In their own words

Conducting arts-based research with youth in Hamilton, Ontario


The 2019 Designership team headed to Hamilton, Ontario, last week for two full days of interviews with youth who have lived experienced of homelessness. We worked with community partners and conducted interviews at three youth-friendly locations across Hamilton, including Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC), Hamilton City Hall, Notre Dame House—Good Shepherd, and the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre (HRIC).

The team used an arts-based research approach and distributed storytelling kits to youth to complete before the interview. The kits, which contained art supplies, asked each participating youth to create a mural that visualizes what “home” means to them. Participants were asked to record their thoughts and feelings in a journal as they completed their murals. The murals and journals were used to guide the interviews. Eight youth completed their murals and seven took part in interviews; one more interview is scheduled for this week. The team compensated the youth for their time and gave each of them a sketchbook to continue making art. 

The team chose an arts-based or arts-informed research approach because it encourages participants who have experienced trauma or marginalization to express themselves and feel safe. Art-making is a symbolically rich form of self-expression that can be used to portray important life moments that are difficult to convey through words alone. Kaitlin Schwan, Senior Researcher at our partner Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and member of the project’s advisory team, composed of subject matter experts who provide feedback on the project, reports that art is a form of therapeutic expression in which youth “are able to experience a sense of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and individuality by bringing new artistic works into existence.”

What the team learned

The arts-based approach encouraged participants to set the tone of the conversation. The interviews were conversational, rather than a series of questions and answers. First, each youth responded to the prompt “what does ‘home’ mean to you?” and walked the team through the mural they created, invoking a variety of rich visual metaphors. Some youth visualized their experiences of “home” before and after they were homeless. In other cases, “home” was visualized as a pathway that people can wander off of. Some depicted “home” as an integrated circle, while others focused more on what “home” feels like to them. Some youth also incorporated natural elements to express their ideas of home; for example, one youth integrated tobacco into their mural. 

The youth were generous with their time and with sharing their knowledge, ideas, solutions, and life experiences. Having learned that the team was not from Hamilton and did not have first-hand experience of homelessness, they patiently taught us about youth supports available in Hamilton such as the Xperience Annex and NGen, a youth centre located in Hamilton.

We have just begun our analysis and have already identified a few insights and themes that emerged in the interviews. These include:         

  • Independence and responsibility go hand-in-hand: This is a theme that all participants touched on in some way. They all expressed a desire to learn to do things on their own and to learn valuable life skills, with one youth explaining that he wants to “learn to support himself.” 
  • Deeper connections to the community: The youth report wanting to feel loved and a desire for someone who genuinely cares about them. This was something that was absent for many participants in their childhoods and as younger adults. The relationships that these youth have with adults tend to be professional in nature, such as with case managers and housing support workers. One participant stated, “we want fewer relationships with professionals.” This was a sentiment shared across interviews. Youth wanted deeper connections to the community, which, for them, means a place where they can be themselves.
  • There were early signs in school: In each interview, youth stated that there were early signs in elementary school or high school that they needed help, such as long periods when they were absent from class. In most cases, these signs were overlooked. Some youth reported feeling like no one cared, while others didn’t know how to start a conversation with people who could help. In one example, a youth described setting up an appointment with a guidance counsellor to discuss some challenges that were happening at home. When they entered the office, they recalled seeing pictures of the counsellor’s family. This made them realize they didn’t have these things in their life, which made it difficult for them to talk about their experience.

Moving upstream to prototype school-based supports

Youth unanimously said that more should be more done in schools to prevent homelessness. Some of the youth argued that schools are the best place to intervene “because you have to attend school.” Here are a few possible points of entry suggested by youth:

  • Better school-based counselling supports
  • More access to co-operative placements to build job-ready skills
  • More trusted advisors and mentors in schools that youth can confide in, other than guidance counsellors, who are perceived as focusing mostly on career development
  • Supports to help youth kick-start difficult conversations
  • More resources designed to heighten awareness about stigmas associated with homelessness
  • Enhanced programming that focuses on life skills, which “can’t be taught through grades,” as one youth said  

Feeling the sense of responsibility 

After reflecting on the previous week, the project team feels an even greater sense of responsibility when it comes to capturing and telling these stories. Some of the youth said they are counting on the team to make something really happen. As Fahim Shahriar, one of this year’s service designers, stated, “I felt like I had a clear understanding of what had to be done and an inextinguishable desire to make a solution.” The team wants more than ever to develop the best services and continue to co-design approaches to alleviating and preventing youth homelessness.

The youth we worked with expressed interest in continuing to work on the project and being a source of knowledge. The youth gave the team a lot of information on the homelessness sector and connected the dots of the different components of the homelessness sector. The team will be working hand-in-hand with these youth to design program and service supports throughout the summer and will adjust the project plan to meet their needs and to ensure that their voice is at the centre of everything the team does. 


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