Click here to learn more about Searching for Home, the companion documentary to this study.
We know a great deal about the risk factors associated with young people entering and becoming entrenched in street life but know much less about how to facilitate and sustain transitions off the streets. In fact, in the peer-reviewed literature, the evidence is scarce to non-existent for rigorous interventions targeting housing outcomes, life trajectories, quality of life, and socioeconomic inclusion for young people who have experienced homelessness.
Understanding how to create and support successful pathways out of homelessness is crucial, because once youth become entrenched in street life, it becomes much harder for them to exit homelessness and persistent poverty.
Intuitively, it may seem that one important way to improve the life trajectories of young people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness is to provide them with a home. However, from the limited research that has been done in this area, we know that these young people continue to experience significant challenges – particularly when it comes to social and economic inclusion – even after they are ‘successfully’ housed.
There is some emerging evidence on the benefits of “natural mentors” – generally defined as an important, encouraging, “coach-like,” non-parental adult that exists in a youth’s social network – that may be transferrable to youth who have experienced homelessness. Research shows that young people connected with a natural mentor have positive outcomes, particularly in the areas of social and emotional development, and academic and vocational functioning.
What might work to improve the life trajectories of young people who have experienced homelessness?
This pilot study followed 24 youth (aged 18-26) from Toronto, Hamilton, and St. Catharines who had experienced homelessness. We provided all participants with portable rent subsidies (young people could live in a location of their choice) for two years. Half also received mentorship from an adult. We measured the effectiveness of the intervention on social and economic inclusion. Participant enrollment began in March 2019 and participants were followed for 2.5 years.
Prior to pandemic-related restrictions beginning in March 2020, mentors and mentees were instructed to connect in-person at least once a month and touch base via phone/e-mail/text message at least once a week. After March 2020, in-person meetings moved to video or phone and remained that way for the rest of the study.
While study mentors were not “natural” in the sense that they were not pre-existing, organically-formed relationships, the mentors were instructed to try and incorporate key relationship-based components of natural mentoring (e.g., a genuine interest in the mentee’s well-being and belief in their ability to succeed, a non-judgmental attitude and a willingness to listen), with a strong emphasis on a strengths-based approach (i.e., focus on the young person’s strengths as opposed to their limitations) and the connection of participants to larger social networks (including education and employment).
Every six months, participants filled out questionnaires that focused on indicators of socioeconomic inclusion like self-esteem, community integration, education, and employment. The principal investigator, Dr. Naomi Thulien, also met with half of the participants every six months, conducting one-on-one interviews. Data collection concluded in March 2022.
Our research team is very much committed to community-based research and drew on the following community-based participatory action research principles as we conducted the study:
- Research participants were viewed as experts in their own lives
- Concerted effort to reduce/eliminate power imbalances between the researchers and the community
- Equal value placed on academic (researcher) knowledge and experiential (community agency/youth) knowledge
- Commitment to producing practical, “actionable” data to build community capacity and improve/transform the lives of the research participants
- Duty to remain invested with the community beyond the life of the research project
Key Findings and Next Steps
The COVID-19 pandemic made it hard for our mentors and mentees to connect and likely impacted our study findings. On average, socioeconomic inclusion outcomes remained stable for all young people who participated in the study; however, there were no significant improvements in the group who received mentorship compared to the group who did not receive mentorship. We believe the stable outcomes despite pandemic-related challenges may have been due to the provision of portable rent subsidies to all participants.
Other interesting findings were that young people with informal mentors (like the “natural, coach-like” mentors describe above) at baseline showed significant improvements in psychological community integration compared to the group with no informal mentors at baseline. Also, 25% of our participants chose to move back home and used the rent subsidies to pay rent to a family member.
Through the qualitative interviews we saw that identity capital – having a sense of purpose, control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem – seemed to play an important role in socioeconomic inclusion; however, identity capital appeared to be minimally impacted by formal study mentorship or relative housing stability.
Our next study – Transitioning Youth Out of Homelessness 2.0 – will be similar to our first study except we will offer an identity capital intervention instead of mentorship. Forty young people who have experienced homelessness will be offered portable rent subsidies for one year; half will be randomly assigned a co-designed (with youth from our first study) leadership guide + a coach. Our primary aim is to see if this intervention is feasible for and acceptable to study participants.
If the pilot study shows promise, our plan is to test the intervention on a larger scale and in other provinces. This novel co-designed intervention could transform the way we conceptualize how to sustain successful exits for youth exiting homelessness.
Searching For Home
Searching For Home is a companion documentary to the Transitioning Youth Out of Homelessness study. Amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film follows three young people as they transition out of homelessness, navigating relationships, school, and family along the way. Watch the film here.