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Research with homeless youth: Balancing community involvement and research requirements

Naomi Dachner, MSc1, Valerie Tarasuk, PhD1, Stephen Gaetz, PhD2, and Blake Poland, PhD3. (1) Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto, 150 College St., FitzGerald Building, Toronto, ON M5S 3E2, Canada, 416-978-5452, naomi.dachner@utoronto.ca, (2) Faculty of Education, York University, 4700 Keele St., Ross Building, Toronto, ON M3J 1P3, Canada, (3) Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto, McMurrich Building, 12 Queen's Park Crescent West, Toronto, ON M5S 1A8, Canada

The meaningful involvement of community members is the defining principle of community-based research, but there remains a paucity of literature to assist researchers in negotiating a balance between community needs and research requirements. Our experience conducting a study of nutritional vulnerability among homeless youth in Toronto highlights this tension. We hired five formerly homeless youth to work as interviewers on this project. The youth were selected from a pool of over 200 applicants, and they underwent six weeks of training to become familiar with the research process and master the necessary data collection procedures. The interviewers' reflections on their own experiences and their unique insights into study participants' situations led to the identification of new areas for investigation and enhanced our interpretation of the data collected. Their comfort in working 'on the street' and the ease with which they established trust and rapport with youth in particularly vulnerable circumstances is evidenced by the 90% response rate, the high proportion (70%) of participants recruited directly from street-based locations (e.g., under bridges, abandoned buildings, makeshift shelters), and the 75% success rate in obtaining follow-up interviews with participants.

Despite this success, personal issues related to the interviewers' complex histories and life situations (e.g., addictions, interpersonal problems, unstable housing) posed ongoing challenges over the course of their employment. We experienced a constant tension between supporting interviewers in their personal struggles and fulfilling research requirements. We will present our experiences of working with homeless youth and share our learnings about constructive approaches to supervising their employment.

Learning Objectives:

  • At the conclusion of the session, the participant (learner) will be able to

    Presenting author's disclosure statement:
    I do not have any significant financial interest/arrangement or affiliation with any organization/institution whose products or services are being discussed in this session.

    Interventions, Evaluations and Research Issues and Findings Among Homeless Populations

    The 132nd Annual Meeting (November 6-10, 2004) of APHA