Ethical Considerations

In this project, we worked with many guests of Service Dining Rooms (SDR). SDR’s guest population is comprised mostly of homeless individuals and street people. While working with them, it was important to take particular care to avoid causing any negative reactions since many street people have experienced difficult, sensitive experiences and challenges unique to the street community. Since we did not have experience working with the street community, we consulted the York University Human Participants Review Committee “Guidelines for Conducting Research with People who are Homeless” and work by researchers Paddi O’Hara and Vivien Runnels for guidance (O’Hara & Runnels, 2012; Office of Research Ethics, 2010). From these studies, we considered four main categories in applying sufficient ethical standards to this project.

The first category involves the ethical issue of viewing homeless individuals as inferior to non-homeless individuals. Within this category, it is important to consider that homeless individuals often experience discriminations and are ostracized from society, so any judgment or exclusionary attitude can further alienate them. Additionally, in an interview or discussion, a suggestion from a street person can be regarded as less important due to lower education status; also, an imbalance of power can be noticeable due to economic status. To deal with these issues, we used these considerations:

  • Avoid judgments shown through facial expression, voice tone, or language
  • Use empathy in interviews to allow the interviewee to feel more comfortable and free for expression
  • Appreciate any input and give encouraging responses
  • Dress modestly, avoiding flashy jewelry and attire

The second category involves the need to treat street people as individual human beings. Street people are often stereotyped or grouped together as one entity, causing negative generalizations to form. Furthermore, in an interview, every person has a different story, and it is important to understand that some people will not want to discuss their experiences because it may bring up harsh feelings or memories, often causing distress. These considerations were used to treat everyone as an individual:

  • Remove biases or expectations when entering a conversation
  • Record observations from an interview or discussion honestly and accurately
  • Exercise caution and awareness in recognizing when questions are not appropriate
  • Choose a safe environment and time for an interview that accounts for personal space

The third category involves the exploitation of street community members without proper compensation or consent. Street community members may not always be able to properly complete written consent forms. Also, street people may not receive proper compensation for their time. In regard to exploitation, compensation, and consent, these considerations were used:

  • Work with street people through careful listening and thoughtful conversation to collaboratively implement projects for the benefit of both parties
  • Ensure a clear letter of intent that is discussed and agreed upon before any information is shared or published
  • Make sure informed consent is collected, if necessary and appropriate, and stored in an organized, safe place

The final category involves the privacy of individuals. To a street person, privacy guidelines can often be unclear. Moreover, street people may not wish any images or photographs to be revealed. To consider the sensitive topic of privacy, we made sure to:

  • Make clear to SDR staff, co-researchers, and guests how their statements will be utilized and to what extent information may be shared
  • Ensure that street community members and other SDR guests are promised anonymity unless they explicitly agree to our use of the information they provide
  • Communicate any use of images of street community members with subject in the image and agree to consent

By following these standards, and communicating these standards effectively with all stakeholders, the SDR Team incorporated a necessary consideration of ethics throughout the project.