Falling forward into new selves and spaces: Transitions from homeless to housed for individuals with mental illness

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DeBoer, Tracy
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This thesis focuses on how individuals who have been homeless, with a history of mental health problems, transition to life in stable housing. I approached the study of this transition through the lens of ontological security to focus on two interrelated dimensions of human wellness: the need for secure spaces and the need for belonging. Ontological security requires a sense of continuity and confidence in both spatial and relational networks. In Study 1, I used regression analyses to describe the relationships between predictor variables (i.e., demographic, health, and traumatic life experiences) and the outcomes of housing stability and community functioning. The two outcome variables had distinct predictor variables suggesting that characteristics associated with high levels of housing stability are not necessarily associated with high levels of community functioning and vice versa. Further, participants enrolled in a Housing First (HF) intervention were more likely to report high housing stability and community functioning relative to individuals accessing traditional community services. The findings also suggest that social determinants of health inequality, including Indigenous ethnicity, are associated with chronic homelessness and that certain early life experiences (i.e., foster care, low levels of education) are associated with poorer outcomes. In Study 2, narrative and photo-elicitation methods were used to study the ways that people with a history of homelessness and mental health challenges reconstruct a sense of self after moving into stable housing. Participants actively reconstructed their identities by integrating their homeless, past, “nobody” selves into their housed “somebody” identities. The temporal structure of their stories suggests that while street living was akin to being stuck in a repeat cycle, housed living allowed for new openings and movement to take steps and “fall forwards”. One of the ways that participants integrated past and present selves in their narratives was through their connection to their sensed world – that objects, scents, and sounds allowed participants to ground themselves in unfamiliar apartment spaces. Participants expressed the ever present fear of falling backwards to their past lives and the remaining discrimination from others that became an obstacle to re-selfing and feeling at home where they lived.  
Homelessness, Housing First, Mental Illness, Ontological Security, Identity