Post-secondary student homelessness (PSSH) is a bigger problem in Canada than previously thought. PSSH includes a range of destabilizing housing experiences resulting in housing precarity or literal homelessness that is expressed within a far more complicated demography than found in K-12. PSSH occurs at points in the student’s lifecourse that is directed at practical outcomes like finding a job, so there is considerable urgency in addressing this issue in a timely fashion. In Canada, there are approximately 2,048,000 students in post-secondary, the vast majority are youth, 18-34 years of age. 

Though no one knows exactly how many students experience homelessness, our early survey research among students at three post-secondary sites, finds that as many as 4% of Canadian post-secondary students experience some kind of homelessness every day meaning that about 80,000 students are couch surfing, sleeping in a vehicle, locker room, stair well, or shelter today.  Again, we do not know the actual numbers so one of the goals of this ongoing research is to ascertain the number and understand the range of experiences constituting PSSH in Canada. In order to understand and find solutions means to address complex systemic, individual and institutional factors that create housing precarity for Canadian students

While most PSSH is hidden homelessness, survey responses suggested that students will as a last resort, stay in toxic relationships, suffer abuse, deal drugs or trade sex for places to stay or to make income to stay housed. Over 60% said they would definitely leave school if facing homelessness, over 35% experienced stress that impacted school and social life, and almost 28% had experienced homelessness in the past; most of it while they were students in K-12, or in prior stints at post-secondary. Close to half of students indicated they suffered mental health issues often requiring treatment and close to 75% of students felt that student homelessness and housing were serious issues in general requiring immediate attention. The bottom line is that PSSH has personal, social, economic and cultural implications that we need to understand better. And in fact, there is much more attention being paid to PSSH today, and researchers are beginning to connect over the issue.

In the recent StudentDwellTO symposium at York University, student researchers revealed that many students are living in slum housing; densely overpopulated regular market town homes, sleeping in cubicles separated by simple sheets of drywall and paying $600-700 CDN for each space to shady landlords.  Not only are these unsafe and illegal conditions, they are dehumanizing and apparently more common than anyone knew until recently. 

Many of the respondents had been living in similar conditions or other levels of precarity expressed in the COH’s Definition of Homelessness in Canada but had never thought of themselves as homeless until reading that definition in our survey preamble. In our research, while we address the prevalence and ranges of experiences that PSSH presents, we also pay careful attention to the attitudes and perceptions that students, institutions and governments hold about this complex issue. 

One of the biggest issues we talk about is stigma. The stigma of being homeless prevents students from identifying their needs to school support teams or to their friends. Students fear being rejected socially and anecdotally expressed the perception that their housing precarity would be a barrier to academic advancement. The result is that PSSH is a sort of dirty little secret, so we really are trying to catch up to situations that have become quite large and entrenched in a system that is not used to responding effectively to a hidden social need.  

Recent discussions among PSSH researchers suggest that several things must take place for there to be meaningful change: 

  1. Institutions need to reexamine their role as landlords and housing providers and must create safe spaces to discuss student housing precarity. 
  2. Governments, housing ministries and research funders need to support efforts to understand the dimensions of PSSH and explore culturally intelligent solutions to student housing. 
  3. Students must be involved in creating and designing safer student communities and housing options.

At the CAEH conference in 2018, we discussed our first study carried out at Red Deer College, and since then, a number of scholars, people with lived experience, institutional stakeholders and non-profits have reached out and the base of our research has snowballed. An open collaboration has formed around the participation of the University of New Brunswick (Saint John), the University of Calgary, Lakehead University, Red Deer College, the University of Alberta, Lethbridge College and Nova Scotia Community College. We have created a universal survey instrument that will provide information for researchers trying to understand the social dynamics of PSSH and also provide important information for institutions to use in planning for their students’ needs.  

In the presentation at CAEH this November, representatives from Lethbridge College, UNB SJ, the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta will discuss their respective projects and research. This is a great opportunity to join this important and emerging conversation and research track.  Elements of this collective project are discussed in the upcoming special edition of Parity Magazine that will be featured at the CAEH.