Today, I would like to showcase the Toronto Family and Natural Supports (FNS) Program, another exciting program developed under the umbrella of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS), co-led by A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. There are 12 Making the Shift demonstration (MtS DEMS) sites in 10 communities across Alberta and Ontario. Each is, currently collecting data to help refine our efforts to prevent and endchronic youth homelessness. The Toronto FNS program operates out of Covenant House Toronto, and has been in operation since August of 2018. Toronto’s FNS Program is made up of a dedicated team of four FNS workers and a program coordinator serving the city of Toronto, with integration across the youth shelter system.

Covenant House helps youth ignite their potential and reclaim their lives. As Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, they offer the widest range of 24-7 services to about 350 young people each day. Since 1982, Covenant House has supported more than 95,000 young people.For another MtS example, you can read about Woodgreen’s “Free 2 Be” (Housing First for Youth Leaving Care) program here.

About the Covenant House FNS Program: What is the Convanent House FNS Program?

The Family and Natural Supports (FNS) Program is a voluntary service, available to youth, between the ages of 16–29, who want to find and strengthen their network of supportive people. For example, FNS workers can help youth in the following ways:

· Build closer and happier relationships with the important people in their life

· Reconnect with family or someone important

· Provide a private and safe way to talk about family relationships

· Find a family member or important person, who will be there for them after leaving shelters

· Keep in contact with family now they’ve left home

· Set healthy boundaries in existing relationships

Our FNS workers view the entire family as a client. We create individualized case plans for every family, prioritizing their particular needs and goals. Depending on other supports in place, this often calls for integrated clinical counselling, case management, and systems navigation.

FNS workers have flexible schedules and can meet with youth and their family members and natural supports at locations convenient to them, including family homes. FNS Workers can continue to support youth if they move shelters or move into housing.

What does ‘family and natural supports’ mean?

Different people have different ideas about what “family’ means, so ‘family and natural supports” is used to describe any group of people who care about each other. The FNS program respects each person’s beliefs, culture and life experiences and will follow the youth's lead in who they say is their family.

Is Independence Possible Without Support?

The FNS model starts from an assumption that, on its face, seems like common sense: belonging is greater than isolation, and loneliness can be lethal. However, this observation actually challenges the traditional approach to working with youth who may be at risk of or are experiencing homelessness, which focuses primarily on building self-sufficiency, and moving towards autonomy and independence. Some of the underlying assumptions include: resilience is an individual trait, family is too dangerous, family represents the past, most youth are not ready for family work, and the goal of family work should be for youth to move home. A 2018 survey conducted by Covenant House of 134 youth participating in the FNS program, concludes that 64 percent of youth reported feeling close to a family member, and 71 percent had contact with family in the last six months. Thirty-six percent 36 percent said they would live with family again if they saw an improvement in the relationship. Knowing that family contact is already happening, the FNS program provides a safe and supportive space for those tentative (and often fraught) reconnections to play out.

The broad definition of family used in the FNS model encourages youth to decide for themselves who counts as family for them, based on how that relationship fits into their goals moving forward – and these choices are often surprising. While it is sometimes true that certain family members are ultimately not the most stable supports, we believe that finding some closure and meaning in these challenging relationships can be a crucial step for youth who desire to craft a new personal narrative to help them move forward in their life, from a place of resilience and strength. This experience can build interpersonal skills and confidence, allowing youth to break old patterns, and form new, healthier, supportive relationships with adults other than professional supports.

Additionally, the FNS program believes that it is never too soon for some type of family work. If we wait until young people are housed housing, or employment, and mental health are stabilized, we are missing a key window of opportunity for growth and change. We aim to support youth and families as ‘upstream – before young people experience homelessness – ’ as possible. It is crucial to treat the need for connection with the same urgency as physical needs.

Building Bridges Between Community Partners

Toronto’s FNS Program is made up of a dedicated team of four FNS workers and a program coordinator serving the city of Toronto, with integration across the youth shelter system. Working with our many partner agencies, we perform weekly outreach, and accept direct, barrier-free referrals. Currently our partners include emergency shelters: Horizons for Youth, Youth Without Shelter, Covenant House, Turning Point, Kennedy House, Vanauley Street YMCA. They also include several; transitional housing programs: Rights of Passage (Covenant House), Sprott House (YMCA), Youthlink. There is also one drop-in space: Egale Youth Services. Each agency has nominated an “FNS “Champion.” These individuals attend bi-monthly FNS meetings intended toto help refine and coordinate services.

As a Covenant House FNS worker,  I’m most excited by our ability to provide service continuity across youth-serving agencies and programs in Toronto. The experience of homelessness is inherently unpredictable. From week to week many youth find themselves changing shelters, starting their goals from scratch with a new case worker over and over again. Each shelter has its own unique structure, rules, and culture, and this can be a tricky adjustment. FNS workers are embedded in all these different settings, which allows us to build trusting professional relationships with front-line workers: working in partnership with case managers, housing workers, after-care workers, etc. We can also be very helpful working with youth who have left the shelter and are living more independently. Personally, I really enjoy my job; it is truly inspiring to be doing a new type of work in this sector, a feeling which is regularly reinforced by the positive feedback we have been receiving from youth, families, and workers.