Research on social and structural inequities that cause and perpetuate youth homelessness in high-income countries typically highlights factors such as familial poverty and dysfunction, mental health challenges, incomplete secondary education, inadequate employment, and discrimination based on race, disability, gender non-conformity, and sexual orientation (Abramovich, 2016; Centrepoint, 2022; Gaetz et al., 2016; Karabanow, 2008; Morton et al., 2017). Consequently, most young people enter and exit homelessness prepared for a life of survival, without adequate tangible and intangible resources needed to thrive (Dej, 2020; Gaetz et al., 2016; Samuels et al., 2019).

The focus of this paper is on social and economic inclusion for young people living in Canada who have experienced homelessness. We utilized a social determinants of health framing to capture both the material and relational nature of social and economic inclusion/exclusion (Popay et al., 2008; Solar & Irwin, 2010). The term “social” refers to factors such as social class, social capital, and social cohesion. The term “economic” refers to factors such as education, occupation, and income. We use the term “socioeconomic” in this paper given the intrinsic and inextricably linked nature of these two concepts. The term “inclusion” denotes equity in health and well-being (the outcome of equitable socioeconomic factors), with “exclusion” denoting the opposite.

There is a small but growing body of literature from longitudinal studies conducted in high-income countries that highlights how underprepared most young people are once they leave homelessness (Kidd et al., 2016; Mayock and Parker, 2019; Thulien et al., 2018). Consequently, even though they are no longer homeless, many still feel homeless—an outsider trapped in day-to-day survival without tacit (insider) knowledge as to the steps one needs to take to achieve social and economic inclusion (Brueckner et al., 2011; Kidd et al., 2016; Thulien et al., 2019a). The youth homelessness literature is underdeveloped regarding how many young people exist in this hazy, “in-between space”—the liminal space where one is housed but still feels socioeconomically excluded (Chamberlain & Johnson, 2018)—but emerging data suggest this space is precarious and challenging to navigate, and often results in a return to homelessness.

A stark example of this precarious existence was highlighted in a pan-Canadian survey of 1103 youth accessing services for youth experiencing homelessness, which revealed that 76% reported at least two failed attempts to exit homelessness (Gaetz et al., 2016). Of those, 37% reported at least five attempts (Gaetz et al., 2016). These statistics reflect youth returning to the shelter system for assistance, youth who self-identified as needing help. According to the 2018 Canadian Housing Survey (CHS) of 126,465 households (Statistics Canada, 2019), 18% of Canadians aged 15–29 responsible for making household decisions reported at least one episode of hidden homelessness (e.g., couch surfing) in their lifetime (Uppal, 2022), meaning there are likely thousands of young people who are not seeking help, living in the margins, trapped in a cycle of socioeconomic exclusion.

Understandably, one might identify the provision of stable housing as being the primary solution to assist with transitions out of homelessness; indeed, a common misconception about youth homelessness—sometimes perpetuated by well-intentioned housing advocates—is that housing in and of itself will help youth achieve socioeconomic inclusion. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. For example, in the aforementioned CHS, Uppal (2022) highlights that, even after obtaining housing, individuals who have experienced homelessness—especially visible homelessness (e.g., staying in a homeless shelter)—continue to experience substantially worse socioeconomic outcomes compared to those who have never experienced homelessness. Housing interventions that promote positive youth development and socioeconomic inclusion are urgently needed (Gaetz, 2017; Gaetz et al., 2021); however, a 2020 review of youth (aged 13–25) homelessness interventions conducted in high-income countries concluded, “The field lacks rigorous evaluative evidence of many of the program models on which communities and governments rely to address youth homelessness” (Morton et al., 2020, p. 11).

Prior to initiating the intervention discussed in this paper, some of the authors were involved in a 6-week, 6-session mixed method feasibility study designed to bolster identity capital—purpose, control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem (Côté, 2016)—as a way to foster socioeconomic inclusion for young people (n = 19) exiting homelessness (Thulien et al., 2021). Quantitative measures of self-esteem and hope—proxy indicators of socioeconomic inclusion—showed statistically significant improvements 9 months post-intervention compared to baseline. Youth who participated in qualitative focus groups spoke about the importance of a non-pathologizing approach to acquiring new skills—(re)framing their learning as something needed “to have a better life” vs. “to get better” (Thulien et al., 2021, p. 12).

