Young women often feel alone, isolated as they move from homeless to housed: WLU research

A group of researchers have found that the effects of loneliness and isolation is felt strongly among people who are making the transition from homelessness to housing —especially young women.

Strong support networks essential to keep people in housing

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are prevalent with young women who are moving into housing after experiencing homelessness, according to a group of researcher that includes Erin Dej from Wilfrid Laurier University. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

A team of researchers have found that feelings of loneliness and isolation are often felt strongly among people — especially young women — as they transition out of homelessness into housing. 

This yearning for the connections created while unhoused was a pattern Erin Dej first noticed as she conducted research for her PhD.  

"I was seeing people who had experienced homelessness and were then moved into housing … were coming back into homeless serving spaces," she said.

"They had this unit, they had this apartment, but they were cut off from people they knew, places to go and people to talk to that deteriorated their housing."

Dej, who is now an assistant professor in the department of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, wanted to look deeper into the issue and was surprised to find that more young women reported feeling isolated and alone during this phase in their lives.

That sparked a collaboration with other organizations and researchers. Dej's group was granted funding just weeks before the pandemic hit and the team has spent the last two years trying to better why these young women feel the way they do, and what can be done about it.

Erin Dej is an assistant professor in the department of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. (Erin Dej/Twitter)

Feeling unsafe and short-term housing contributing factors

The researchers spoke with young women from across Ontario and found that feeling unsafe — whether in their new apartment building or in their neighbourhood — was a major contributing factor to their isolation.

The pandemic also limited their access to mental health or addiction support. 

Another major factor, said Dej, was the housing many women had moved into was only secured for the short-term.

"A year later we spoke with the same young women and so many were in completely different housing," Dej said. "Some had become homeless again … some had moved three times since we spoke to them, some were subletting for a couple of months. So there was no stability. No stability to create roots."

Lack of supports can lead to a return to shelter

Isolation and instability is something Abla Tsolu sees in the women she works with as director of homelessness and housing services with YW Kitchener-Waterloo.

Abla Tsulo is the director of homelessness and housing services with YW Kitchener-Waterloo. (YW Kitchener-Waterloo)

Part of Tsulo's role is to oversee the YW's emergency shelter and supportive housing. She said women who have been chronically homeless for long periods of time often struggle when they move into supportive housing.

"We've had instances where young women move their 'street family' into their new housing," she said.

"These are people that they felt safe with when they were on the street. They tend to find comfort with the community they were a part of."

Tsulo said some women go back into the shelter system or even abandon their units after being housed because of inadequate support networks — primarily mental health and addiction services.

She said building trust is something they're always working on; many of the women she works with are reluctant to seek help because they don't feel safe.

"A lot of them have experienced trauma and violence from men and so they don't like to access services where exes or their abusers may access or there may be men accessing those services as well," she said.

"That sense of isolation is very real for our women."

Tsulo said partnerships with organizations like Sanguen Health Centre or the Food Bank of Waterloo Region have gone a long way in meeting the needs of the women living in their affordable and supportive housing. 

Building relationships and community is key

That's why Dej said it's important that people have someone to turn to and a strong support network as they move into housing after a period of homelessness.

"My research has really shifted in looking at social inclusion. How do we create community?," she said.

"We don't want homelessness to be in our city ... so once people are able to get housed, that's on us to build a community where they feel supported."