How can a youth shelter expedite young people's exits from homelessness?

Developing a resiliency-based approach to help understand young people’s journeys in and out homelessness, and to help address their needs.

In 2019, as part of the Canadian National Housing Strategy, Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth in collaboration with Doblin Canada, was awarded funding to look at the journeys of young people moving into and out of homelessness and identify tangible ways for organizations to make a difference. Given the complexity of the challenge and the population of young people involved, the team adopted an approach that combined service design with a resiliency-based and trauma-informed framework. The outcome was a new research method and a public toolkit outlining a process for other organizations to replicate or build upon.

There were three parts to this project: method creation, delivery, and reflection. To create the method, we began by framing the challenge and developing a traditional research plan. We spent three days in a trauma-informed training session led by Dr. Vikki Reynolds—an activist, instructor, clinical supervisor and consultant who developed the resiliency-based model we were adapting. Following the training, we led a co-design session where the research plan was tested and challenged by frontline staff, caseworkers, academic researchers, and people with lived experiences of homelessness and housing precarity. We developed the final set of research artifacts, including a new tool called Resiliency Cards—used to prompt interview participants to reframe difficult decisions they made through their journeys as acts of resilience. During the interviews, reading and selecting cards such as “I figured out how to be safe” or “I protected myself” palpably shifted a young person's own narrative to one that recognized and honoured their resistance to violence, hardship and oppression experienced—a tangible example of what it means to combine a trauma-informed approach with service design.

Using the tested artifacts, a researcher and peer-researcher from Eva’s jointly conducted fieldwork over the course of two months, interviewing self-selected youth ranging from 16-24 years of age with experiences of homelessness and housing precarity. The process involved continuously reflecting and iterating on the method to ensure that the safety of young people and researchers were at the core of the work. The findings were consolidated into two overarching maps that illustrated different layers of a young person’s journey—their touchpoints with various systems, types of support networks (formal and informal), decision drivers, personal experiences, and gaps to address. From the gaps identified in the maps, we co-designed ten approaches ranging from public policy considerations to new programs and technologies with Eva’s staff, and selected key areas of opportunity to further prototype. While still early to evaluate their impact, the co-designed strategies from this project provide a roadmap to address gaps identified in the user research.

A toolkit was also developed that documented this process and included a field guide on carrying out an interview with a young person with lived experience of homelessness and housing precarity. With a focus on “structuring safety” we developed pre-interview leading practices, interview guidelines, and key steps to take post-interview.

Combining traditional design research with a known application of resiliency-based practice was a new challenge. It required a diverse set of voices, a strong understanding of the methodologies, and a willingness to push, bend, and break the methods in order to co-develop a new approach centred on the experience of young people. Throughout the project, we aligned ourselves on two core ethical assumptions from Dr. Reynold’s work: the first is that “people’s behaviours always make sense,” and the second is that “people are always trying to be safe.” When you are able to lead with these assumptions, and to meet youth where they are at, it reframes your understanding of behaviour and choice. For instance, instead of viewing a young person who chooses to not disclose personal information as being difficult, this action can be seen as a sign that the young person does not feel safe enough to provide it. Grounding ourselves in these assumptions enabled our team to identify and follow practices that put the safety of the youth participants first.

The project received two honorable mentions in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas of 2020 for World Changing Idea North America and Social Justice. Also, in May 2020, Eva’s and Doblin used the framework to develop an open-source tool called Every Little Act designed to help frontline workers, families and individuals acknowledge daily acts of resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One young person, after describing years of trauma, found the resiliency cards reframed their past experiences in a new, hopeful light and triumphantly declared “the resiliency cards are my story.

– Eva's Initiatives

We'd like to acknowledge the efforts of Kay Dyson Tam, Alzahra Hudani (Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth), and Kristen Szekszardi (peer researcher) for their commitment and contributions to this project. We’d also like to thank Vikki Reynolds and Kaitlin Schwan for their guidance and input.


interviews with young people experiencing housing precarity/homelessness


months of collaborative work from training to research and analysis


days of trauma-informed training and co-design


co-design participants frontline workers, lived experience, sector stakeholders