The aforementioned study alongside the lead author’s 10-month critical ethnographic study on socioeconomic inclusion with youth exiting homelessness (Thulien et al., 2018, 2019a) informed the development of the overarching objective of this mixed method longitudinal study, which was to understand whether and how rent subsidies and mentorship influenced socioeconomic inclusion outcomes for youth exiting homelessness. The quantitative objectives were to examine whether proxy indicators of socioeconomic inclusion signaled improvement in the intervention group (rent subsidies + mentorship) compared to the control group (rent subsidies only), and these findings are reported elsewhere (Thulien et al., 2022). The focus of this paper is on the qualitative objectives, which evolved from a primary focus on exploring how study mentorship was working as a facilitator of socioeconomic inclusion to focusing on how participants navigated the liminal space between socioeconomic exclusion and inclusion.


The Transitioning Youth Out of Homelessness (TYOH) study was a 2-year, convergent mixed methods, community-based, pilot randomized controlled trial (RCT) with 24 young people from three cities in Ontario, Canada (Thulien et al., 2019b, 2022). Portable rent subsidies (youth could live in a location of their choice; the majority lived in market rent accommodations) ranging from $400.00 CAD to $500.00 CAD per month were provided to all participants for 2 years. Random assignment using a sealed envelope method was used to assign 13 study participants to the intervention (rent subsidies + mentorship). Study mentors were at least 5 years older than study participants and screened and selected by our three community partners.

Mentors were instructed to connect (in person, virtually, or by phone, e-mail, or text message) weekly with their mentees over the 2-year intervention period. Participants engaged in quantitative data collection (n = 24) and qualitative data generation (n = 12) every 6 months starting at baseline for 2.5 years (until 6 months after the 2-year intervention was over). We used a basic qualitative descriptive design given our primary qualitative objective was to co-construct meaning with participants regarding how the intervention was working as a facilitator of socioeconomic inclusion (Luciani et al., 2019; Merriam & Tisdell, 2016).


The lead author of this paper and principal investigator on this study has over a decade of experience working as a nurse practitioner at Covenant House Toronto—one of the three community partners collaborating on this study. She also drew on her social location as a mixed race (South Asian-European) woman and immigrant with a history of economic precarity, along with her experience conducting two other studies with this population, to help reflect more deeply on the complex and intersecting nature of socioeconomic inclusion.

Several authors on this paper have clinical and volunteer experience working with people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, all of the authors involved in qualitative data generation and analysis were able to identify with the stories of the 12 research participants by virtue of their age and life stage, and/or because of their own experiences of homelessness, addiction, mental health challenges, childhood abuse, and sexual orientation. We believe this “insider-outsider” status allowed us to reach a deeper level of analysis and interpretation, and to theorize the data and offer insights beyond superficial understandings of barriers and facilitators to socioeconomic inclusion (Eakin & Gladstone, 2020).

Axiology and theoretical framework

The overall study was guided by a commitment to community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) axiology (Israel et al., 2018; Wallerstein et al., 2018):

  • Research participants viewed as experts in their own lives.

  • Concerted effort to reduce power imbalances between the researchers and the community (e.g., creation of a community advisory board).

  • Equal value placed on academic knowledge and experiential knowledge.

  • Commitment to co-producing practical, actionable data to build community capacity and improve the lives of the research participants (e.g., creation of a documentary film and animation of study findings:

  • Duty to remain invested with the community beyond the life of the research project (see “Discussion” re: TYOH 2.0).

We used critical social theory as our theoretical framework (“analytic glasses”) to guide how we analyzed and interpreted qualitative data. Critical social theory has a social justice orientation with a focus on interrogating how inequitable social structures of power play out in the lives of the underserved (Moosa-Mitha, 2015; Strega, 2015). Utilizing critical social theory as theoretical scaffolding meant we started with individual participant experiences and worked backwards to understand and expose inequitable societal conditions that made it challenging for young people to achieve meaningful socioeconomic inclusion. At the same time, we tried to approach qualitative data co-generation, analysis, and interpretation with humility—speaking with rather than for participants—to avoid (re)producing oppression, and searched for examples of individual agency and resilience in their stories despite structural inequities (Kirkham & Anderson, 2010).

