This blog post is the second part of a series. Read the first post in the Eva’s Innovation Lab Spotlight .

How can a two-hour interview help young people with experiences of homelessness see themselves as the hero in their own story? Start by asking about the young person’s acts of strength and resiliency.

Too often, young people who are experiencing homelessness are asked repeatedly to describe their traumatic experiences. This can occur when young people are seeking access to appropriate care or justice for their hardships via community agencies, law enforcement, legal systems, and public services. But when we focus only on the traumas, we can lose sight of the moments of strength and resilience that are woven throughout young people’s lives.

In recognizing this gap, Eva’s is building a Resiliency-based Interview Toolkit that recognizes young people’s dreams and successes, not just struggles. Eva’s has partnered with design firm Deloitte Doblin, Registered Clinical Counsellor Dr. Vikki Reynolds, and researcher Dr. Kaitlin Schwan from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to the framework for this toolkit. The toolkit content is being co-created with young people with lived experience and frontline workers.

To build the Resiliency-based Interview Toolkit, over 200 stakeholders from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver convened for an intensive and immersive training and co-design session in May 2019. In Toronto’s east end, Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth and Deloitte Doblin hosted this multi-day session with young people, frontline workers, and management from three youth-serving organizations in attendance (Dans La Rue from Montreal, Pacific Community Resources Society from Vancouver, and Eva’s from Toronto).

To lay the foundation for the later co-design sessions, Dr. Vikki Reynolds led an intensive session on how to understand trauma, recognize acts of resistance and resilience, and how to appropriately respond to oppression, violence, and suffering through applied practices of structuring safety when working with marginalized young people. This intensive session gave us a common language, a shared ethical framework, and practical tools on how to do trauma-informed and resiliency-based work.

A few key takeaways from Dr. Reynolds that informed the ethical framework of our project include:

  1. Two Helpful Ethical Assumptions

Dr. Reynolds modelled and presented case studies on key ethical assumptions and practices for structuring safety when working with young people who have experienced trauma. Her two key ethical assumptions are “people are always trying to be safe” and “people’s behaviour always makes sense.” When you assume these things, she says, the behaviours of young people will take on a new light. For instance, instead of viewing a young person who chooses to not disclose personal information as ‘being difficult’, the behaviour can be seen as a sign that the young person does not feeling safe enough. It is then our job as staff to structure “enough safety” for that young person.

  1. Know Your Emotional ‘Map of the World’

Dr. Reynolds had social service staff, academic researchers, and designers alike turn the lens on themselves to understand their own emotional ‘map of the world’: the way one’s past experiences inform one’s current approach to the world. This reflexive work is necessary because, as Dr. Reynolds said, “we are the resources we bring to young people.” The more we know about our internal emotional past and current state (e.g., what we personally identify as safety and attacks on safety), the better we are able to serve young people.

  1. Structuring Safety Practices

In order to resist re-traumatizing the person, there are some helpful practices that can co-create ‘safe enough’ relationships:

  • Negotiating Permission: Consent must be an ongoing negotiation throughout the session and relationship, not just something that is assumed when forms are being signed. You can help shift towards this mindset by asking at the beginning, “What will it take for you to be able to say no to me if I ask you a question that’s not all right?” and “How might you feel about the telling tomorrow?” to prompt the young person’s reflection on their own boundaries.
  • Hearing ‘No’: It is important to hone one’s capacity to hear ‘no’ in its many forms (e.g., slight hesitations, body language). This can be done by asking questions like “This hesitation just now, is this one of the ways you have of telling me that this is not a useful question right now?”
  • Decline intrusive curiosity: Work with young people can be derailed by a staff’s “intrusive curiosity” so Dr. Reynolds advises researchers and frontline workers to reflect on where their curiosity comes from and whether their questions will be useful to the young people they are working with. One only needs to know enough details of ‘trauma’ for the acts of resistance to be understandable.

These practices are informing Eva’s Resiliency-based Interview Toolkit, which is being used to conduct interviews with young people with experiences of homelessness and housing precarity are part of the discovery stage of Eva’s Journeys In and Out Solutions Lab funded under Canada’s National Housing Strategy. The resiliency-based interview tools ask young people about their goals, dreams, and what supports they wish they had during their various experiences with homelessness or precarious housing. This key information from young people’s stories is being analyzed by Eva’s Impact and Innovation team to understand systemic gaps and prototype interventions that span across policy, programs, technology, and practices.

Eva’s hope is that by ethically engaging with young people about their journeys into and out of homelessness and precarious housing, we can uncover new ways to support young people towards stability and permanency while helping them recognize themselves as the hero in their own stories.

This project entitled Journeys In and Out: Youth Homelessness Solutions Lab received funding from the National Housing Strategy under the NHS Solutions Labs, however, the views expressed are the personal views of the author and CMHC accepts no responsibility for them.