Loneliness is such a devastating issue of our time that in 2018 Britain appointed a Minister of Loneliness in recognition of the enormous physical and emotional toll that being lonely has on individuals and society as a whole. Specific populations bear the brunt of loneliness. Generation Z is the loneliest generation and young women identify as being the most lonely across demographics. This led our research team of academic and lived expert scholars to consider the unique experiences young women and gender-diverse people face when they transition out of homelessness. Research coming before us showed just how important social integration is to housing stability and that young people face significant hurdles in their efforts to maintain their housing, including deep levels of poverty, discrimination, and mental distress – all of which can lead to and be made worse by loneliness. Our work considers how various social locations, especially gender identity, race, and parenting status, shape young people’s experiences of transitions to housing and what we can do about it.
What we did
This research was developed in four parts. We conducted interviews with 22 young women and gender-diverse youth about their transitions from homelessness to housing, 20 of whom participated in follow-up journalling and sharing back. We also hosted eight member-checking workshops that were developed and led by a team of lived expert researchers to get participants’ perspectives on the issues and what we can do about them. Finally, we spoke with 12 service providers and informal support people about the challenges and opportunities of providing assistance during the pandemic.
The youth shared valuable knowledge with us about what it’s like to navigate transitions to housing and to stay stably housed before and during the pandemic. Overall, their narratives highlighted six key themes:
The youth were clear that loneliness does not mean being alone; in fact, many of the participants live with roommates, in transitional housing, or with a partner. Rather, they described being lonely as feeling empty, not having a strong connection with anyone else, or not having the technology (like enough data on their phone or strong internet connection) to reach out to others. While some people had positive feelings about being alone, especially people who had previously spent time in crowded shelters, many others described the negative impact of loneliness on their mental health, sense of purpose, and building friendships and networks.
That’s how loneliness feels to me. It feels like an empty building that you walk in, and when you speak the only thing you get back is the echo. – Pillar
Youth described how feeling unsafe and trying to keep themselves and their children safe was an ongoing struggle. Being housed doesn’t always mean being safe. They felt unsafe in their buildings or neighbourhoods, in some romantic or platonic relationships, and living in a world where violence against women and gender-diverse people is normalized. The youth use all sorts of strategies to try to keep themselves safe, including isolating themselves at certain times of the day or in certain spaces, which contributes to feelings of loneliness.
While not originally our intention, much of the conversation about safety came back to feeling unsafe to call the police and feeling more unsafe when police were involved in a situation. Young women and gender-diverse youth talked about the deep sense of fear they have of being “stopped for simply existing” (workshop participant). Given that many of the participants in this research are racialized, these concerns echo growing evidence of disproportionate stops and conflict with the law for Black, Indigenous, and racialized youth.
I’m more comfortable outside than in my building… [neighbours] get intoxicated and they get loud and they start saying things that shouldn’t be said, and it just gets really racist – Aaliyah
Forty-five percent of participants in this research identified as newcomers, and noted a wide range of experiences trying to navigate the social and bureaucratic context in Canada. Many expressed extreme isolation upon arriving in a new country, with most youth having no support whatsoever in Canada. All of the newcomer participants ended up in an emergency shelter upon arrival to Canada or soon after. Hateful language and discrimination were common for many of these participants from other shelter residents, potential landlords, and employers.
Because my coming was nothing really planned. I tried reaching out to people. That was not very successful but I had a friend back home, knew someone here. She said she was busy but requested her roommate come pick me up. And then I asked if we could just search online for shelters. We found one. And so, literally just picked me up and dropped me there. – Nadia
Accessing housing was a challenge for all of the youth, and the quality and conditions of that housing directly related to their feelings of loneliness and isolation. The youth delivered a number of key messages – first, that housing is not affordable and leaves people in difficult and sometimes unsafe conditions, including renting a room with a stranger, subletting various units from month to month, and staying in unsafe living environments. Second, racism and discrimination by landlords is a common experience, with racialized youth relating numerous cases of exclusion from a housing unit due to their race or ethnicity. Third, when young women and gender-diverse people found housing, being able to retain it proved difficult, either due to maintenance issues, cost, or evictions. Youth were clear that when their housing was unstable, they had less energy to open up to others and were more distrustful of other people.
We heard loud and clear from the youth who participated in this project that issues with their units and with landlords were a major source of concern. The peer research team collaborated with the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights and developed a tenant rights workshop for youth connected to this research to help young women-identifying participants learn their rights as renters and what to do if their rights are being violated.
But every time I looked for a place they’re like, no you’re too young. Or this guy didn’t rent to me because I was Black. Apparently, I don’t sound Black on the phone. I reported that guy to the landlord-tenant board. Yeah, that’s racism. – Josie
Young parents have deep experiences with loneliness and the impact of COVID on their lives was profound. They feel stigmatized for being young and having children. They described how accessing housing, education, services, and employment is very difficult with children, and feeling judged for being single parents. These experiences led many parents to isolate themselves from others, having few spaces and people that welcomed both them and their children. The pandemic made parenting harder. Connections with other people were even more limited in an effort to keep their children safe from COVID.
I realize people have so much opinions about your life when they’re not the ones adding to your life. They’re not the ones helping you, supporting you. I feel a lot of young females just be carrying it on their own. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but they are doing it. – Serena
Young people had different reactions to the pandemic. Some youth continued to see people and didn’t feel disconnected and some youth appreciated the time to slow down and refocus their lives. For the majority of participants though, COVID-19 led to increased isolation and loneliness and created significant hardship, with some people losing their housing and becoming homeless, losing their jobs, or becoming disengaged with school.
Every young person described losing some kind of service or support during the lockdowns and afterwards and for some, the virtual alternatives were either inaccessible because they didn’t always have access to a phone, laptop, or wifi, or didn’t meet their needs. Young women and gender-diverse youth described the long-term effects of the pandemic, such as lost friendships, lost jobs, and major disruptions to their housing stability.
I haven’t gone to therapy in probably 4-6 months. I’m not looking to do the Zoom chat. Therapy is hard enough when you dive into the trauma. So having to do it over the live video chat, I’m not capable. – Echo
We heard lots of good ideas from young people about what we should do to address the issue of loneliness and isolation for young women and gender-diverse youth who have experienced homelessness. At the top of the list were:
- Acknowledging loneliness as an issue that affects housing stability and providing support to build connections;
- Addressing the lack of affordable housing;
- Creating spaces that are judgment-free and safe for all genders; and
- Increased and ongoing support when transitioning from homelessness to housing
They also called for innovative partnerships with organizations and community groups to help build connections and friendships, especially programs or events geared towards young women and gender-diverse youth. Describing these moments and spaces where youth feel safe and comfortable, Brianna stated:
You pop your bubble when you find people who make you feel happy for who you are. – Brianna
To find out more details on the research and the 21 recommendations youth had to improve feelings of loneliness and isolation for young women and gender-diverse youth, you will find our report here.