Sociology Prof. leads the way to help the city’s young and homeless
By Nick Ward
Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Jackie Kennelly has dedicated much of her academic career towards understanding and assisting those who are disadvantaged in Canadian society.
In her qualitative research, Kennelly examines issues surrounding social inclusion and exclusion, globalization and the neoliberal state, social movements, urban sociology as well as citizenship and youth cultures. She scrutinizes these phenomena ethnographically, by working with those who are impacted by these societal traits. Mostly, her work focuses on the young and marginalized. Due to the nature of her expertise, Kennelly often finds herself involved in projects which have direct influence on the municipal, regional, and national scenes. Her latest Mitacs-funded collaboration with the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (ATEHO) and A Way Home Ottawa (AWHO) is a shining example of exactly this.
She has also recently completed a project funded by a US-based educational research group, the Spencer Foundation; this project involved collaborations with local youth-serving organizations to talk to homeless youth about their perceptions of citizenship and democracy.
In her collaboration with ATEHO and AWHO, Kennelly has been working with Anthropology graduate student Justin Langille to better understand youth homelessness in Canada’s capital city. In embarking on this endeavour, Kennelly and Langille collaborated with AWHO to hire young people with contextual experience to conduct peer-to-peer research alongside the team.
Together, the youth research liaisons, Kennelly, Langille, and Kaite Burkholder-Harris of A Way Home Ottawa have been conducting elaborate focus groups and interviews with more than seventy youth who have personal experi- ences of homelessness. In confronting this important and difficult topic, Kennelly takes a dynamic approach to guiding the research. “I’m always conscious of making sure that the dialogue is very interactive in nature. It’s important that we’re not sitting down at a desk in a circle. Our talks are meant to be comfortable and organic. Often, we’ll go for a walk and share a snack, and do the interview that way,” she said. “Traditional environments often alienate the people who I’m speaking with, so it’s ideal if we can find an art space, somewhere that helps foster a less formal setting and reminds them that they are the experts. I’ve found that people tend to open up more and describe their experiences when they have the freedom to move around.”
When Kennelly states that the youth participants are the experts on the community and culture inherent to Ottawa, she isn’t kidding. Referencing her Spencer funded research, Kennelly explains that through her interviews, she consistently discovers that youth participants all seem to possess a real sense of their identities as members of the community.
“When I asked the group if they believe they contributed to their community, they all enthusiastically agreed. They described how they added to Ottawa every day through a variety of actions and negotiations which included providing their peers with advice and support.”
Although in many ways they have been legislatively left behind, the participants were still quick to echo their belief in the notion of community. “Everyone in the group viewed themselves as members of the Ottawa community, but affirmed that they don’t at all see themselves reflected through the powers that be,” said Prof. Kennelly. “So, they don’t vote or try to get involved in politics in any way, because they see no point. Instead, they act as citizens in their unique way, external to traditional authorities.”
Kennelly suggests that their jadedness with government is completely logical: “They are viewed by authorities as one-dimensional or as inconveniences when the opposite is true. These are youth that likely dealt or are currently dealing with tragic abuse. Now homeless or previously homeless, they face serious societal barriers that include confronting sometimes violent Ottawa police officers who are quick to give them tickets which they clearly cannot pay.”
“In turn, this criminalizes these young people, and the consequences are profound. When the tickets go unpaid, they get passed onto collections agencies, which then ruins their credit rating. The result is that the youth are not able to later acquire work, lease a car or buy a house—the system is set up for them to remain oppressed.” Despite these significant and unjust difficulties, Kennelly discovered that the participants remain motivated to cultivate solutions and were eager to play a role in Kennelly’s project by telling their stories and offering their opinions.
The Spencer funded research was designed to culminate in an action project led by the youth, who decided they wanted to see films made about their experiences. Kennelly hired local filmmaker Ben Hoskyn to create the films collaboratively. They filmed their walks, talks, and ideas, and the upshot is extraordinary. The final version of the videos are professional grade peeks into the major issues that homeless youth in Ottawa face on a daily basis, including their negative interactions with police, the need to decriminalize marijuana, and the supports they need to transition out of homelessness.
It was this third topic that was the jumping off point for the extensive A Way Home Ottawa process, which ultimately established five recommendations for the City of Ottawa to combat youth homelessness, published in a report called The Opportunity Project: Telling a New Story About Youth Homelessness in Ottawa:
1. Drastically increase options for housing that is affordable—by increasing opportunities to access private market rental units for young people through housing subsidies, by increasing the availability of affordable units dedicated to youth, and by in- creasing income through income support programs.
2. Effective implementation of housing as a human right for homeless and at-risk youth that prioritizes financial stability, and in turn housing stability, through consistent, understanding, and flexible responses from municipal and provincial programs.
3. Homeless and at-risk youth need a variety of resources focused on supporting their devel- opment into adulthood, including connection and access to opportunities for education, employment, and life skills development.
4. Youth require a streamlined service referral process between agencies to ensure every youth retains consistent support as needed and requested by them. Youth also require increased access to supports outside of the downtown core, with a particular emphasis on school-based assessment and early intervention to meet youth where they are at.
5. Youth who are homeless and at risk of homelessness require support in gaining access to social and recreational community engagement that can enable their long-term mental and physical well-being.
“The recommendations we made were system level changes because that’s what is necessary,” said Kennelly. “Providing homeless youth with money and food is invaluable, but we need to remove the walls which prevent them from leading the type of life they aspire towards. Housing is critical and major reforms are needed, and we all need to use our voices and networks to make real progress and carry this momentum forward.”
Kennelly’s involvement in the A Way Home Ottawa project comes on the heels of her celebrated book Olympic Exclusions: Youth, Poverty and Social Legacies in which she examined the lives of homeless and marginally housed youth living in Vancouver and London during the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. For the immediate future, Kennelly will continue her work with homeless youth by expanding the findings of their first year of analysis for A Way Home Ottawa. She anticipates they will be hard at work building awareness and expanding membership and stakeholders until 2019. “Really, the best way to fight adult homelessness is to fight youth homelessness, and we are hopeful this work will make a difference in youth lives.”
To support and learn more about A Way Home Ottawa please visit: End Homelessness Ottawa.
Youth Homelessness Facts
- Violence accounts for 60-70% of the reasons that young people between the ages of 16-24 leave or are forced to leave home (Gaetz, et al., 2013).
- Youth who have been involved in the child welfare system account for almost 40% of those youth who experience homelessness.
- Youth who are First Nations, Inuit or Métis also account for 40% of youth who are homeless. The third area of vulnerability for youth are those identifying as LGBTQ — accounting
for almost 30% of youth who are homeless (Gaetz, et al., 2013).
- A fourth group that has increased their use of homelessness services are newcomer youth. As this is a relatively new trend, there is not yet data available indicating how common this may be. However, service providers have indicated that it is a growing challenge. Often, a young person may experience more than one of these, and be at even greater risk of homelessness.
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