By Sue Tiffin
Dr. Naomi Nichols, Canada Research Chair in Community-Partnered Social Justice and a sociology professor at Trent University, was the key speaker at the 31st Celebration of Research held virtually on March 26.
Nichols said she grew up in Peterborough and the surrounding counties, and has connections to Haliburton County including her 2013 participation on an advisory committee on youth homelessness conducted in the area by Dr. Fay Martin. She has a keen interest in youth homelessness which has largely occurred in small rural areas in Ontario and Quebec and her work encourages institutional change for Canada’s most vulnerable youth.
By 2016, 20 per cent of Canada’s homeless population was made up of young people between 13 and 24 years old, with up to 40,000 young people experiencing homelessness in any given year, said Nichols.
“But at the time of my own doctoral research around 2007, youth homelessness was not as widely understood and because of this it was thought to be less common, particularly in small cities like Peterborough or in rural areas like Haliburton,” she said. “Since no one was keeping track back then it’s hard to say whether this is true or not, but it was certainly the case that many people back then and in my own youth relied on informal networks or adopted a travelling lifestyle where it was not uncommon for them to lack a safe space to sleep.”
Nichols said as a doctoral student, she wanted to study the experiences of people who leave home between the ages of 16 and 18, like family and friends she knew, “because it was clear to me that human services – schools, welfare, housing resources, healthcare – were not organized with these young people in mind and thus didn’t end up serving as protective forces in their lives. Sadly, this remains the case today.”
Recent research Nichols conducted in Quebec showed that “schools, mainstream mental health services, and substance use programs continue to assume that young people are housed,” she said, “and thus fail to provide interventions that are truly health-promoting or educative, and relatedly, they often misinterpret young people’s actions as resulting from apathy, or deliberate or willful non-compliance.”
While she was working on her PhD, Nichols ended up working at an emergency shelter in Peterborough through a matching program like U-Links. She learned about shelter work, and what challenges the shelter workers were experiencing, and then later about the youth themselves, realizing that the institutional constraints making shelter work difficult resulted in challenges for the youth to have their needs met as well. From there, she said she was able to design and secure funding for a staff position and a program to address the systemic and structural issues she was learning about.
“And in this way, sort of speaking to or illuminating the importance of these deeply collaborative and community-based partnerships and centres like U-Links or in my case the Knowledge Mobilization Unit, that bring students with tons of energy and organizations and communities together,” she said.
The program ended when the funding ran out, the problems being experienced too vast for limited-term program-based funding.
“Young people and shelter workers continued to navigate a service context where they had little power to enact the structural changes that were necessary for preventing youth homelessness,” said Nichols. “Since then the shelter has developed an array of other supports for young people but these continue to prove insufficient in the context of persistent social inequalities and inadequate institutional and policy responses to address the acute and cumulative effects of people suffering,” she said.
Nichols said she recently co-authored an article on the barriers homeless youth face in accessing timely, adequate and evidence-based mental health and substance use treatment options.
“Emergency healthcare and crisis supports may keep people alive, but youth need access to timely diagnoses and comprehensive treatment plans that include housing if we want young people to thrive,” she said. The research suggests, she says, that sometimes a lack of health access actually causes homelessness when youth and families are left to manage mental health without consistent and professional support.
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified all of these problems, said Nichols. A study conducted in the first year of the pandemic showed increased anxiety, depression, isolation and loneliness in homeless youth, the same study found 80 per cent of service providers reported youth were experiencing a limited capacity to access mental health services.
“So in other words, just as an increasing need surged, there was a diminished capacity to actually respond effectively to this need,” said Nichols.
Service access is more severely compromised in rural locations, and another problem is reflected in the overrepresentation of young people with histories of child welfare involvement among youth experiencing homelessness.
Nichols circled back to Haliburton County and other rural areas like it.
“Young people end up involved with children’s aid societies, in permanent ways through what are called extended society care orders – they used to be the crown ward system – as well as in a range of different temporary ways, sometimes respite agreements that families voluntary enter into and a new form of agreement that young people can enter into in that little window that can be a place of vulnerability for young people, between the ages of 16 and 18.”
“The problem is that it’s really hard to find suitable and permanent housing for young people receiving child welfare services, particularly as they progress through adolescence, and especially once they’ve exhausted the few local foster care or group home situations available in their communities.”
