Why we do this work.
There are nearly 3.5 million young people experiencing homelessness in the United States, many of whom who have experienced multiple losses and traumas before and after leaving home, in addition to systemic oppression and marginalization. Although there are services aimed to support young people experiencing homelessness, many young people have rightfully developed adaptive distrust of adults and systems that have failed them in the past. Service structures tend to be overly rigid, standardized, and prioritize prescribed service goals. Often as a result, young people tend to value autonomy and surviving on their own. This disconnect between young people and the services set up to support them means that many young people are coping on their own, left with little support or social capital to navigate the journey ahead. Our work explores how peer support, and other relationships and contexts, may help young people build social capital and other supports which help young people in moving towards the lives they desire.
Peer support (employing individuals with lived experience with homelessness as providers of support) offers a unique bridge to young people. Relying on shared experiences, empathy and nonjudgment come naturally, and connections can more easily be formed. Peers’ approaches to building relationships and supporting youth in navigating the world often look different than more conventional service methods. The research shared here allows a deeper dive into peer work, the experience of peers, and how organizations can support their work. Our hope is that it informs other programs considering integrating, or already providing, peer work, as well as peer workers themselves, who want to build better opportunities for social capital and support.
Finally, we recognize that most research which aims to support peer support work and young people experiencing homelessness does so without directly partnering with those who hold lived experience of homelessness and mental health and substance use challenges. We use participatory action research (PAR) to center these experiences on our research team and throughout our work.
Our team utilizes a participatory action research approach which involves both community-based and university-based team members in all phases of the research, from developing research questions to designing the research, collecting and analyzing the data, and disseminating the research findings. Power sharing and prioritizing lived experience are core values of our work as a team.