Data generation and analysis

From May 2019 to February 2022, the lead author met every 6 months with 12 study participants (four from each city). Seven participants were receiving rent subsidies and mentorship, and five were only receiving rent subsidies. We made the decision to follow a small number of participants over an extended period of time to get a deeper sense of how the mentorship relationships were evolving over time. There were also pragmatic considerations given participants lived in three different cities and the initial intention (prior to pandemic-related restrictions) was to conduct all the interviews in-person. We chose to include participants in both the intervention and the control group because we wanted to compare/contrast their experiences and explore whether there may be factors other than study mentorship mediating socioeconomic inclusion.

There were 24 in-person interviews conducted before pandemic-related restrictions required changing to video or phone for the other 47 interviews (one person chose not to participate in their final interview). Interview questions were loosely structured and conversational in nature, focused on socioeconomic inclusion and questions that arose from analysis of prior interviews. Field notes were written immediately after each interview and contained a mixture of what could not be captured through audio recordings (e.g., participant surroundings and a general sense of their well-being) and preliminary analytic insights. All interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed by a member of the research team.

We used reflexive thematic analysis to help us make sense of the qualitative data (Braun and Clarke, 2022). Briefly, reflexive thematic analysis is part of an analytic process comprised of six iterative phases (data familiarization, coding, initial theme generation [patterns anchored by a shared idea/concept], theme development and review, theme refining, and writing up) that also requires engagement with theory, reflexivity, and interpretation (Braun and Clarke, 2022). The qualitative research team met monthly for 90–120 min over 2.5 years and was committed to “value-adding” analysis (Eakin & Gladstone, 2020, p.1)—pushing ourselves to go beyond “bare bones”/superficial interpretations (Mykhalovskiy et al., 2018, p. 614) and re-conceptualize/re-frame the issue of socioeconomic inclusion for youth exiting homelessness.

During the team meetings, we discussed what was and was not (Kawabata & Gastaldo, 2015) present in the transcripts (e.g., sometimes participants did not answer how team members might have expected). The lead author would often share emerging analytic insights with study participants, and their feedback was discussed at subsequent team meetings. Analysis and interpretation were primarily inductive (moving from data to conceptualizing—e.g., liminality); however, deductive reasoning (moving from conceptualizing to data) was also employed when we saw familiar theoretical notions (e.g., identity capital) and when we wanted to understand the data through the lens of our emerging conceptual framework. The web-based application Dedoose (Version 9.0.46) was utilized to assist with sorting and coding the qualitative data.

There is a common understanding among qualitative researchers that the main research question one goes into the study with might end up being different than the one that actually gets answered; the question is more like a “compass” than an “anchor” (Eakin & Mykhalovskiy, 2003, p. 190). This was certainly our experience with this study. In the initial set of interviews, we focused on trying to understand the difference between the seven youth receiving rent subsidies and formal mentorship (intervention group) and the five youth only receiving rent subsidies (control group). However, we quickly learned that the journey toward socioeconomic inclusion was complex and non-linear, and the way youth navigated that journey was associated more with factors such as informal mentorship (mentors outside our study) and having strong identity capital—a sense of purpose and belief in their ability to control their destinies (Côté, 2016)—rather than whether or not they were assigned a formal study mentor. In light of these early interpretations of the data, we shifted our orientation to understanding how the young people as a cohort navigated the dim, liminal space of post-homelessness, and the challenges of breaking free from the fog of exclusion.


The baseline demographics of those participating in qualitative interviews were similar to the overall cohort of study participants (Table 1). The average age of qualitative interview participants was 22 years; most experienced homelessness for the first time before they turned 18. Half self-identified as a woman, and half self-identified as a different race/ethnicity than white. The majority were born in Canada. Just over half had experiences with child welfare involvement. Half had attempted to exit homelessness three or more times; one third of those had tried at least five times. Most had finished high school. A notable number had regular contact with an adult relative, and almost half were able to identify informal mentors (mentors outside the study). Just over half the participants were employed, and most were receiving some form of government income support. All participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE); a notable majority reported four or more.