Locally, young people involved with child welfare are served by the Kawartha-Haliburton Children’s Aid Society, which has a vast catchment including Peterborough, Peterborough County, City of Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton County.
Nichols said extended society care youth are sometimes placed or housed in a number of different communities, creating instability early in life. Rural youth involved with the Kawartha-Haliburton Children’s Aid Society needing emergency shelter placement are always relocated to Peterborough.
“For many this move will not represent the first or their last shift,” said Nichols, noting some youth are moved to facilities throughout the region before being relocated to Peterborough, or exhaust the options of very few local foster families who are willing to take adolescents.
“This pattern of voluntary relocation or institutional dislocation from rural to urban centres is common for young people growing up in poverty and facing housing precarity,” said Nichols.
The migration of homeless youth to cities happens across Ontario and Quebec.
“The challenge of finding suitable and stable housing for youth, has been made worse by the financialization of housing and the resulting affordable housing crisis shaping housing eco-systems across Canada,” said Nichols. She said she had recently been told that young people involved with Children’s Aid Society are increasingly being given tents, allowed to stay in CAS offices, or placed in hotels given the profound lack of housing in the province.
“But each of these housing arrangements – a tent, an office, a youth shelter, and a motel – have the potential to increase young people’s exposure to social and geographic dislocation, social isolation and various forms of overlapping exploitation and abuse. And each of these subsequent exposures … make a person vulnerable to homelessness and other difficult situations throughout their life.”
Nichols said most of these problems were evident back when Martin was doing her research on patterns of rural migration of precariously housed youth. At that time, Martin conducted 48 interviews with young people who were insecurely housed and had grown up in rural areas in eastern Ontario. Of this sample, 21 were from Haliburton, and of that group, 14 have left and returned, and seven have migrated permanently.
“In the executive summary, Dr. Martin notes ‘participants felt they had little choice but to leave their rural communities to access resources necessary to make successful transitions to adult productivity. Those whose needs early in life exceeded available resources had the decision to migrate made on their behalf by families and formal structures and seldom returned.’”
“Martin’s research highlights the ways that conditions surrounding a young person’s migration out of their rural community reflect local service inadequacies, larger structural inequalities and longer histories of instability that shape their efforts to housing, security and wellness as they age.”
Nichols sighs, and asks the crowd watching, “so what should we do?”
“Given the overwhelming evidence that homelessness results from profound structural inequalities, in access to and benefits from income, education, transportation infrastructure, housing, healthcare, social services and the legal system, this is where our advocacy efforts need to focus,” she said.
“People in rural communities have less access to shared public resources, things like social housing and shared public transportation, and thus may benefit more from programs like a universal basic income, and/or a mutual aid and voluntary efforts to redistribute resources and opportunities within a community through forms of direct action. I’m not going to advocate that the answer is always to manage youth homelessness in place, that is in a young person’s home community, because there may be good reasons for a young person to leave … but for those who wish to stay in which to preserve health-promoting, social connections, this should be a priority: keeping them home, one that could be actualized by ensuring that some municipal rent subsidies are reserved for youth housing with supports in community, prioritizing access to education, health and social programs with online options … local satellite programs and improved public transportation infrastructure – that was one of the dominant themes in Dr. Martin’s research – and continuing to support child, youth and family wellbeing through a range of free, accessible and high-quality programs like those currently being offered by agencies like Point in Time.”
During the Celebration of Research event, between featured projects of eating disorders in rural areas, food waste reduction strategies and aquatic and terrestrial biomonitoring, participants were able to make a choice of which breakout session they’d like to attend, from projects including a study on how to recover and restore the nine-spotted lady beetle population; the socio-economic impacts of wetlands; Indigenizing programming at Abbey Gardens; the feasibility of developing a weevil farming operation for Drag and Spruce Lakes; and anthropogenic land use impacts on the water quality of Upper Stoney Lake.
More information about U-Links Centre for Community-Based Research is available at ulinks.ca. Groups and organizations, businesses and municipalities with project ideas or questions of interest to members of the community should contact U-Links staff to get started. To watch this year’s Virtual Celebration of Research video or review research posters and key findings, visit www.ulinks.ca/celebration-of-research.html.