This blog post is part of our series which highlights sessions of the 2018 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Hear Cora MacDonald and Lauren Kimura speak on Tuesday, November 6th at 3:30 PM. Learn more about this upcoming conference presented by CAEH. 

To channel more direct involvement of people with lived experience (PWLE) in research, a growing number of projects are adopting a ‘peer research’ approach in which members of the target population participate in some or all aspects of the research process. Peer research approaches have been used for researching historically marginalized communities and issues, including HIV/AIDS, drug use, and homelessness. The benefits of meaningfully including peers in research design and delivery are vast. Peers can provide extensive “insider” knowledge about the subjectivities of those experiencing social and health issues, and can positively influence the quality and impact of research. Likewise, hiring and supporting peers in research capacities can provide them with opportunities for training and work experience, enabling the development of new skills and knowledge.

Despite clear advantages to involving peers in different aspects of the research process, consideration for the time, resources and supports required to meaningfully support peers in a safe, appropriate and ethical manner is often overlooked in the initial planning and early implementation of research programs. In the At Home/Chez Soi study, researchers and field interviewers identified time-allocation and a lack of resources as the biggest obstacles for engaging adults with lived experience of homelessness and mental illness as members of various project research teams. Researchers in a multi-method HIV community-based research study similarly found that inadequate infrastructure and support contributed to distinct challenges for peer research assistants conducting research.

In this presentation, we will share some of the challenges encountered and learning derived as research leads supporting research assistants with lived experience of homelessness working on a community-based, randomized, controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of Housing First interventions for youth experiencing homelessness.  We will review and reflect on our ongoing journey to collaboratively develop strategies to best support research assistants with lived experience of homelessness in their work and within our organization.

Since April 2017, Making the Shift – a partnership between A Way Home Canada (AWHC) and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), with the support of MaRS Centre for Impact Investing (MaRS) – has been reimagining our response to youth homelessness through social innovation. As a project within Making the Shift, the Ottawa Housing First for Youth demonstration project was launched in February 2018, the goal of the Making the Shift: Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) Demonstration Project(s) is to investigate the effects of Housing First for youth experiencing homelessness. One of the central tenets of ending homelessness and Housing First is the belief that people experiencing or with experience of homelessness should be engaged in the decisions, policies and evaluation of the programs that impact them. A s a result, priority consideration for research assistant positions was given to people with lived experience of homelessness. It became clear early in the implementation of the project that Making the Shift needed to assess how best to support PWLE in multi-method research processes.

We found that practices informed by the following attributes were the most effective for supporting peers in research capacities:

  • Flexibility/Individualization: PLWE of homelessness may have different working styles and needs than the general working public. The road to success is not a one-size-fits-all; it is important to tailor responsibilities and supports to meet staff where they are.
  • Mentorship: On-going formal and informal mentorship is vital to meaningfully supporting individuals in the field and with tasks related to the research process. Stable, dependable, and resilient mentorship and support can make all the difference.
  • Reciprocal learning: PLWE and those supporting them learn from one another. We support staff by providing context and guidance on research protocols in addition to practical skills in methods and data analysis. Researchers with lived experience provide invaluable knowledge on how to interact with, engage with, and support participants.

This sneak peak of our presentation for CAEH 2018 highlights attributes that ought to guide practical strategies for supporting people with lived experience in research capacities and beyond. We hope that our reflections and recommendations will be adapted and incorporated by others in both research and service provision.

Phase One of Making the Shift, a Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, is funded in part by the Government of Canada's Youth Employment Strategy.