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Unique study examines deeper needs of formerly homeless youth

Nov 29, 2018
Guylaine Spencer

Naomi Thulien

Above: Dr. Naomi Thulien

Formerly homeless youth need more than income support if they are to stay housed. Young people also require more intangible supports that have to do with identity, says Dr. Naomi Thulien, assistant professor in the McMaster School of Nursing.

Thulien is first author on a new article published in the Children and Youth Services Review this month. The paper is based on her PhD thesis. It’s one of the first studies of its kind. “Before I had done my research, there were only two studies in the world where they followed formerly homeless young people for at least  six months and none of them focussed exclusively on market housing. Most young people end up there because of the lack of subsidized housing,” says Thulien.

Over ten months, Thulien followed nine young people who had recently moved into permanent housing after being homeless. She met with each of them individually every other week. She got to know them well and conducted 119 interviews.

“What surprised me most was how challenging it was for these young people to exit homelessness. I have written two papers about this. In the first paper, I talked about structural issues. Most of them were on welfare, and by the time they paid rent and transit, they had $36 per month to cover everything including food.”

But she found that money wasn’t the only issue. “This paper talks about moving from the identity of being homeless to being more integrated into the mainstream. I realized how our well-meaning supports for young people who are leaving homelessness are embedded in the homelessness sector. But these young people didn’t want to be reminded of their homeless identities.”

Identity has to do with how we see ourselves. “There’s a notion of identity capital by sociologist James Côté. He talks about using your identity as currency to push you forward when life becomes hard, which we all have to do. Identity capital is made up of a sense of being in control of your life, purpose, self-esteem and self-efficacy. So the young people had a little bit of identity capital but not enough.”

Helping young people forge their new identities could be key to preventing them from ending back on the streets. “We have different measures of success for our own families, and for people who are homeless,” Thulien adds. “If people are housed and can access a food bank we think, well that’s successful. But if that was our own family, we would want more for them. We need to want for homeless young people the same that we would want for our own family.”

Read the article:

Thulien N, Gastaldo D, McCay E, Hwang S. (2018). “I want to be able to show everyone that it is possible to go from being nothing in the world to being something”: Identity as a determinant of social integration.  Children and Youth Services Review, Available online 2 November 2018.


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