Table 1 Baseline participant demographics

We generated three central themes from our qualitative analysis and interpretation: circling, trapped, and breaking free (Fig. 1). Pseudonyms chosen by participants are used throughout. Lengthy pauses are indicated by … and […] is used to denote missing text.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Navigating the liminal space between socioeconomic exclusion and inclusion

Circling: living in the legacy

When I think about my future, I just see darkness. I don’t know what to expect from it because I’m not really planning for it.” (Mazi, baseline interview)

At various points during the study—especially at the beginning—we noticed many participants either had a hard time articulating their goals or described their future using words like “dark”, “fog”, “hazy”, “fuzzy”, “circle-y”, and “murky”—like they were trying to look through a foggy window. Many expressed a sense of purposelessness and mundaneness to their existence and a feeling that the future was either too overwhelming to consider or simply out of their control. The majority of participants grew up in homes with varying degrees of family dysfunction and financial stress, and many described traumatizing primary and secondary school experiences such as bullying and negative messages about their cognitive ability. Most continued to live in the legacy of these childhood experiences—thrust into adult roles as teenagers (some even earlier), consumed with making ends meet rather than planning for the future:

I think maybe when you’re in a position where you have to take care of yourself, and that causes you to be paycheck to paycheck, and you’re struggling even though you don’t have other responsibilities, you just kind of feel like you’re not going to have a chance to actually pursue what you actually may want, or actually want in life, because you have to worry about these little things, these minor things. Already, it’s like you don’t have the fair chance to actually look towards an actual bright future for yourself. (Monique, 6-month interview)

At the time of this interview, Monique had consistent full-time (minimum wage) employment and was housed; on the outside, she had “successfully” exited homelessness. Despite these achievements, she demonstrated an acute awareness of forced self-reliance and inequitable life chances. The experience of navigating a post-homelessness existence was also confounded by structures that seemed almost intentionally cruel and challenging to maneuver:

I went into this circle of being told to obtain stable housing to be able to get the children back to my care, but [social welfare program] is not giving me enough to do that, so I went in this circle of not being able to get housing, and then [child protective services] won’t return the children until I can get housing, so it was a constant circle I was going through. […] So now [that she is receiving rent subsidies through the study] I can show them that I am doing consistent groceries and that I have a bus pass to be able to get to my appointments. I’m kinda like showing stability and the fact that I am able to do what I need to do. Then when they have my visit showing the adequacy, it shows that I have prepared for the children for when they come. (Alice, baseline interview)

Notable from this excerpt is that, despite living in poverty and navigating life on her own, Alice was expected to present the illusion of stability and demonstrate “adequacy” to those who have the power to take away her children for good. Almost 2.5 years later, Alice was still living in a two-bedroom apartment (required by child protective services to prove she had room for the children) trying to get her children back and demonstrate adequacy:

How am I supposed to pay rent for a two-bedroom place on a single person income? My single person income is $1,100 and my rent is $960 and change. […] I’m constantly stuck in the catch-22. (Alice, 30-month interview)

Trapped: searching for connection and home

Home is not a place – it’s not just a place where you sleep. It’s a place where you feel comfortable to be who you want to be. It’s not acting for someone else. It’s not worrying about who’s listening or what you have to say or how you have to dress or how you have to act. It’s just some place that you can exist as you.” (Colin, 12-month interview)

As we journeyed with the young people over the course of 2.5 years, we saw that some seemed to be stuck circling; even though they were housed, they did not feel at home. As we dug deeper into the experience of housed vs. home, we came to understand that “housed” was a tangible physical structure, but “home” was an intangible sense of physical/mental safety and connection to oneself and to others—an awareness of belonging, of inclusion. In other words, house and home were related but not synonymous concepts.

In this excerpt from Colin, he was describing his experience of searching for home while existing in transitional, in-between spaces—couch surfing with relatives and friends after high school and then moving into the first space of his own, where he did not feel safe or connected. By the end of the study, home for Colin meant reconciling with his father and then renting a three-bedroom townhome together. For other study participants, even after 2.5 years of relative housing stability, they were still searching for connection and home:

There’s like some weird sense of home there [homeless shelter] that neither of us have had anywhere else. I have people who feel like home […]. Home is not really a place. (Riccio, 30-month interview)

It is remarkable that, despite the fact that Riccio had been living away from the shelter for over 3 years, it was still the only physical space that felt like home. In this excerpt, she was including the experience of her partner, who was living in a shelter at the time. Similar to Monique who displayed external markers of success (steady employment and housing), Riccio was pursuing post-secondary education, volunteering as a peer mentor in the homelessness sector, and living in market rent housing. Still, on the inside, part of her longed for the only physical place that ever felt like home: the homeless shelter. Like Colin, Riccio explained that a sense of home had more to do with connection than a physical structure.

