Post-secondary Student Homeless/Housing Research Network

Solving student housing issues in Canada

Project Description

The current project summary (video)


73% of Canada’s 2,180,000 post-secondary (PS) students are youth 17-24 years old;  about 5% face various forms of homelessness and housing insecurity each year ranging from being literally unsheltered to chronic couch surfing, and more discrete under-recognized forms of housing insecurity, such as remaining in abusive homes or relationships. So there are social, structural, psychological, and emotional qualities to PSSH. PSSH is conditioned by many socioeconomic and demographic variables and disproportionately impacts Canada’s Indigenous and international students, and impacts the transitions of recent immigrants to Canada. Homelessness and housing insecurity can be rethought more broadly as losses of affiliation with loved ones, ancestors, homeplaces and communities, and one’s self, a position well-stated by Métis scholar and historian, Jesse Thistle’s typology in The Indigenous Definition of Homelessness in Canada (COH 2017). ). Based on our earlier surveys of 4 sites and a review of literature, PSSH disrupts practical outcomes like finding a job and exacerbates or prolongs homelessness - in some cases hidden homelessness, like intermittent couch-surfing becomes literal homelessness and students make dangerous housing decisions, like entering the sex trade or staying in abusive situations to stay housed in school. Some Canadian research looks at barriers to primary and secondary school education in low-income families and on Indigenous groups, and international students, yet the data that administrations and students possess to strategize around Post-secondary experiences is weaker. Many researchers and stakeholders are supporting concrete demonstration projects so there is an uptick in new information in Canada.

An Interactive Data Set of Best Practices

Emerging Canadian responses like on-campus emergency safe houses offer temporary shelter, and other supports such as off site rental supplements are short-term and have their place -- the range of responses by post-secondary administrations has not been tallied and systematically evaluated, nor have the insights of students: there is no centralized database about all these responses to help coordinate efforts to stop PSSH. As pointed out by some administrators at the University of Alberta and in the Nova Scotia Community College’s MEHP (Metro Emergency Housing Program) partners in this research, openly engaging students to identify best practices in a systematic way can help address this problem because students often disguise PSSH as food insecurity, social anxiety, sleep issues and ‘problems at home.’ Students and administrators feel that institutions need to support better so this project provides an interactive tally of existing and planned programs and invites people to help us build this resource.


A current national survey by UTILE, an innovative and successful student housing non-profit in QC, included key demographic questions we designed for our earlier study in their most recent national survey- they received 18,000 responses from sites across Canada ( ) We now have an accurate understanding of the prevalence and other demographic aspects of PSSH that tend to confirm the numbers we derived in our earlier surveys; notably that close to 5% of PS students are in housing duress and/or homelessness; that’s close to 110,000 students who need help with housing and other supports in order to finish their academic goals and dreams.

Student Engagement

The key participants in this project are students, primarily youth, who have experienced housing insecurity and/or homelessness as defined by the COH, Thistle, and others. We are engaging with youth students with lived experience from the general post-secondary population, but also with groups that are over-represented in PSSH; Indigenous students and support communities, LGBTQ2S+  associations and students on campuses, international students and other often-marginalized groups- our research respects the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and is using the ideas and experiences of real students to shape sensible housing and housing supports.Many students, whether youths or older, facing PSSH, are resilient — there is a lot on the line.  As educators, students, and administrators ourselves, we know how important education is to the participants in our research.  Our earlier work showed that in extreme cases, students will do dangerous things to finish school, like sleeping in unsafe spaces, accepting tremendously substandard rental spaces for exorbitant rents, or engaging in unregulated sex work.  Around 2/3 of students who were not experiencing PSSH in our first survey, said they would leave school if homelessness took hold. About 1/4 said they didn’t realize that they had been homeless in the past until they read the formal COH definitions above. 100% of administrators and support workers we addressed between 2016 and 2019, stated that PSSH was a frustrating and dangerous problem and that supports needed to be developed to assist with student housing precarity.

Community engagement and partnerships

Various phases of the project allow student researchers in our network to engage broadly with other students from sites around the country. The RAS rotate in and out of different roles to broaden skills-capacity building. The student-led working group unites administrations and students in a national productive goal-oriented community, while the knowledge-sharing, and mobilization aspects invite all members of the community to try on solutions to PSSH. As a practical project, the greatest reward will come from seeing new supports and housing for vulnerable students put in place or others enhanced, and that PSSH will diminish. On a broader scale, the interactive toolkit on the website will become the nexus for an ongoing network of Canadian and global researchers, and students, by which to contribute to discussions of practical means of dealing with PSSH.

Anticipated outcomes and impact

This research will amplify the influence of students in the design of housing and supports at their schools and others, and the clarification of how administrations can help them. The discussion produced by this research and building of support prototypes, even in theory, will reduce stigma through public normalization of the PSSH narrative, increase help-seeking behaviours, and ease some stressors faced by students in precarious housing, leading to better education outcomes. It will press the housing support issue with administrators and policy makers by bringing PSSH to the foreground through community engagement and knowledge mobilization. Some students will be directly employed and engaged in research, publication, advocacy, and steering a national student body addressing PSSH.