Unhoused and recently housed young people have often experienced multiple axes of marginalization, including mental health diagnoses, substance use, and experiences of long-term abuse and neglect from systems which have failed to support them. Meanwhile, many young people find contexts and relationships which help them survive and thrive, including spending time in supportive places and seeking out communities of care. Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is one formal intervention which seeks to offer stability and support. Burgeoning research suggests that PSH settings may foster social and relational wellbeing outcomes, including psychological sense of community (Forenza & Lardier, 2017). Our study explored: How does psychological sense of community (PSOC) among PSH residents shift as they move into PSH?
This study employed a qualitative longitudinal approach to explore PSOC among PSH residents in Western Colorado (N=27) over four time points: before moving into PSH (retrospectively recalled), and 6, 12, and 18 months after moving in. Qualitative questions about residents’ PSOC before and after moving into PSH, and what experiences they identify as shaping their sense of community, were embedded in a 1-hour long mixed-methods individual interview. Longitudinal data were analyzed using McMillan & Chavis’ (1986) PSOC model to guide thematic analysis, which includes four subconstructs: membership, needs fulfillment, influence, and emotional connections.
Our sample of young adults (N=27) was predominantly cisgender (89%), straight (59%), and White (74%). Most (93%) became homeless locally and had been homeless 3-6 years before moving into PSH.
Residents’ membership shifted from a focus on safety and substance use while unhoused to an ability to be choosier with whom they connected in PSH. Needs fulfillment was primarily centered around meeting basic needs before moving into PSH; in PSH, residents felt more predictably supported in getting needs met. Residents were deeply influenced by the places in which they lived before moving into PSH; after, they were more influenced by other residents and organizational policies. Residents primarily sought emotional connection for support around sobriety before moving in; after moving in, emotional connections were centered around respect and trust with peers and service providers alike. Across longitudinal findings, substance use radiates through experiences of PSOC, at times connecting participants to one another, and at other times, disrupting their desire to connect (often related to personal desires for sobriety).
Conclusions & Implications:
Our findings deepen understanding of PSOC to include young adults in PSH, who have often experienced exclusion from communities which have failed to support them. While young people are often adept at meeting their needs – through communities they construct when conventional systems fail – supportive interventions like PSH may aid in offering sustained care. Yet, such interventions are not without complexities. While harm reduction and housing-first approaches are vital in offering accessible support services, proximity to substance use complicated participants’ desires to spend time with others in the community. Future research should explore how supportive settings – residential and non-residential – may best offer accessible care which centers young people’s self-defined needs and goals.