Based on “‘I Want Purpose in my Life’: A Qualitative Exploration of How Homeless Youth Envision their Futures” by Minda Wood, Stéphanie Manoni-Millar, Athourina David, Cora MacDonald, Veronique Rochon, John Sylvestre, and Stephen Gaetz.

Adolescence and early adulthood are typically times of optimism, where young people begin thinking about how to turn their hopes for the future into reality. This is a normal part of development, and it is no different for youth experiencing homelessness. However, as Minda Wood and her coauthors write in “‘I Want Purpose in my Life’: A Qualitative Exploration of How Homeless Youth Envision their Futures," for youth experiencing homelessness, "development is challenged by economic instability, housing insecurity, a lack of social support, and limited opportunities for exploration."

These challenges can lead to a mismatch between young people’s hopes for the future and their expectations for what is actually likely to happen: “Research suggests that youth need more significant supports … in addition to the provision of stable housing in order to realize future expectations and sustainable exits from homelessness.”

One model that seeks to provide those supports is Housing First for Youth.

Housing First for Youth

All Housing First programs are rights-based interventions that seek to provide housing without preconditions, as this lays the necessary groundwork for healing and recovery. Housing First is a proven model for adults, but the causes of youth homelessness are distinct, as are the needs of developing young people. This realization led to the emergence of Housing First for Youth (HF4Y), which is based around five principles:

  1. A right to housing with no preconditions
  2. Youth choice, youth voice, and self-determination in the choice of housing and supports
  3. Positive youth development orientation to support recovery
  4. Individualized, client-centred supports
  5. Social inclusion and community integration

HF4Y is currently the subject of a multi-year, randomized control study by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab, in partnership with A Way Home Canada. A subsample of the youth participating in that study were interviewed by MtS researchers as they sought to better understand how youth experiencing homelessness think about the future and whether those receiving HF4Y imagine their futures differently than those receiving typical supports.

The Study

Wood and her coauthors analyzed the semi-structured, qualitative interview data from 38 youthin Ottawa and Toronto, 18 of whom were receiving HF4Y and 20 receiving treatment as usual (TAU). “At the time of the baseline interview, 12 youth receiving HF4Y were stably housed. Of the remaining six, one HF4Y participant lived in a group home … while the other five were not stably housed…. Five youth receiving TAU were stably housed…. The remaining 15 youth receiving TAU were not stably housed. Their living situations varied from being unsheltered, living in emergency shelters, group homes, or provisionally living with family or friends.”

The interviews covered a range of topics, including housing stability, physical and mental health, substance use, school engagement, life skills, and employment. Specifically, the youth were asked:

  1. What would be necessary to help you achieve your goals?
  2. Do you feel like you have the supports in your life to help you achieve them?
  3. What would your housing situation look like?
  4. Is there any kind of support you are not currently receiving that would help you in obtaining or maintaining housing?

Those who were stably housed were also asked how housing stability has impacted their lives.

Visions of the Future

Whether or not they were receiving HF4Y, the young people interviewed had positive visions of the future, describing multiple dreams and goals. They felt they had options and that the future was full of opportunity, with one describing their future as “very bright.”

Although their goals and aspirations were similar, the young people receiving HF4Y tended to have more concrete plans for how to achieve their goals, describing things like getting their drivers license, purchasing a car, graduating from a specific post-secondary program, and having a specific career. Those receiving TAU might know what they wanted their futures to look like, but generally had no concrete steps or plans about how to get there. As one youth receiving TAU put it: “I don’t really know specifically what I want to do, but I just want to do something….”

Those who were unstably housed often expressed a “fear of the unknown” about what life would hold for them in the very near future. The inability to envision a long-term future seemed tied to the difficulty of figuring out the near future, with youth receiving TAU emphasizing the need for stability.

Future Housing

Although some youth receiving HF4Y described their ideal housing in terms of location and size, most focused on a feeling of home that hinged on who they wanted to live with and the abstract qualities of what makes a good home: “I want to be able to feel safe and comfortable in my home environment. That’s a big one. And I guess I want to feel like I belong where I am.”

Youth receiving TAU similarly focused on the abstract qualities of home, but in comparison to the HF4Y group, their ideal housing was more variable. They described uncertainty, and some even said they hadn’t thought about it very much: “Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it because all I ever knew was unstable housing, that’s just kind of like, the norm to me.” Finding stable housing seemed like “a big step” in being able to achieve their dreams.

Future Relationships and Social Support

Overall, HF4Y participants prioritized establishing healthy relationships, whether repairing relationships that had been damaged or starting new ones. Relationships were often the highest priority: “It’s pretty simple. Just having a family and kids, and I don’t really care so much about a career; it’s just a means to an end. I wouldn’t prioritize that over family.”

Youth receiving TAU also hoped for better relationships but seemed more passive about it than those receiving HF4Y, and they  highlighted  autonomy and self-reliance: “People come, people go. You really have to focus on yourself, right? … I hope I have the same, or most of the same, relationships if it works out… but like if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

Barriers to Achieving Goals

All the youth were aware of the barriers they faced, but this seemed particularly true for those receiving TAU and those who were unstably housed. “Housing instability significantly impacted their ability to plan for the future," Wood and her colleagues write. In addition to housing instability, a lack of money was also a significant barrier youth identified, with almost all the youth indicating that the cost of living was preventing them from working towards their goals. However, those receiving HF4Y in particular seemed to prioritize saving and finding a steady source of income as a step towards overcoming that barrier.

Prevention and Intervention

In the face of such challenges, homelessness interventions need to support young people in staying optimistic and planning for their futures. As the authors write, “The findings from this study highlight the importance of safe, affordable, and permanent housing without preconditions.”

According to a 2016 study by Sean Kidd and coauthors, hope declines significantly after one year of homelessness, and adults experiencing homelessness tend to have less hopeful expectations of the future. This shows the importance of preventing and quickly ending homelessness for young people before they experience chronic homelessness as adults.

Young people have great potential and optimism for changing their lives, and early interventions that support hope and provide stability can promote healthy development and prevent long-term homelessness. HF4Y is one powerful tool for doing this, as are other youth-focused interventions like Upstream, Family and Natural Supports, and Reconnect. As Wood and her colleagues have shown, a bit of support can help turn young people’s dreams, goals and hopes into concrete plans and reality.

For a detailed look at Housing First for Youth, check out the trainings available on the Homelessness Learning Hub.