When lived experience fuels research: Addressing youth homelessness in schools

4 MIN READ
While other Ottawa teens worried about their grades before going to sleep in a warm bed, both Charlotte and Bailey spent their days struggling to find a place to sleep at night. 

“I’ve lived in multiple different places, from behind houses to stairwells,” says Bailey, who became homeless after leaving home at 16 years old to escape an unhealthy family environment. “The hardest part is not knowing where you are going to go the next day. You are living in the now.”

While battling drug addiction and mental health challenges, Bailey says he felt lonely, sad and empty. He added he knew little about what local resources were available to help him, making his time on the streets very difficult.

Bailey is just one of the hundreds of youth in Ottawa who has experienced the challenges associated with homelessness. At age 15, Charlotte got kicked out of the house by her parents and quickly found herself without a place to live.

“It was a big shock for me because I didn’t know it could really happen to a young person. I felt completely alone and I didn’t know who to ask for help,” she says. “At one point, I was sitting in jail realizing I’m probably going to die . . . There was just no hope for me anymore.”

Charlotte and Bailey’s stories are similar to many other young people in our region. More than 800 Ottawa youth used emergency shelters in 2017, according to Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa’s annual Progress Report. In addition, an A Way Home Ottawa report notes that violence accounts for at least 60 per cent of the reasons young people are forced to leave home.

If there is no early intervention, research shows that young people can be entrenched in life on the streets within two months. Though this is the reality for many youth in Ottawa, Charlotte and Bailey were fortunate to be able to eventually find employment, support and a home. 

“I’m quite happy with where my life is now,” says Bailey, who now has a full-time job. “I’ve come a long way from where I was.”

Now a master’s student at Carleton University, Charlotte has gained experience being a peer researcher. While interviewing homeless youth, she realized that the role of schools and teachers was a consistent feature in the experience of homeless youth, which in turn inspired the research she is currently working on.

Supported by United Way East Ontario—as part of an ongoing partnership with Mitacs Canada—the research looks at the school-based experiences of young people in Ottawa. It aims to assess how involved local schools are in responding to youth who may be at-risk of homelessness, and how they can work to prevent and intervene successfully.  

“Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly gave me the opportunity to become a peer researcher,” says Charlotte. “Without her, I had no direction – I was just in school doing a degree that I had no idea where, if anywhere, it would take me. She gave me the opportunity during third year where I could finally see a future in helping the people I left behind on the streets, or prevent others from getting there. I owe Jackie a lot, and this Mitacs research wouldn’t be possible without her expertise and dedication.”

Bailey was hired as an advisor on this project, working alongside Charlotte and a team of five people who were formerly or are currently homeless. The group provides continuous feedback on findings and develops student workshops to educate young people and teachers on homelessness. The project also allows those who have or are currently experiencing youth homelessness to come together in ways that they might not have had the chance to otherwise.

“We are giving each other hope and we really are working towards something positive for once. Usually we meet each other in shelters or in bad situations. This is one really great way to bring us all together and have hope for our friends who are still struggling on the streets.”

This research is important, she adds, because schools aren’t talking about homelessness enough. If there is more discussion on youth homelessness within these settings, Charlotte says it can help end stigmas surrounding it, educate on the signs and signals, and hopefully prevent or intervene on behalf of youth before their situation worsens.  

“Young people don’t know it’s a possibility until it actually happens to them,” she says, “and when it does happen to them, they don’t know what to do.”

Bailey says he agrees that there is a lack of conversation about youth homelessness in schools, and he hopes that by sharing his experiences he will help others who are going through similar challenges. 

“If we can prevent youth homelessness, then there is a lot of great things that can happen in this world,” he says, adding that he is looking to become a youth support worker.

Moving forward, Charlotte says one thing she wants people to know about youth homelessness is that all of the youth she has spoken to want to finish school and all have hopes and dreams.

“I want people to be helped . . . I want them to succeed. Everybody has a place in this life.”

“They’re trying every day to survive and they’re all hopeful for their futures,” she says. “I think as a community we have the responsibility to not let that hope die—to keep it alive and to help them succeed and achieve those goals.”

Working with the youth advisory team at United Way East Ontario is one of the most fulfilling parts of the research, according to Charlotte. It exhibits that when a community rallies to end homelessness, a better future becomes possible.

“It shows instant impact from research and funding,” she says. “We are already making a difference.”

United Way believes it’s so important to get at the root of the issue and create long-term solutions that end youth homelessness—vital work that has the power to not only save lives, but also shut the door to chronic adult homelessness.

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