In addition to the uneasy sense of not being settled, young people trapped in the dark fog of exclusion generally had limited insight into how to move forward and extremely limited social connections. Jordan described the complicated entanglement between self-understanding and socioeconomic inequities he was still navigating 2 years into the study while living with his parents, partner, and new baby:

[Having a baby] makes me feel like I have more of a purpose now, ‘cause like beforehand, I didn’t really know what my point was in life, to be honest. […] We get about six or seven hundred dollars in child tax credit now since I sent in the paperwork […] It couldn’t have come at a better time because we were almost out of baby food and formula and stuff. My parents need us to [help financially] – like last month for instance, my dad made too much at work, so my mom got less from ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program; enhanced financial resources for those with a diagnosed disability]. So, they needed the full $600 [for rent] in one shot rather than $300 in the beginning and $300 in the middle […] I applied for ODSP, but they declined me twice, three times. I guess my anxiety and stuff wasn’t good enough. (Jordan, 24-month interview)

Like Colin, Jordan moved in with his parents during the study and was helping pay the rent. It is clear from this excerpt that money was tight; this was the only existence Jordan had ever known. He had not finished high school and felt overwhelmed at the thought of applying for and holding down a job. Jordan was trapped in a generational cycle of socioeconomic exclusion. To help relieve some of the financial strain, he sought the same government supports that had been provided to his mother. His comment that his anxiety “wasn’t good enough” is similar to Alice’s comment about “adequacy” and highlights the burden of socioeconomic inclusion carried by many participants as they navigated a post-homelessness existence. Six months later, Jordan was still unclear how to move forward when asked to consider where he might be in 5 years:

All I can think of for an answer to that one is not here. It needs to be different […] but I can’t quite clearly see what it’s going to look like […] My family operates on something we call chaos theory. I thrive on the quote unquote chaos of not really having a plan. […] for the most part, if I plan something out, nothing works to my plan. (Jordan, 30-month interview)

Jordan’s comments from two different points during the study highlight three intrinsically connected ideas we heard from others who seemed trapped: (1) a sense of not being settled, not being home; (2) limited understanding as to why they existed; how they might connect with and contribute to society; and (3) even if they did gain an awareness of purpose (like Jordan had as a new father), socioeconomic inequities and an unclear vision made it challenging to have a sense of power and control over that purpose. Jordan’s use of the word “chaos” (i.e., confusion) and belief that his plans do not generally come to fruition are particularly insightful and help illuminate the mindset of participants trapped in a cycle of socioeconomic exclusion.

Breaking free: the power of connection and identity

I think spirituality is really important because it’s an understanding of ourselves. I feel like when we don’t understand what we’re doing here and who we are it makes it really difficult to navigate because you don’t even understand what you’re navigating for in the first place – especially when you’re not really pleased with what’s going on and then you feel kind of like you’re out of control and you’re trying to grasp control, but you don’t really believe that you have control, and it’s just not a great place to be in when you’re actually so much more powerful than you know.” (Monique, 30 months)

Over the course of 2.5 years, we saw some of the young people begin to break free from the fog of exclusion. While this was not always a linear path, we observed a pattern of connection—spiritual, internal, and external—among those on the journey to inclusion. That sense of connection was intrinsically linked to an awareness of being “home” and possessing strong identity capital—a sense of purpose, control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem (Côté, 2016). For Monique, connecting to a higher power, self-understanding, and a sense of purpose were key to healing feelings of powerlessness (note the number of times she uses the word “control”) that she described (above) in her 6-month interview. Others shared similar illuminating insights about the power of connection:

I’ve been working a lot. I’ve been getting to know a lot of my coworkers, so it’s been alright. It’s a really small town out here so everybody knows each other. [My job is] unionized so people that work there for like 10 to 15 years, they know each other. They are all good people; I like working with them. […] I use work like it’s an antidepressant […] It makes me feel productive, like I’m actually contributing to society. […] I got a lot of relatives that have been on disability their whole lives. Like, it’s not a good way to live your life, right? Like nobody’s ever going to be happy like that. Really, it’s an endless cycle. (Robin, 30-month interview)

