While schools can be a powerful site of homelessness prevention, they are also a potential site of harm for many young people, particularly youth with disabilities and mental health struggles, youth from poverty, Indigenous youth, Black youth, and youth navigating homophobia and transphobia. However, youth see schools as an important site where homelessness prevention can happen. This suggests that while educational institutions have a long way to go in order to realize their potential, they should be an important part of prevention efforts.
This blog will explore some of the ways that schools can contribute to homelessness prevention efforts based on findings from a participatory research project in Tio’tiá:ke/Montréal called Youth Action Research Revolution (YARR).
Overview of Youth Action Research Revolution
To understand the ways that schools can prevent youth homelessness, it is important that we learn from the young people most impacted by educational disengagement, housing precarity, and systemic discrimination.
Our research was carried out collaboratively and led by people with lived experience of homelessness, mobilizing a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) approach. All phases of research were undertaken with a team of 6 university and community researchers, 5 of whom have lived and/or living experiences of homelessness. We spoke with 38 young people up to 3 times and asked about their experiences in schools, as well as other state institutions such as the child welfare, criminal justice, health and mental healthcare, and housing systems.
What are youth saying?
Almost all of the young people we spoke with shared experiences with schools as part of their educational trajectory. Many of these young people saw schools as a key place where their homelessness may have been prevented.
According to our findings which emerged from working with youth with lived experience:
- The symptoms of their homelessness and/or mental health struggles were often interpreted as “bad” behaviour by teachers and educational staff. For this reason, many of these youth developed a lack of trust in school staff and teachers, often grounded in intergenerational mistrust of educational institutions. Based on this finding, it can be assumed that even if interventions were available, students may not feel safe accessing them. In many cases, the only solution that young people knew was available was connection to child welfare systems or criminal justice systems, leading them to hide signs that they may be at risk of homelessness out of fear of being separated from their family or institutionalized.
- There is a significant disconnect between what schools imagine is happening (through policy and practice) and the real experiences of young people
- Individual educators’ judgment was recognized as key to supporting young people and often seen as life-saving if executed at the right time to support youth. However, many youth shared that in their experience the unclear processes and murky avenues in accessing accommodations led to discrimination and stigma.
- Frequently, youth shared that they felt like they were being misdiagnosed, or were unable to receive a diagnosis, for learning disabilities and mental health challenges, due to the cost of assessments or limited resources in schools. In many cases, these diagnoses were necessary to access academic and other accommodations.
- Youth shared that they saw the understaffing and under-resourcing of schools as a barrier to achieving school-based intervention or prevention and that this observation often meant that students were unlikely to reach out since they did not want to take up the limited resources available.
- Youth reported significant experiences of discrimination based on race, sexuality, gender, mental health, and language while at school which, often led young people to become disconnected from their schools well before they had experiences of homelessness.
Policy Landscape in Québec
Across Canada, educational policies differ by province and territory, meaning that it is difficult to ensure a unified, national response to youth homelessness in schools. While there are currently no comprehensive policies addressing homelessness within the Ministry of Education in Québec or in Canada in general, we can see some promising examples of how education is considered within some homelessness policies in Québec (where this research took place), as well as policies that broadly speak to the need to address diverse needs of youth, wellness, and student success.
- Within Québec’s Educational Act (I-13, 3) schools are responsible for the “harmonious integration” of youth with physical, intellectual, and learning disabilities.
- Québec’s Policy on Educational Success (2017) states that “the school system is expected to promote equal opportunity and social equity, counter exclusion and various forms of violence, and help fight poverty.”
- In Québec’s National Policy on Homelessness: Working Together to Avoid the Streets, there is mention of educational disengagement as a key individual risk factor that can lead to homelessness and social isolation.
In these policies, we see that the economic, material, intellectual, mental health, and housing needs of young people are understood to have an impact on their learning trajectories. This provides a starting place to more deeply consider the role of schools in preventing youth homelessness.
What do youth recommend?
Young people emphasized the need to bridge policy and practice with the experiences of youth navigating housing precarity–and grounded all recommendations for action in a primary call to listen to youth with lived experience, and believe that they are experts in their own realities. They called for an understanding of how homelessness and educational disengagement exists within the broader context of structural and systemic discrimination, including white supremacy, heteronormativity, and settler-colonialism. The experiences they shared suggest that any interventions must deal with the warranted and long-standing distrust that many communities have of educational institutions, including their partnerships with child protection services and police.
YARR developed recommendations for Canadian schools to better understand and support youth who may experience or be experiencing homelessness including (from Malenfant, Nichols, Adamovicz, Narcisse, Plamondon & Watchorn, 2022):
- Listen to young people, and believe what they say. Employ approaches that meet youth where they are at in a non-judgmental way.
- Teachers must be trained and provided with the resources needed to understand the realities of youth homelessness, including what this looks like for diverse youth (2SLGBTQIA+ youth, Indigenous youth, Black youth, youth of colour, newcomer youth, and youth from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds).
- The curriculum should include topics on homelessness, combating the stigmatization of homelessness as well as supporting youth who may be at risk of housing precarity to identify their own situations.
- Diversity in the representation of teachers, staff, and support workers in schools.
- Implement options for alternative and flexible programming before young people experience homelessness or need, including multiple points of entry and access to supports.
- Creating well-resourced opportunities for peers to support and learn from one another. YARR recommends building on the existing work young people are doing to effectively create safe and accessible ways of addressing youth homelessness in schools.