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Mary Vaccaro, PhD Student, McMaster University School of Social Work

The Impact of the Dr. Richard Splane Fund for Social Policy in Social Work

PhD candidate in the School of Social Work at McMaster University, Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro, is a recipient of the Dr. Richard Splane Fellowship in Social Policy. She's used the Fellowship to advocate and raise awareness around gender-based homelessness.

Mar 24, 2021



When speaking with PhD candidate in the School of Social Work at McMaster University, Mary-Elizabeth Vaccaro, her passion for helping people will immediately stand out. It isn’t surprising that this dedication led her to pursue a career in social work at McMaster University.  

"I was drawn to McMaster University for many reasons, but in the end, it was McMaster’s unwavering commitment to social justice and the school’s strong emphasis on critical analysis that set their approach to social work education and research apart from other institutions,” says Vaccaro.  

Mary completed her Bachelor of Social Work and her Master of Social Work at McMaster. It was during her undergraduate studies she focused on homelessness among women.

“During the third year of my undergrad, I did a placement at a women's centre for women who were impacted by domestic violence, and I became really interested in the work I saw. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I ended up getting a job at the only shelter in Hamilton that served women without children in their care. I saw that this was an important population that wasn’t receiving much support.”

Last year, in the third year of her PhD, Mary received the Dr. Richard Splane Fellowship in Social Policy. The fellowship resulted from a bequest left by McMaster alumnus and one of Canada’s leading social workers, Dr. Richard Splane. After his passing in 2015, McMaster was one of several institutions entrusted with his legacy and tasked with the responsibility of continuing his life’s work to advance the study and development of social policy in Canada. These impressive goals were the rationale behind the creation of The Dr. Richard Splane Fund for Social Policy in Social Work.

Since receiving the fellowship, Mary has helped to form a Community-University Policy Alliance on gender-based homelessness. Front-line social workers, grassroot advocates, community managers and people who have experienced homelessness make up the Policy Alliance.

“Homelessness is incredibly complex and requires strong partnerships with the many stakeholders in our communities. We partnered with organizations such as the Women's Housing Planning Collaborative in Hamilton, and representatives from the Good Shepherd Centres and Mission Services who are doing such critical work in the Hamilton area,” adds Vaccaro.  

This group has been advocating for the creation of permanent supportive housing for women and gender-diverse people who are not well supported by current housing interventions in Hamilton. They have also been creating a series of policy to practice briefs, which will recommend ways that decision makers can meet the needs of vulnerable groups when developing new housing in the area.

“These briefs will essentially mobilize the good policy we know would lead to these vulnerable groups being meaningfully and sustainably housed. We’re also examining ideas such as harm reduction, low barrier access to services, mutual aid, and community- and trauma-informed supports.”

Through her work in the project, Mary has become one of a growing number of voices mobilizing new solutions to the homelessness crisis in Hamilton. Supported by her professors, she’s written letters to policy makers and newspapers to increase awareness of the issue in Hamilton.

Mary also credits the fellowship for giving the School of Social Work renewed impetus to facilitate policy work at a high level. Through the fellowship, she has supported a new generation of social-policy researchers by involving students in experiential learning, and hiring students as research assistants.

"The only parameters for Dr Splane’s donation was that we use it to advance the study of social policy. I think that at all moments in the project, we've thought critically about how to involve students and social workers who are currently working in the field to re-engage their energies around social policy and advocacy in their work.”

Mary has made a significant impact on her community during a brief period. Her hard work, analytic thinking and compassion are truly a fitting tribute to Dr. Splane’s legacy.