Research profile: Manuel Riemer

Manuel Riemer, associate professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University has, of late, been completing research work on the demographic most vulnerable to the effects of global climate change – the homeless. His research, completed in partnership with University of Waterloo human geography professor Johanna Wandel, examines the direct effects of climate variations on those experiencing homelessness in Waterloo Region.

“My background is in community psychology and my research interest is in the environmental area,” Riemer explained of his interest in the topic. The study, conducted using interviews with 48 individuals, looked at how vulnerable the local homeless population is to the elements currently, how they cope and how changes in climate could affect them and existing support systems.

The interviews, conducted during the summer of 2009, were the result of co-operation with community groups to seek out participants and included two peer researchers who had been homeless in the past and could help clarify the subjects’ experiences the based on their own.

Riemer called the number of people the researchers were able to interview “significant”. “The estimate for the group of absolute homeless is about 50-70 people in Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge,” he said. “That’s an estimate of course but having 48 is pretty close and it’s not an easy population to get a hold of. I think the key to our success there was working with these peer researchers because they knew a lot of people and the places they would gather.”

The participants were asked what weather conditions they found most problematic and their coping strategies. Riemer noted that there were few surprises with the findings. “When we have presented these results to different service agencies they weren’t too surprised either,” he said. Riemer added that those interviewed expressed difficulties with temperature year-round. “One thing we found was how they struggle with extreme cold in the summer.”

Future climate change projections included in the report not simply temperature increases, which could actually be beneficial for the homeless during the winter months in Waterloo, but more importantly increased precipitation (by up to 20 per cent in the next quarter century) and unpredictable weather patterns. “Rain in general was one of the biggest problems they reported and with global climate change you definitely have a lot more extreme weather patterns also in terms of rainfall,” Riemer said. “It’s going to be harder and harder for them to deal with it unless we put protective measures in place.”

“The process we’re now in is what to do with the findings,” Riemer said. The results of the study were brought back and presented to those in the homeless community to confirm the findings and the report was presented to local decision and policy-makers in a workshop Nov. 22. “The region will take that [workshop] and put it into some long-term planning they’re doing in February,” he said.