Mapping complex intersections

We know that youth who are homeless or under-housed face a daunting mix of challenges including trauma, family conflict, discrimination, income insecurity and barriers to education and employment.  We suspect that youth with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD) (including learning disabilities) are a particularly vulnerable group of youth that experience homelessness. They face the same challenges as non-disabled homeless youth, as well as additional disability-related challenges, including unique barriers to education and employment (based in assumptions about (in)ability) that may limit future possibilities. This is especially so for youth whose disabilities are not immediately apparent or disclosed, are un-assessed, and/or unaddressed.

Youth with disabilities are, however, a significantly under-reported and under-analyzed part of the homeless population – research literature is notably sparse. In large part, this is because homelessness and disability are treated as discrete experiences with unique populations requiring unique interventions. That youth with IDD might experience homelessness has yet to be adequately acknowledged. The result is that population-specific housing, educational support, and employment services operate in siloes and homeless youth with IDD remain largely invisible.

The “Partnering for Change” project has stepped directly into this poorly understood intersection.  Our intent is to systematically map the intersections between IDD, education, and employment among youth who have experienced homelessness.  Our end goal is to identify system-wide gaps and opportunities to develop interventions, improve policy and expand research. The inclusion of disabled youth experiencing homelessness (as co-researchers and as participants) will facilitate the relevance of the research.

Working with partners

This project is built on partnerships and is funded as a Partnership Development Grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  Partnerships have been developed with agencies in the youth homelessness, disability, education and employment sectors in three sites; Niagara, Hamilton and Toronto. Each site also has a local advisory committee. Importantly, the project is also partnering with co-researchers – youth who self-identify as having a disability and as having experienced insecure housing – who are members of the local advisory committees and are also assisting with data collection, analysis and dissemination.

Project commitments

Through the mobilization of this partnership, we aim to achieve 5 specific research objectives:

  1. Determine scope: Assess the extent of disability among homeless youth in the 3 project sites.
  2. Deepen understanding: Characterize complex intersections between disability, homelessness, education and employment.
  3. Identify possibility: Identify prospects, possibilities, hopes and expectations of/for disabled youth experiencing homelessness for housing, disability supports, education, and job sustainability.
  4. Make connections: Map referral pathways and access to services available to homeless youth with disabilities; identify prospects, possibilities, hopes and expectations for agencies working with disabled youth experiencing homelessness.
  5. Build for the future: Establish a Learning Community drawing on members of the research team (including co-researchers with disabilities), partner agencies from the various sectors, and participants to bridge silos between systems and services, and work together to promote active, meaningful and successful participation of homeless youth with IDD in the labour market and society.

Learning from our partners, service providers, and homeless youth with IDD

Three streams of data are being collected at the three sites:

1. Quantitative Data on the prevalence of IDD among homeless youth

The project is working with partner organizations to collect quantitative data on youth who are using their services to try to determine the prevalence of intellectual, developmental and learning disability among homeless youth and homelessness among youth who have a disability.  The project is also introducing additional questions into intake surveys to provide additional information about the prevalence and nature of disability among youth experiencing homelessness.  We hope to collect, clean, and link five years of intake surveys collected by partnering agencies to create research-ready data sets, allowing researchers and partners to examine existing data. 

2. Environmental scan

In this part of the study we aim to map the referral pathways and access to services available to

homeless youth with disabilities.  Interviewing service providers in all four sectors (disability, homelessness, education, employment), we are examining intake processes, eligibility criteria, referral processes, access to assessment of disability, bridges (or their lack) between and within sectors and agencies, gaps in service, and things that are working well.  The result will be a series of maps of how youth navigate between sectors, how sectors interact with each other, and the overall system configuration.

3. Qualitative Data on the intersections of disabled youth’s experiences of education, homelessness and employment

In this component of the project we are drawing from conversations with key informants (front-line workers) in the disability, employment, education, and homeless sectors. We are also talking to disabled youth experiencing homelessness. Each of these interviews is conducted by a pair of researchers; a non-disabled research assistant and a co-researcher with IDD. 

Qualitative interviews will focus on:

  • the complex ways disability affects experiences of homelessness, and vice-versa;
  • whether and how disability is a factor in becoming homeless;
  • whether and how disability affects access to and navigation of homelessness services;
  • whether and how homelessness affects access to and navigation of disability services;
  • the response of the education system to disabled youth experiencing homelessness;
  • how effective employment programs aimed at homeless youth are at providing opportunities for disabled youth experiencing homelessness to develop employment skills and experiences;
  • and how these cross systemic responses align with and support (or hinder) employment and careers aspirations for these youth 

This research project is in its second year and will soon have results from both the environmental scan and the gathering of quantitative data.  Qualitative interviews with disabled homeless youth are underway. We plan to disseminate these findings broadly and in a variety of formats.