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Research snapshot: Upstream solutions to prevent Indigenous youth houselessness

What you need to know

Although Indigenous youth experiencing houselessness have often pointed to structural causes, few studies have examined these in detail. This research used interviews with Indigenous youth to identify structural barriers and provide actionable upstream strategies (i.e., strategies examining larger social structures) to help prevent this housing insecurity in the future. Culturally safe spaces, economic investment in schools, system integration, historical justice-based education and mental health literacy can all help promote well-being and prevent houselessness. This study also highlights the importance of engaging Indigenous youth directly within houselessness research. Their lived experience and knowledge is critical to understanding and transforming our system of care.

What is this research about?

Indigenous youth make up almost one-third of youth who are houseless across Canada. This overrepresentation occurs in the context of racism, poverty and family histories of trauma that affect many Indigenous communities. Despite housing-insecure Indigenous youth identifying problematic aspects of the child welfare and education systems as related to their housing issues, most research on this topic has focused on micro-level interventions based on individual behaviour. Few studies have looked at the larger structures, policies and inequities that position Indigenous youth at increased risk of houselessness. These structural forces include racism, barriers to education and employment, unaffordable housing, limited public transportation and lack of access to clean drinking water and nutritious food. For Indigenous youth, colonialism and its legacy of intergenerational trauma continues to impact their health and well-being in tangible ways.

Upstream approaches target the structural causes of youth houselessness in order to have lasting, sustainable impact. These interventions help eliminate the root causes of houselessness by influencing policy-makers to reshape the systems and institutions that unfairly privilege some groups over others. The purpose of the current research study was to learn directly from Indigenous youth about their lived experiences of houselessness, to harness their knowledge and apply it to the development of upstream solutions that can improve these conditions.

What did the researchers do?

Drawing on a previous series of observations, interviews and focus groups with houseless youth from British Columbia between 2012 and 2014, the current researchers returned to this data with a new analysis in mind. They focused on five Indigenous youth from the original study, including three women, one man, and one who identified as Two-Spirit. Specifically, the researchers analyzed the research data to find themes related to a) the structural challenges putting Indigenous youth at increased risk of houselessness, and b) the upstream solutions in the context of education that could mitigate this risk. They then presented their findings to Indigenous youth with lived experience of houselessness and used their feedback to help shape the results.

What did the researchers find?

Four specific structural challenges emerged from the data. These social determinants of health were experienced by the Indigenous youth in this study in personally impactful ways.

  1. Racism: Youth described how racist discrimination is interwoven within schools, healthcare and social services in the forms of prejudice, derogatory treatment, surveillance and racial profiling. One institutional example is the Indian Act, a profoundly racist law that results in material disadvantages and heightens youth’s risk of houselessness.
  2. Colonial policies and practices: When our ways of seeing the world are founded on white supremacy and Eurocentrism, colonial logic influences every sphere of life. Youth in this study reflected on the ways they have been “othered” (i.e., pushed out and treated as less-than) by Canadian society, including being labelled troubled and high-needs, spoken down to, ignored and traumatized. Many youth see systems like child welfare and education as directly linked to the historical removal of Indigenous people from their culture and land.
  3. Culturally irrelevant services: Historical oppression has left youth feeling disconnected from their culture. The Indian Act and the Residential School system affected generations of Indigenous children, systematically separating them from their traditions and assimilating them into European social norms. Many returned to their communities as outsiders with nowhere to live. This sense of cultural dislocation continues through young people’s experiences of social services and educational systems that are culturally unsafe. These institutions continue to be tainted by the same Eurocentric values that drove colonization.
  4. One-size-fits-all policy measures: Governments cutting social services disproportionately impacted Indigenous-led services and resulted in the closures of emergency housing that youth relied on. These cost-cutting measures have further marginalized the reality of Indigenous youth houselessness.

Five upstream strategies were identified as actionable solutions that would help prevent harms by creating more equitable conditions for Indigenous youth.

  1. Cultural safety: Cultural connection is an important protective factor for Indigenous youth, leading to better health outcomes. The youth in this study advocated for enhanced cultural connection as well as an Indigenous approach to education, centred on teaching youth their basic rights.
  2. Economic investment in schools: Youth directly felt systemic inequities through underfunding of their schools. Fewer education assistants, materials, physical spaces and facilities meant higher drop-out rates, leading to financial insecurity and risk of houselessness. Investing in Indigenous schools is a necessary upstream strategy with a clear pathway to preventing youth houselessness.
  3. System integration: Navigating different child welfare placements, new schools and healthcare providers created challenges for these youth. They described the disconnection and lack of coordination among different systems of care that made it difficult to ensure continuity. This confusion took time away from their schoolwork. Alignment between these systems would create more accessible care, support collaboration across providers and lead to improved educational outcomes.
  4. Historical justice in education: Considering the historical use of education as a tool of colonialism and oppression, youth expressed a need for trauma-informed educators who can acknowledge this painful history with care and intention. Including Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers within these educational structures can help ensure the whole story is being told.
  5. Mental health literacy: Indigenous youth need better access to mental health support, which would help reduce school drop-out rates and risk of houselessness. Young people repeatedly advocated for free therapy and for mental health promotion in schools.

Limitations of the research

By definition, this was a small study and generalization was not the goal. The solutions identified here are the result of a specific time, place and context. While further evaluation and confirmation of the findings is necessary, the researchers honour the importance and value of the insights provided by these youth. Their lived experience and wisdom can help inform future houselessness prevention research. This area of research would benefit from continued integration of an equity lens that centres the role of colonialism and other social determinants of health on Indigenous youth houselessness.

How can you use this research?

Preventing Indigenous youth houselessness requires recognition of the institutional structures that shape the lives of these youth. The current research identifies several upstream interventions within the education system that can help promote youth wellness. Strategic partnerships between researchers and policy-makers would ensure this knowledge is applied through meaningful changes to the system. This study also demonstrates the value of centring Indigenous young people within the research process itself. Their knowledge and lived experience should be a guide for anyone involved in this work.

Download shareable infographic

Research snapshot: Upstream solutions to prevent Indigenous youth houselessness (Infographic) 

About the researchers

Jeffrey Paul Ansloos1, Amanda Claudia Wager2 and Nicole Santos Dunn1

  1. Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. Faculty of Education, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

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