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 escape a life of 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, 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 study is following 24 youth (aged 16-26) from Toronto, Hamilton, and St. Catharines who have experienced homelessness. We are providing all participants with rent subsidies for two years. Half are also receiving mentorship from an adult. We are measuring the effectiveness of this intervention on social and economic inclusion.
Mentors and mentees are meeting in-person at least once a month and touching base via phone/e-mail/text message at least once a week. While these mentors are not ‘natural’ in the sense that they are not pre-existing, organically-formed relationships, the mentors are incorporating the 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 fill out questionnaires that focus on indicators of socioeconomic inclusion like self-esteem, community integration, education, and employment. The principal investigator, Dr. Naomi Thulien, is also meeting with half of the participants in and around their homes every six months, conducting one-on-one interviews.
Our research team is very much committed to community-based research and is drawing on the following community-based participatory action research principles as we conduct the study:
- Research participants are 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
This pilot study will be the first to test the impact of economic and social supports on meaningful socioeconomic inclusion for young people who have experienced homelessness.
Importantly, this study incorporates the perspectives of the community, including young people who have experienced homelessness, who are in the best position to determine what might work best in the context of their lives.
If proven successful, this solution could be scaled up and replicated in other parts of Canada.