When you’re struggling with precarious housing, your trajectory might look very different than that of young people who are stably housed. Charlotte and I know first-hand how not having a stable home can impact everything from how well you do in school, to if you can make it to school at all. Housing shapes employment options, one’s capacity to meet employer demands, one’s mental health and more. Our own, and others’ experiences of homelessness and housing instability are generally hallmarked by seemingly insurmountable barriers to opportunity fueled by lack of material resources, social exclusion and structural social inequality. Interestingly, while both of us make up the more than 50% of homeless youth who experience ‘dropping-out’ (Gaetz, 2014), we’ve also seen the ways that supported access to schooling and work can assist youth in developing greater stability, and empower them to make a difference in the lives of others.

Today, Charlotte, an MA Sociology Student at Carleton University, identifies as a Peer Researcher (or, as she likes to say, “Peer first, Researcher second”). She works with a team of formerly homeless youth in Ottawa to educate the public, forge beneficial connections between the larger Ottawa community and the youth serving sector, and provide peer support, mentorship and community to others with LivEx of homelessness. Jayne works with a team of four young people with lived experience, doing research in Montréal, and is a PhD Candidate at McGill University. We have both  benefited immensely from opportunities of mentorship, paid positions in research, and especially connecting with other scholars who have lived experience as well, to build solidarity in research spaces that can seem uninviting and difficult to navigate.

We began our involvement with the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MtS) at the early stages, when it was still difficult to imagine what this work might look like. We were invited as scholars with lived experience of youth homelessness to weigh in on different aspects of MtS, and discuss how meaningful youth engagement could be integrated throughout. This work is also how our friendship began and it has given us many opportunities to connect as peers and colleagues since.  Working with MtS has been both exciting and valuable, giving us the chance to collaborate on developing (necessary but often overlooked) ethical frameworks for engaging with folks with lived experience.

We’ve been able to have critical conversations with experienced researchers and academics, who both mentor us and learn from us, incorporating our first-hand knowledge into their philosophies and practices. We’ve had the freedom to guide certain aspects of the project, while being supported by established experts in the field who acknowledge the need for flexible work arrangements, trauma informed approaches, and accommodations to ensure inclusivity. We’ve focused on creating spaces where youth can exercise their voices, pursue their passions, develop and hone skills relevant to their lives. Reflecting on the dilemmas and triumphs that we’ve faced as both the objects and conductors (sometimes simultaneously) of research on youth homelessness, we’ve chosen to emphasize the need for transparency and accountability when engaging young people with lived experience.

We want academics and researchers to know that working with LivEx requires a holistic dedication that is intersectional, flexible and supportive, trauma-informed, and centres on harm reduction.

One of the most exciting aspects of our work with MtS so far is the launch of the Scholars With Lived Experience Network. This initiative combines our positive experiences with mentorship and a supportive network in academia and research with MtS’s collective desire to reduce barriers to postsecondary education for people who’ve experienced homelessnes. While access to education addresses only one of the many social inequalities that are disproportionately experienced by those excluded from stable housing, it’s our hope that including and supporting those with LivEx in their academic pursuits will lead to unpredictable positive social change in unknown and diverse areas. The LivEx Network will help connect those already participating in post-secondary, or anyone who is thinking about returning to school. Mentorship (peer and otherwise) has been an important part of both of our experiences, and the network will provide opportunities to connect with experts across Canada, as well as support youth with lived experience to access unique professional opportunities and participate in scholarship to prevent homelessness in the ways that are most beneficial to them.

While we are thrilled that we have been able to be a part of the development of this network, we can’t wait to see the growth and expansion of the experiences that new scholars will bring to the table. We know that valuing the expertise of those who have experienced youth homelessness firsthand is key to undertaking research across Canada that will make a difference.

Learn more about joining the MtS Scholars with Lived Experience Network.