The role of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness is to do just that, observe. Creating a survey to gather information and data which will be used to understand a particular subject is one way to “observe” a problem. It’s a science, and the selection of questions, scales, and peer-reviewed measures is a critical aspect in deciding how to approach quantitative data. 

Taking it one step further, from the passive observation of people, pain, and questions, to interactive and genuine engagement can help us gain more fulsome insights into the lives of research participants while preserving dignity. Importantly, this shift allows us to foster better relationships between the researcher and the "researched.” We can think of this work as the crafting of a conversation that can breathe life into the data we’ve gathered in a way that’s also more collaborative and mindful.

When it comes to the task of creating surveys, we all come at it differently: with different ideas, thoughts, feelings, intentions, and processes. How we approach, engage with, and ultimately sculpt pieces of our, and others’ labour is intricately connected with our past and present, who we are as individuals, and how we’ve learned and practiced interacting with the world and others around us.

All parts of our work benefit from having input from a range of people, especially from those of us who have lived/living experiences relevant to the people being asked to give in the surveys. These lived/living experiences are typically varied, layered, related to each other and yet still distinct from person to person. These perspectives deserve to be incorporated into every conversation involving research with people who’ve been marginalized and under-resourced.

Below are 6 tips for researchers on how to bring intention and care into their research when creating surveys for youth who are experiencing, or have experienced homelessness:

Consider your relationship with the work and with participants

Those of us who come to this work with lived/living experiences of homelessness may approach it in a vastly different way than those who don’t. When I, someone who has lived experience of homelessness and share other similar experiences with many of the youth we survey at the COH, come to the work - whether it’s a meeting, an interview, or the creation of a new survey, I come to it with a visceral understanding of the realities and the concept of relationship. Various relationships: with participants, my coworkers, myself, systems, and the survey itself are in my thoughts from the beginning. 

Everyone enters the work with a relationship, whether they realize it or not. I think it’s just more felt for those of us with these experiences than those without. It’s vital for researchers to spend time reflecting on these relationships, their impacts, how they can be held with care, and how the relationships can all come together to be formed into mutually-beneficial, non-extractive engagement. So – the first tip is to consider the relationships that you’re a part of when you begin designing a survey, which may not be obvious to you at first. This practice may not feel natural at first, considering the society and systems we exist in. Ask yourself: “How have I, and how do I want to show up in these relationships?”

1. Study the questions from the participant’s point of view

Look closely at the questions you’re asking youth. Reflect on your own position in relation to these questions. I recommend taking the survey yourself as a reflective practice. Consider what youth might say or how participants may feel taking the survey, and how this might differ from your experience. What are you/your organization asking youth and why? Are you simply looking to check boxes? Youth will see through this practice, and you won’t get full, honest answers or quality data. Most importantly, you will be engaging in unauthentic, extractive practices and perpetuating violence on marginalized and targeted youth. 

Keep in mind that you’re talking to another person through the survey. Do this work with intent and while cognizant of the many relationships in place. The questions may grow bigger, but this thought process is important and vital to the integrity of your efforts. Surveys aren’t innocent papers, boxes, scales, documents or forms that exist on their own. They’re an extension of your thoughts and a type of discussion. Even a seemingly simple survey has the potential to steer research in the right, or wrong, direction.

2. Value People with Lived/Living Experience (PWLLE)’s perspective and act

If you claim you want to hear the youth’s opinions and perspectives, do you ask for these in the survey? Do you value the knowledge youth share in the same way you value that of someone with a PhD or that of service providers? How about coworkers with lived/living experience of homelessness who’ve already been given at least a small platform? Is this reflected in how you pay people and where you cut your budget? Is it reflected in how you show up with people and how you talk to people? Are you surprised or impressed by a youth’s or PWLLE’s ability to empathize, understand complex ideas and articulate themselves? Ask yourself why. Are you doing what you say and taking these learnings a step further?

