(Photo: Christinne Muschi)


The barriers to education for homeless youth

When a young person doesn’t have stable housing, succeeding in school can be incredibly challenging. McGill doctoral student Jayne Malenfant knows this from her research – and from her own life experience.

Story by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

August 2018

Jayne Malenfant is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Education and she has earned two of Canada’s most prestigious awards for graduate students – a Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholarship and a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. That all might come as a surprise to some of the people who knew her in high school – especially if they remember that Malenfant was expelled from the school.

The expulsion wasn’t the result of a juicy scandal. Malenfant wasn’t a troublemaker. But she did miss an awful lot of classes. At some point, school authorities decided she had missed too many and she was shown the door.

Malenfant was a teenager and living on her own. The reason she was away from school so often was because she had to work to support herself. She was luckier than some of the people she knew back then. Unlike them, she wasn’t living on the street or in shelters. She always had a roof over her head, but her living conditions were far from ideal.

“I was sort of living precariously and sleeping on couches and living in squats,” she says. There were moments when she wasn’t certain where she would be staying the next week – or even the next night. “The term hidden homeless is used a lot” to describe people in such situations, says Malenfant.

She says the school system didn’t know how to deal with a student in her circumstances. “It’s almost as if the mechanisms that a school operates with kind of exclude kids that are living outside the norm,” she says.

Malenfant wasn’t in obvious enough peril to be on anyone’s radar – as she recently explained it on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, she wasn’t “homeless enough, or mentally ill enough, or sick enough” to attract attention – so she didn’t get the type of support that might have made it possible for her to stay in school.

“I talk to young people [in similar situations today] and it doesn’t seem as if that much has changed in the 13 years since I was in their shoes,” Malenfant says. She hopes the research she is pursuing with the Trudeau and Vanier funding will have an impact in that regard.

“My research is totally informed by my own experience,” says Malenfant. “The bottom line for me, and I’ve been framing it in terms of human rights, is that everyone should have access to education.”

Life is already daunting for young people who don’t have secure housing. If they aren’t able to at least complete high school, it becomes even more challenging. “Today, it’s a lot harder for a young person to get an entry level job if they don’t have a bunch of school, let alone high school. I think it’s even more urgent today than it was for me,” says Malenfant.

Malenfant is examining the roadblocks that make it more difficult for young people in precarious housing situations to succeed in school. Starting in September, she’ll be spending much of her time with Dans la rue, the organization renowned for its work with homeless and at-risk youth in Montreal.

“My research builds off of some preliminary studies with youth in Canada who have experienced homelessness,” says Malenfant. “They often see school as the place where, if they [had received the necessary] support, it could have prevented them from becoming homeless.” But school authorities don’t always recognize the signals that might indicate that a young person is living without stable housing. And behaviour that is related to the precariousness of such a situation – skipping classes to work, for instance – “can be written off as [them] just being bad students.”

Malenfant looks forward to working with the young people served by Dans la rue. “I really want to find out when and how they were hitting walls or barriers [in school], when they felt they weren’t being supported, or what parts of formal learning were or weren’t working for them,” she says.

She’ll be asking questions, but she’ll be offering information too. Malenfant works on the Faculty of Education’s community garden and began a series of “Free Skool” workshops there – informal educational get-togethers that address different themes. She has used a similar model to develop workshops for the Benedict Labre House, which provides a range of services for people in need. Dans la rue is interested in having Malenfant develop some “Free Skool” workshops for them too. One might be based on her own experiences with going to university and applying for grants.

As she talks to young people about their school experiences, Malenfant is also focusing her attention on the other side of the equation – teachers, school administrators and school board officials.

She has been collaborating with Kaitlin Schwan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness in Toronto (where Malenfant once worked as a research assistant while pursuing a master’s degree at York University) to create resources for school boards and teachers. “I think it all comes down to education,” she says. “Educating them on what [precarious housing for youth] looks like, educating them on how they can work with different organizations. Educating teachers, administrators and staff in schools – who often have the very best intentions – that what might look like bad behaviour or disengagement could be an opportunity for a life-changing intervention for a youth who needs help.”

Malenfant understands that her own story – how she made her way from being kicked out of high school and living without a stable home to pursuing a PhD and earning top graduate awards – is a compelling one. But she has mixed feelings about how it gets told.

“I don’t like the narrative that this street kid just got her [act] together and now she’s doing a PhD at McGill. It’s more complicated than that. I had some advantages. I did have a relationship with my family and that made a huge difference.” She also had some important life skills – she knew how to be responsible with money. And once she was able to return to school, the transition was fairly easy. “I’m comfortable being in school. There is something about it that clicks for me.

“I try to use my story as an example when I am working with young people to say that [what I’m doing] is not impossible. This is what could happen if we support youth at the right time.”

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