In this excerpt, Robin articulates the inextricable link between connection, mental well-being, and a sense of purpose. Robin began experiencing homelessness as a teenager—living under a bridge at one point—battled addiction and struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. At his baseline interview, he described his one-room accommodation as a “prison cell” where “mice watch me sleep” and described himself as “a worthless piece of shit” with a general dislike/distrust of others. In baseline interview field notes, the lead author described his appearance as “disheveled” and noted his clothing, hair, and hands appeared unwashed. By his 12-month interview, Robin had moved in with his mom who was living in a small community, and by his 24-month interview, he had found full-time employment in a factory that offered a stable job and a living wage salary. At his 30-month interview, he agreed to a video call (the 12-, 18-, and 24-month interviews were done over the phone), and the lead author noted in her field notes how different he looked compared to when they first met—he was well groomed and seemed happy. It was inspiring to witness Robin’s journey, which would likely have gone a different direction if not for the connection with family, community, and employment.

Diverse connections—spiritual, internal, and external—helped foster a sense of purpose and healthy self-esteem, and in return, having a sense of purpose and healthy self-esteem fostered diverse connections:

Sometimes when I’m feeling down or when something happens, I call people around me. I have people like [friend] and I call her sometimes. And I call some of the church members. My pastor, she has my number. She calls me all the time. I call her any time. So, I call her [the pastor], I tell her what happened. And she’ll be like, ‘Oh don’t worry, it will be fine. Everybody goes through this.’ Blah blah blah. ‘We’ll pray for you.’ I’ll be like, ‘Okay thank you so much.’ And then my mind will kind of lift up again. And some students I met in school in first semester, they were already in their second or third semester, so I talked to them. They’ll be like, ‘This is how it is. Just don’t give up. You should be fine. You’ll be okay.’ You need positive people around you. Like even [former outreach worker from the shelter] too, I talk to her, and she’ll be like, ‘Sara don’t worry [laughs], you’ll get through it. Yeah, I always call people when I’m having a bad time. I call [former outreach worker], I call my friends, and people in the church. I’ll be like, ‘Oh Jesus, how can I do this?’ They’ll be like, ‘Don’t worry; you will do it.’ (Sara, 24-month interview)

Sara had come to Canada alone as a teenage refugee and spent several years working for minimum wage and living precariously while upgrading her high school education. When she enrolled in the study, she was embarking on a 2-year practical nursing diploma, which she finished, graduating on the Dean’s list. While Sara definitely had a sense of purpose, life was challenging at times, and she was sometimes tempted to give up. Instead, she reached out to her strong network of informal mentors—friends, church members, fellow students, and her former outreach worker—for encouragement and support. Two insights are notable from this excerpt: (1) an understanding of the need to be surrounded by positive people and (2) most of the time, the impetus was on Sara to reach out. In other words, there was an intentionality—a strategy—to Sara’s journey and a symbiotic relationship between identity, connection, and the ability to break through the liminality of post-homelessness and reach toward a sense of home.


This 2.5-year study offers a unique longitudinal perspective on the tremendous inner strength and momentum needed to navigate through and break free from the hazy, liminal space between socioeconomic exclusion and inclusion. Crucially, these experiences existed despite the provision of portable rent subsidies for 2 years, and regardless of being assigned a formal study mentor. These qualitative insights align with our quantitative data that showed no statistically significant improvements in proxy indicators of socioeconomic inclusion in the intervention group (rent subsidies + mentorship) relative to the control group (rent subsidies only) 18 months post-randomization (Thulien et al., 2022).

Socioeconomic inequities along with negative explicit and implicit messages about who these young people were and what they might become set them up to remain in their liminal post-homelessness existence—to succumb to the path of least resistance—rather than forging ahead. Those able to break free from the fog had a sense of purposefulness to their existence, a feeling of being home—belonging to themselves—not wholly dependent on physical accommodation, and were surrounded by diverse connections that helped guide and encourage them on their journey. We observed the potential positive impact of diverse connections in our quantitative data as well; ancillary analysis suggested those with informal mentors at baseline—found in places like school, work, and faith communities—felt significantly more psychologically integrated into the community at 18 months relative to those with no informal mentors at baseline (Thulien et al., 2022). Indeed, peer-reviewed evidence on informal (or “natural”) mentors signals the favourable influence of these “coach-like” connections on underserved youth such as those with current or past experiences with foster care or homelessness (Dang & Miller, 2013; Thompson et al., 2016; Van Dam et al., 2018).

