For years, Eric Weissman has heard stories about university students sleeping in gym change rooms, couch surfing for years on end, or even sleeping in their cars in campus parking lots.
What the University of New Brunswick sociology professor couldn’t find was hard data on how homelessness affects Canadian postsecondary students. “I honestly believed there must be other researchers doing work on this; it’s one of those topics where there has to be,” he says. With very few exceptions, there weren’t.
The issue wasn’t purely academic for him, either. Intermittently homeless and addicted to drugs in his 20s and early 30s, he entered rehab in 1995 after a doctor told him he’d be dead within a month otherwise. He eventually returned to the academic career his addictions had derailed, and continued working with people experiencing poverty and homelessness. But he’d never been able to dig up much data on student homelessness, which seemed to exist mostly in the shadows of rumour, anecdote and stigma.
In 2017, while working as a sessional instructor at Red Deer College, Dr. Weissman created an anonymous, 40-question survey on the topic, and distributed it to the student body by email. To his surprise, seven students – 3.6 percent of respondents – reported being currently homeless (as defined by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which uses a scale ranging from “unsheltered” to “provisionally accommodated”). Nearly 35 percent had experienced at least brief bouts of homelessness as students, and of those, 13.5 percent had at some point lacked even provisional accommodation.
“The numbers honestly shocked us,” says Dr. Weissman. So when he took a position last June as an assistant professor in sociology at UNB’s Saint John campus, he repeated the survey. The number of currently homeless respondents was strikingly similar: 3.4 percent.
If that rough figure turns out to be commonplace, it would mean that 70,000 Canadian students grapple with some degree of homelessness at any given time. “We can’t draw any conclusions yet,” says Dr. Weissman. “It’s just two small surveys, in only two small cities. But it begs for further study.”
As news of the survey spread last year, other academics approached Dr. Weissman. He’s now partnered with two co-investigators – Rebecca Schiff at Lakehead University and Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff at the University of Calgary. He’s also applying for a SSHRC grant to expand the study’s scope nationally. (The survey is just getting underway at Lakehead, and undergoing ethics review at U of C. So far, the work has been supported only by in-kind labour and a few dollars from departmental budgets.)
Besides putting together a baseline idea of prevalence, the study will aim to prescribe how institutions can better provide for students in need – few universities have programs specifically targeting homeless students. One exception is the University of Alberta, which last fall launched a pilot project offering a safety net of supports to students struggling with housing precarity.
“A lot of people believe that if you can afford university, surely you can afford necessities like housing,” says Kevin Friese, assistant dean of students, health and wellness, at U of A. “But a campus is like a mini-city, and like any city, we have people struggling with financial difficulty, or relationship problems, or mental-health issues.” The latter is especially relevant to Dr. Weissman’s research: 58 percent of respondents to the Red Deer survey, and 56 percent to the UNB survey, indicated a past mental-health diagnosis or treatment. Mr. Friese is considering joining Dr. Weissman’s study, and hopes it will create a more detailed portrait of prevalence and needs.
“The true goal is really to better understand the costs, to students and Canadian society, of this,” says Dr. Weissman. “I want policy-makers to know that there are economic costs, lost productivity, lost human potential, and we need to get a handle on this.”