3. Be intentional about inclusion criteria and mindful of exclusionary practices

Who’s excluded and why? Consider how you decide on exclusionary criteria and how these may be informed by biases. This includes conscious and written biases, such as a requirement to participate in the study for a predetermined timeframe, or during certain hours. It’s also inclusive of unconscious decisions, such as excluding those who are incarcerated and therefore assumed unable to participate while forcibly confined. Assessing consent is another area in which biases can manifest, often against people struggling with substance use. This terrain is much more muddled than it may originally seem, with lots of factors to consider, collaborative thought, and reflective uncovering to be done.

Youth participants as well as the staff resourcing the study should have a range of intersecting identities. Consider situational factors and those who have been historically invisibilized and continuously left out. I’ve seen this happen to people who’ve been through incarceration, gendered and/or family violence, violent experiences that don’t fit neatly in a “box,” racialization, and the often-transient nature of youth homelessness, people who are without childcare (remember, youth can be parents/caregivers), and people with other accessibility needs.

4. Use clear language to increase reliability and validity

Be mindful of language and ensure questions are communicated clearly because words and phrases possess a range of meanings, leading them to be frequently interpreted differently amongst people. Poorly worded or unclear questions can result in responses that decrease both the reliability and validity of the research. For instance, language can be vague when asking about a participant’s housing situation (stable vs. unstable housing, and temporary vs. permanent housing) or employment status (casual vs. set hours, and full-time vs. part-time). Exploring further, do housing situation and employment status fully speak to what is most beneficial to capture? What about quality of life? How is this measured? Does it speak to the “success” of a program?  What is important in the lives and the eyes of youth? 

In the example of employment, youth may wonder what is meant by “casual” work. Does this include under-the-table, occasional work? What about under-the-table work that is stigmatized or undervalued (such as sex work, selling drugs, informal childcare, doing hair and nails)? Are you looking at work in the form of trade, or strictly wages? What about “legitimate” work experiences? What do you mean by “legitimate”? Do you want to differentiate between all these types of work? How will you communicate this to participants to ensure they know what information you’re asking of them?

Clear questions that have been well thought out and developed with care are essential for the reliability, validity, and health of the research. Questions should not be developed in haste, from a place of detachment, or out of habit. Consider justifications for your chosen definitions, questions, and approach. Ultimately, and most importantly, language can place undue harm on people who are subjects of the study. How do you plan to reach a decision on the most appropriate interpretation of the terms and measures used going forward?

5. Direct cash remuneration is the respectful way forward

Youth often appreciate receiving direct cash. Whether it’s intended or not, gift cards can give the impression that we don’t trust youth and/or PWLLE to make their own choices regarding how to spend their money. This is something that youth who've been under-resourced are faced with every day. Coming from researchers,  it could compromise the relationships built with the youth. The message, intentional or not – would be felt by the youth. Again, highlights the importance of knowing that this practice can cause harm to participants.

Your respect and appreciation for the participant’s time and effort are reflected in how you compensate. Factor in the youth’s time spent preparing prior to, during, and decompressing/processing after the interview, emotional labour, trauma, and the nature of their sharing. While there are many reasons why cash may be preferable over gift cards, the bottom line is that remuneration with cash over gift cards is a more respectful way to compensate for any projects that work with people who are or have been under-resourced.

6. Appoint PWLLE to lead this work

Many researchers, service providers, and PWLLE occupy more than one of these spaces. As is the nature of the work, many of us PWLLE are a step ahead, already aware of the relationships with which we engage when creating surveys and collaborating in the field. PWLLE who are not also service providers or researchers, should share power in every stage of the project too. Read the resources at the end of this blog, consult with a number of PWLLE who have a range of lived/living experiences, and move toward community-based, participatory action research. Before you begin typing out any kind of survey intended for youth who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness, ask yourself this question, arguably one of the most important: Are PWLLE leading this work?