Last month, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness hosted a conversation about the Family and Natural Supports model with Jessica Ward (360 Kids), Melody Brewer (Canadian Mental Health Association of Kelowna), and Jocelyn Adamo (Trellis) facilitated by Heidi Walter (A Way Home Canada) for the Prevention Matters! webinar series. The full hour-long talk is available online, but we offer this short summary to capture some of the key points.

Many young people who lose their housing do so because of conflict with their families. In her introduction, Heidi Walter explained that Family and Natural Supports (FNS) is a program developed to help strengthen the relationship between young people and their parents or other important adults in order to prevent homelessness.

FNS is not about getting young people to return home per se, but rather to reconnect, rebuild, and strengthen relationships with important adults as identified by the youths. This is important, because young people with strong family supports and positive role models are more likely to successfully transition to adulthood than those with limited supports. “Although professional supports are important, they are not sustainable,” Heidi said. “We can’t guarantee we will be there to walk alongside them for the next fourty years.”

FNS is an approach that should run through all attempts at preventing and ending youth homelessness. “Family and Natural Supports really needs to be one of the core foundations of the program that you’re offering, because young people are going to need those family and natural supports, those chosen families, throughout their lifetimes,” Heidi added. Instead of trying to protect young people—often from their families—we need to focus on connecting them instead.

Identifying the Importance of FNS

Melody works for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Kelowna, which offers a number of youth homelessness programs. FNS fit within their existing structure, orienting the work they were already doing, such as Housing First for Youth. Jessica built on this point: “We have been doing this work because we know, as human beings, that it just feels right. … The [FNS] framework really validated for us the work that was already happening and really did provide us direction in formalizing that work.” 

Jocelyn reflected that Trellis’s journey with FNS started about ten years ago. “We were part of the change collective that really tried to look at how we can shift out services to more of an FNS approach.” They were doing a decent job of connecting young people to new relationships, “but a huge blind spot for us was where did they come from.”

She continued, “We were so focused on transitioning young people out of the shelter, and we really wanted to shift our focus to how we can prevent young people from arriving.” 

Beginning the Work

Hiring and training FNS workers was the first hurdle when starting an FNS program, Melody reflected. They needed people who had the ability to put in the time to build a relationship with the young person in order for them to feel comfortable saying who they might want to reconnect with. This is the importance of patience. It takes time for a young person to get past the fear of rejection, worrying that the family member or natural support won’t want to be in contact with them. 

Jessica echoed the point about finding the right staff, adding that they need people who can get past a youth’s defensiveness but who can also walk into a room full of family members and have credibility. With those skills in place and the FNS program up and running, 360°kids launched an internal community of practice to bring those skills to all their teams. FNS needs to be throughout an entire organization: “everyone needs to understand the philosophy,” Heidi said. Jocelyn mentioned that before even hiring, there are policies and procedures that might need to change, as they can be barriers to implementing FNS. Trellis conducted an organizational audit to ensure they had the right framework in place.

Achieving Success

When talking about success, Melody synthesized it into one word: “Recovery.” While saying that success looks different for each young person, Jessica emphasized that FNS is a responsibility: “It’s not just what we should be doing; it’s what we have to be doing. It’s not an option for us to ignore this central aspect of the human condition, which is connection.”

Jocelyn meanwhile preferred to look at success in terms of the whole family: “I look at so many of the young people who we serve who have grown up in families that experienced homelessness and intergenerational trauma and substance use, and I think we need to do a better job of taking care of families who have experienced that level of trauma... so they can be well and healthy to care for their kids. We need to care for caregivers so they can care for their kids.”

“It can’t be an afterthought—it needs to be at the forefront”

Heidi shared some data from the Making the Shift study of FNS programs that shows that, in a six-month period, the percentage of youths receiving FNS services who were living in shelters or emergency housing dropped from 11.9% to 4.1%. With results like these, organizations should be asking how they can integrate an FNS program into their work. 

FNS can be a stand-alone program, but that’s not all it is. “In my program,” Melody explained, “family navigators will refer to FNS… and we also have youth peer support workers, so we can attach a youth peer support worker to that youth as well. So I do think it’s better as not just a standalone.” Jocelyn agreed, adding that FNS is more of an approach across the board. 

It does take specific skills to make FNS work, though. Motivational interviewing, emotion-focused family training, cultural competency and cultural safety, circle of security, and developmental relationships—trainings on all these subjects have helped make the programs at CMHA Kelowna, Trellis, and 360°kids what they are. Jocelyn pointed out that skill-building shouldn’t be limited to youth-focused skills, because although the relationship with the young person is key, workers engage with the whole family.

Many workers and agencies might shy away from intervening in active family conflicts, but it’s not a matter of knowing all the answers or of telling parents how to parent. Jocelyn explained that it’s enough to just focus on making people feel safe and validated. Once you’ve built a relationship and everyone feels safe to share, then it is much easier to bridge what the different parties want. 

Jessica told a story where a worker at 360°kids went into a meeting with a young person and their family with a clear plan, but the session ended in a blow up. She emphasized though that this wasn’t a failure: “This family trusted you enough to show you themselves at their worst. … Giving people the opportunity to show up in real, raw ways is what makes this work work.”

“It’s about giving the staff the time to process and reminding them that it’s about progress, not perfection,” Jessica concluded. “This work is really truly bringing the human back into human services.”