Confronting Loneliness in Crowded Places

They might seem a world apart, busy college students and homeless people, drifting around the downtown streets of a big city, but many share a hidden bond: they are lonely. Researchers in Edmonton are trying to help.

A research team from Norquest College is working in partnership with the Edmonton Public Library, to study the impact of loneliness on marginalized people. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Community and College Social Innovation Fund.

The project began when Bob Marvin, a social work instructor at Norquest College, asked students in one of his courses to administer a questionnaire on loneliness to other students. “It was just for the students to get started on research, an attempt to demystify research,” he said in an interview.

The survey, however, opened up a conversation about loneliness on campus, with many students surprised to find they were not alone in what they felt. Marlene Mulder, of Norquest’s research department, was helping to analyse the data in the loneliness survey and noticed some surprising results. Second year students were lonelier than first years, and 60 per cent said they missed their families. That’s notably high for college students.

Mulder was aware that Norquest, the only publicly funded college in Edmonton, has an unusual student population. Because of its English as a second language program, it has a high percentage of newcomers to Canada. There is also a high proportion of Aboriginal students, and a large number of students who have gone through troubled times and have come to college in an effort to start again. “I come from a background working with newcomers to Canada, and with the homeless, and loneliness always comes up. Loneliness is a theme in both those populations,” she said.

Mulder wondered what impact loneliness has on people who live on the margins of the community, whether they are Aboriginal, homeless, or newcomers. What does it mean for their “social capital,” which is defined as “the social interactions, good will, fellowship, and sympathy that make a tangible difference in our lives.” Or, as Mulder puts it, the things that help you move forward.

Those thoughts led in turn to the Edmonton Public Library, which for more than five years has had social workers on staff to assist marginalized people who come to the library as a safe public space. The social workers build relationships and trust with these isolated members, helping them when possible with medical, housing and other issues.

As a partner in the project, the library is the link between the researchers and its patrons, providing the opportunity to explore causes of marginalization, to ask which supports work and what is still needed, and perhaps get them access to education.

The researchers have also enlisted the help of more than 40 community agencies, to help shape the research, and they’ll also be talking to Norquest students who have come back from the margins, asking what helps to build a better life. Finally, they will join the library’s patrons in focus groups.

About NorQuest College

As Alberta’s largest community college, NorQuest provides a work-relevant education that includes hands-on learning opportunities, workplace practicums, and supportive instructors. From class to career, NorQuest... Learn more