New film explores seniors and homelessness

Seniors are a growing percentage of the homeless population, and some of their stories are explored in a new documentary.

Documentary is part of Third Action Film Fest, looking at different facets of aging

The latest film by director Victoria Burns is about homeless seniors.

Documentary filmmaker Victoria Burns was well aware of the need to show sensitivity and restraint on the topic of homeless senior citizens, owing in part to her past experience as a social worker.

In the process of talking to actual seniors who have experienced homelessness, as part of research for her new film Beyond Housing, she discovered they couldn't wait to share their stories.

A nine minute version of Beyond Housing is screening Saturday at the Third Action Film Festival.

Ethical research was key

"With this type of research, we had to go through ethics, because it was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council," Burns said in a Friday interview with Terri Campbell on The Homestretch.

"There's often concern that these quote unquote vulnerable populations … we have to protect their anonymity and everything.

"What we found is that there were actually seven older adults we interviewed over the course of two years and they were really interested in sharing their stories and raising awareness about these issues," she added.

"It challenges that idea of vulnerability, because if you were to meet these individuals — they are just firecrackers."

The film focuses on two seniors, Hilary and George, and the journeys they took throughout their lives as they bounce in and out of homelessness.

Hilary is an LGBTQ senior, who in the film describes longing for a space she can feel safe in.

"Safe means home," Hilary says in the film.

Burns was struck by Hilary's powerful will and personal determination.

"Hilary's done amazing work for the LGBTQ community here in Calgary and for poverty reduction," said Burns, who is an associate professor of social work at the University of Calgary.

Director Victoria Burns examined the stories of seven Calgary seniors who have experienced homelessness in Beyond Housing, her new film. (Victoria Burns)

Another person profiled is George, a Pakistani-Canadian who says in the film he fell into homelessness a couple of years after arriving in Canada.

"George was very excited to tell his story and one of the last conversations I had with him, he wanted a copy for his mother who is in Pakistan who he spoke to on the phone every day," she said.

George died of a heart attack last year.

Burns said her interest in chronicling the stories of senior homelessness came from a lifetime of working in social services.

"When I did my PhD, it was actually inspired by the [homeless] community because the shelters in Montreal were filling up with people over 50," she said.

"We're [living] in a context of demographic aging so there's about 50 per cent of emergency shelter users across Canada including Calgary who are now aged 50 and over and have nowhere to go," she said. "So the aim [of the film] is to raise awareness about the issue … [so seniors can] get the help they need and the type of housing that they need."

Film helps address senior isolation

In both stories, Burns found as much hope as there is struggle. Hilary meets a woman, falls in love — and finds a home.

George gets a bed in a dorm at the Peter Coyle residence in downtown Calgary, where he finds a community and a sense of home for the last 10 years of his life.

Burns said she also discovered turning the camera on homeless seniors gave them one thing that a lot of later stage lives are missing: undivided attention.

"A lot of the older folks don't have that opportunity anymore," she said.

"That's sort of a common denominator — the isolation especially, when you're homeless and you're rejected from society. So to have a filmmaker come in and be interested  in your story is quite, I think, an exciting experience."

With files from The Homestretch


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:


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