Exploring Isolation and the Realities of Women Transitioning to Housing

We spoke with Dr. Erin Dej, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Charlotte Smith, Master’s Student, at Carleton University and Peer Researcher. Dr. Dej, Smith and their team of researchers are conducting innovative research exploring the impact of isolation amongst women experiencing housing instability. The project “Understanding young women’s experiences of loneliness and isolation during COVID-19 and beyond: Participatory research to envision a way forward”, examines isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – a time when the majority of the world experienced novel and severe lockdown measures. 

What influences led you to examine this particular research question?

For Smith, she had heard a lot about Dr. Dej and Dr. Kaitlin Schwan (another co-investigator on the project) and aspired to work with them. Smith noted that as an undergraduate, she found Schwan’s papers were always written in accessible language, giving Smith space to engage with Dr. Schwan’s work deeply. Later, Smith met Dr. Dej at a conference and experienced firsthand Dr. Dej’s openness to learn from people with Lived Experience. 

For Dr. Dej, one person in particular she met during her PhD research had left an impression on her and influenced her interest in exploring the impacts of loneliness: “he was very well housed, very happy in his housing and had a good landlord, and he had lots of wraparound support. And I met him at a shelter because he was so abjectly lonely, so incredibly lonely, that he kept returning to the shelter just for somebody to talk to. Looking for that really basic human connection. He talked a lot about his loneliness, and it got to the point that he ended up losing his housing and becoming homeless and he really attributed it to his loneliness.” The experience sparked Dr. Dej’s interest in and concern about loneliness.

In your proposal you cite: women under 35 are Canada’s loneliest demographic, regardless of housing status, with almost 60% wanting but not having someone to talk to.¹ Can you speak more to what’s informing this trend and why this demographic has been so hard hit in particular?

While the vast majority of research about loneliness focuses on older adults, digging into data shows that young people, and young women specifically, are the demographic who are the most lonely. These findings are pre-COVID and there’s data that suggests the pandemic has only made things worse, recounted Dr. Dej. 

Dej continued, “As people live their lives online, and more so with the pandemic, it can be very unsafe and isolating for young women.” 

Smith expanded on the concept of safety, based on preliminary themes identified in the solution design workshops with young women who have experienced transitions from homelessness to housing. 

“We’ve heard about not necessarily being physically alone but not having supported ways to connect with social groups, and feeling judgment and stigma,” Smith explained. “Waitlists for professional services also came up. These are things that can make us feel lonely, when you’re not able to access the help you need, when you need it.  Or when there are barriers to trying to access health services. Another thing that came up is professional support workers, who are either not trained correctly or are unable to fulfill the needs of the young people in their role.” 

Smith further spoke of the discovery that young women and gender diverse populations were isolating as a form of harm reduction for themselves. “They’re trying to protect themselves. Maybe they’re single mothers trying to raise children; and as much as they want a partner or friends, they just can’t take the risk that opening themselves up to more people poses. It also might disrupt the minimal security that they’ve already established for themselves and their families.” 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic either disrupted your work and/or provided opportunities?

The researchers noted the increased challenge of building trust with participants in virtual settings. As well as the issue of accessibility – only those with internet and devices that could conference call were able to participate in the study.  

On the other hand, one of the major opportunities that came from modifying the project to the pandemic context, was the study recruited participants across Ontario, rather than from two sites as previously planned for. Additionally, the researchers found they were able to engage people in various ways online; for instance, people who were more comfortable using the chat box function, or turning off their video camera to participate. As these may have been people who felt less comfortable sharing their experiences, in a face-to-face format. 

How do you feel the homelessness sector handles issues related to women? 

Dr. Dej noted there is a lot of work being done at this time, with the sector turning its attention to women and other marginalized groups. The Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network has advocated nationally for prioritizing the unique needs and conditions of women and gender diverse people who are homeless or housing insecure. Smith stated that change happens too slowly for women and gender-diverse people, as they continue to be bound in toxic relationships and trapped by the inaccessibility of living independently. 

“The work that is happening right now challenges the preconceived idea about homelessness being about only old white men, with the participants of this study, we were able to highlight the experience of young racialized women,” said Dr. Dej. 

The study engaged a diverse group of people with: 

  • 13% identified as trans or gender non con-conforming; 86% identified as a cisgender woman
  • 45% identified as LGBTQ2S+
  • 55% identified as a person of colour; 40% identified as white. 

Can you highlight how the expertise of Lived Experience informed your project? 

Smith highlighted the positive impact of having people with lived experience to work with, as well as participants reporting they felt increased comfort sharing their perspective with people who related to and reflected their experiences. 

Dr. Dej stated “the shape and the nature of the research benefited greatly from Charlotte, Chinué, and Holly’s leadership. With data collection, analysis and knowledge mobilization – the team of Lived Experts see things and make connections that those without lived experience can’t.” 

Can you speak to the impact of MtS funding on project delivery

“The MtS funding allowed us to do truly participatory research in a way that worked for our team of peer researchers. It allowed us to do participatory research right. The kind of flexibility and understanding that it took to conduct a research project that meaningfully included lived experts was a true game changer. Most funding programs say ‘no’ to a lot of things that lived experts need to truly participate in the research, for example paying the internet bills of lived experts who need to do this work online”, Dej remarked.

The next steps for the project team will be to come together and conduct analysis of the data. As well as develop a plan for mobilizing the knowledge to be used by key stakeholders, such as social workers, housing workers and government officials. To learn more and engage further with the team’s work, check out their project page here

Research Team: 

Charlotte Smith, Lead Peer Researcher, Department of Sociology, Carleton University 

Chinué Bute (she/her), Peer Researcher, University of Toronto 

Holly Petersen (she/they), Peer Researcher, Wilfrid Laurier University 

Dr. Erin Dej, Principal Investigator, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology, Wilfrid Laurier University,

Dr. Kaitlin Schwan, Co-Investigator, Senior Researcher, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness 

Jayne Malenfant, Co-Investigator, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University

Dr. Sean Kidd, Co-Investigator, Division Chief, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Dr. Naomi Thulien, Co-Investigator, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing, McMaster University. 


¹Angus Reid Institute. (2019). A portrait of social isolation and loneliness in Canada today. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2TzTmTL