The importance of shifting focus to fostering a sense of home (an intangible feeling of connection and belonging) vs. focusing primarily on housing (a tangible physical structure) is a crucial learning from this study and challenges individual-oriented conceptualizations of what young people exiting homelessness require for meaningful socioeconomic inclusion. An overemphasis on the latter may explain why systematic reviews of qualitative and quantitative studies and rigorous trials of housing-focused interventions (e.g., Housing First) conducted in high-income countries show that it is challenging to demonstrate significant improvements in outcomes beyond housing stability compared with treatment as usual (Aubry et al., 2020; Chen et al., 2022; Kozloff et al., 2016; Marshall et al., 2022; Stergiopolous et al., 2019). Taken together, these findings indicate the urgent need to focus on outcomes beyond housing stability, especially for young people attempting to transition out of homelessness.

The importance of utilizing identity capital to help navigate through and break free from the post-homelessness fog was a fundamental takeaway from this longitudinal study and has important implications for front-line practice and future interventions. There is a socioeconomic “grooming” that begins at birth (Browman et al., 2019a; Oyserman & Destin, 2010), and most participants in our study—74% of whom had an ACE score of at least four, meaning they were essentially predisposed to poor health outcomes, including homelessness (Destin, 2019; Liu et al., 2021)—were groomed for exclusion. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes evident that individual-level interventions addressing inequitable internal resources such as identity capital are just as—if not more—important as addressing inequitable external resources such as affordable housing for youth exiting homelessness.

Intervening on some or all components of identity capital to mediate socioeconomic inclusion for youth who have experienced homelessness is a nascent area of research, but there are some promising transferrable findings from interventions with youth who were currently experiencing homelessness and interventions where youth may not have experienced homelessness but were from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Browman et al., 2019b; Cumming et al., 2022; Destin et al., 2021; Krabbenborg et al., 2017; Slesnick et al., 2016). We plan to build on this learning and conduct a 1-year RCT with youth exiting homelessness, offering rent subsidies to all and randomizing half to a coach (mimicking informal mentorship and targeting identity capital) and co-designed (with youth from this study) leadership program. In keeping with CBPAR principles, we are collaborating with the same community partners and working with young people from this study to co-design the upcoming study—TYOH 2.0. Additionally, three young people from this study are paid participants on the TYOH 2.0 advisory board.


More than half of the interviews took place over the phone or virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to being cognisant that these data were generated at a unique time in history (i.e., participants’ responses may be different post-pandemic), not being able to meet in-person limited the ability of the lead author to fully engage with participants and utilize non-verbal cues as data in the analysis and interpretation. Also, all of the participants lived in urban areas, the majority were born in Canada, and more than half had completed high school. Youth living in rural/remote regions, born outside of Canada, and having less formal education may experience exiting homelessness differently.


Despite receiving rent subsidies and achieving relative housing stability, participants’ post-homelessness existence was marked by exclusion, and many were not equipped with the tools to navigate this dim, liminal space. Utilizing a holistic understanding of home (facilitating connection and belonging along with housing) and fostering identity capital may be key to helping young people achieve socioeconomic inclusion.

Contributions to knowledge

What does this study add to existing knowledge?

  • A unique longitudinal perspective on youth post-homelessness existence.

  • Conceptual insights regarding the challenges of exiting homelessness and navigating the liminal space between socioeconomic exclusion and inclusion.

  • An enhanced understanding of the internal and external resources required to foster socioeconomic inclusion.

What are the key implications for public health interventions, practice, or policy?

  • Rigorous interventions with a primary outcome of socioeconomic inclusion (not housing stability) underpinned by a holistic understanding of home for youth exiting homelessness are urgently needed.

  • Youth exiting homelessness require a feeling of home (not just a house), diverse connections (especially informal/natural connections), and a sense of purpose and control (identity capital); failure to address all three of these fundamental areas will likely leave youth trapped in a cycle of socioeconomic exclusion.