During longitudinal studies, it is common for researchers to worry about losing participants. The longer a trial goes on, the more that risk increases and it becomes difficult to retain participants. Regarding participant retention in Canada, there is a lot of research available on clinical and health interventions, however, there is less focus on retention in community-based housing work. 

In this blog, we will explore how COVID-19 affected our retention strategies using the Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) Demonstration Project as a case study. We will also share some of the lessons we learnt while amending our strategy to help keep youth participants engaged in our research.

Case Study: Housing First for Youth Project

Co-led by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada, the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS) is a social innovation lab that focuses on preventing and ending homelessness for youth ages 16-24 in Ottawa and Toronto. The Ottawa site is currently in the process of wrapping up its 4th year of the Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) project. HF4Y is a rights-based approach that addresses youth homelessness by providing young people with age-appropriate supports, including housing. A strategy was developed for this MtS DEMS project based on previous research to try and maximize participation. However, due to the onset of COVID-19, changes to the strategy had to be made. 

Impact of COVID-19 on Research:

The COVID-19 pandemic has had numerous impacts on our research on HF4Y, including changes to our retention strategy. It added challenges such as:

  • Increased stress on young participants
  • Reduced ability for researchers to access physical copies of data
  • Removed access to traditional locations where youth were found (social housing, shelters, etc.). 

However, in other ways, the pandemic helped increase participation in this research. This speaks to the importance of remaining flexible and reducing barriers to participation. 

With everyone staying at home under “lockdown” rules, more youth were available to speak with researchers. A heavier reliance on technology meant more ways to communicate with participants (Skype, Zoom, phone, Messenger call). It also saved a lot of time for both participants and researchers as it eliminated travel time for data collection. 

Lessons Learned:

Based on our experiences while conducting this research both before and during the pandemic, we would like to recommend the following:

  • Flexibility: Offering flexible interview times and methods of data collection (phone, text, email) can help reach youth who are working or busy with school or parenting responsibilities. They can participate in a way that suits them better. 
  • Relationships: Creating a positive working relationship with youth is incredibly important. Ideally, researchers should create a balance between maintaining consistent contact while also respecting boundaries. If a team member is leaving their position, they should make sure that they give plenty of notice to the participants they have been working with and introduce them to the new researcher.
  • Project Name: Having a simple, catchy name for your study will make it more memorable for youth. They will know exactly what you are reaching out for, and it will be less confusing if a lot of time has passed since the last check-in. 
  • Lived Experience: A team is only made stronger by including people with lived experience of homelessness and housing instability. They can offer insight into the difficulties of the participants’ situations and can help create a project that is respectful of the youth’s experiences.
  • Meaningfulness: Researchers should remind youth why this work is being done and that they are helping us to better support them in the future. Researchers should try to reassure participants that they should not feel any guilt or shame when they aren’t able to participate or keep up with the interview schedule. It is helpful to offer other opportunities for them to be meaningfully engaged in the work (focus groups, feedback on reports, the possibility to speak at an event, etc.).
  • Creativity: Using different online tools can help with both the organization of a project and keeping participants engaged. Social media is a great tool to use when working with this population because youth can access their accounts from any device. Connecting with youth on social media/via email and avoiding professional language when reaching out can be very helpful in breaking down barriers.
  • Feedback: It is helpful for researchers to get feedback from youth on the retention strategy before starting a research project. They will let you know where improvements can be made. It is also useful to have an exit interview when youth leave a study to understand their reasons for leaving and allow changes to be made to help other participants going forward.   

As found in a recent meta-analysis and systematic review, a greater number of strategies was not the answer to retaining participants. It was the strategies like the ones mentioned above that aim to reduce barriers to participation that seemed to work best for maximizing retention. Keeping this in mind, along with the concept of meaningful engagement and partnership with youth is a promising combination for fruitful research.

To learn more about the MtS DEMS H4FY project visit: https://makingtheshiftinc.ca/approach/making-the-shift-demonstration-lab/ or email COH thehub@edu.yorku.ca & AWHC info@awayhome.ca