Americas

Montreal student’s life on the streets inspires her PhD studies

For many Montrealers, Dans la rue is home.

The shelter, which has an open-door policy, is a place where people can find a warm meal, a bed to sleep in or someone in whom they can confide.

It’s also a place Jayne Malenfant wishes she had had access to over a decade ago, when she was in a precarious living situation.

“A lot of couches, a lot of overcrowded places, a lot of squats — a lot of these kind of things, where I wasn’t entirely sure of how long I’d be able to stay,” she said of her former housing situation.

Malenfant was born in a small town in northern Ontario.

After her parents split when she was 12, she and her mom moved to Saskatoon.

Just before her 16th birthday, Malenfant was left to live on her own when her mom had to move back to Ontario.

That led to many issues, she said, mainly with school.

“I was on my own so I couldn’t excuse my own absences,” she said. “When I was coming in with difficulties, if I was showing signs of self-harm, if I wasn’t eating, if I was coming in with problems — they wouldn’t be seen as problems related to my housing, they would be seen as problems related to me being a bad student,” Malenfant explained.

“There wasn’t a process on how to deal with me so it led to me getting expelled.”

Months later, Malenfant enrolled in adult education and got her diploma.

After living on her own for four years, she moved in with her mom in Ontario, where she enrolled in university.

She got a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s and then made the move to Montreal, where she’s currently doing a PhD at McGill University.

The focus of her research? Figuring out how and why homeless youth are able or unable to access schools and other social services.

“It’s really based in those experiences that I had, wondering how schools can act as places where young people who might be experiencing homelessness can actually — rather than being excluded or facing discrimination or struggling — they can be places where we can support them,” she said.

Malenfant recently received two distinguished scholarships to help with her studies: the Trudeau Foundation’s doctoral scholarship and a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, worth just over $200,000.

She’s now doing her research in collaboration with Dans la rue.

“I feel like with data, with conversations with youth, with youth leading it, we can have that conversation and change the system just enough to prevent youth homelessness and make sure there is a secure place for them to go,” said Dave Dumouchel, front-line coordinator at Dans la rue’s day centre.

Malenfant knows that her journey from the streets to where she is today is something special but she doesn’t want the focus to be on her or her education.

The focus needs to be on the future, on which she hopes to have a small impact, she says.

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