa surfing is not always recognised as a form of homelessness; not just by authorities, but often by those experiencing it themselves. Therefore, we needed to ensure our definition not only resonated with a range of sofa surfing experiences, but also empowered individuals to self-identify with this form of homelessness.

Our lived experience forum has played a key role shaping our definition to be used when quantifying the sofa surfing audience.

 Our learnings so far:

  • Sofa surfing is about having nowhere safe or stable to call home. Whether this is having no fixed abode or tenancy, sofa surfers are often moving between various forms of informal arrangements at one time. Equally, these informal arrangements are not always necessarily safe and stable themselves
  • Sofa surfing doesn’t have to be on a sofa. Instead it includes a wide range of places where individuals lay their head, from sleeping in communal spaces, on the floor, in spare rooms or sharing a room with another person
  • Sofa surfing is not necessarily living with non-family members. While it does include living with close friends, acquaintances or strangers, sofa surfers may also choose to live with other family members temporarily
  • Sofa surfing is not a choice. Often individuals are forced to stay with someone for a period time, because they have nowhere else suitable to live – not just to go
  • When sofa surfing, individuals don’t consider themselves ‘living’ at their hosts’ home. They will often spend minimal time within the accommodation and are unlikely to be contributing to home expenses such as bills or rent.

Incorporating the voices of those who you are researching, and especially those classified as vulnerable or who are less heard in research, helps to deliver more impactful, meaningful research practices. We encourage other researchers to bridge the divide between researchers and participants by utilising a participatory element in their own research projects.

Standby for more outputs from this research as we uncover them, with our participatory lived experience forum helping to steer this project in the right direction.

Bessie Pike is research manager at Walnut Unlimited

The first part of the homelessness series can be read here.