Research from across Canada suggests that youth (aged 13-24) make up over 20% of the homeless population. Youth who experience homelessness face unique barriers to accessing appropriate housing, health, and social programming. These barriers are particularly impactful for youth who are sexual and/or gender minorities. This is evidenced by the fact that youth who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ make up 20-40% of the homeless population. Similarly, transgender and gender-diverse youth are known to experience homelessness at an increased rate when compared to cisgender youth. They also face continual harm when trying to navigate housing-based interventions.
Although research has shown that youth who identify as a sexual and/or gender minority face additional barriers to securing housing supports, housing-based interventions continue to remain gender-blind. Gender-blind interventions do not consider gendered needs in their development or implementation. Gender-blind interventions are the most problematic types of interventions for women and gender-diverse people because they increase violence and stigmatization for women and gender-diverse people who experience homelessness. The lack of evidence surrounding the experiences of girls and gender-diverse youth with gender-blind interventions is problematic, given the potential life-long consequences of engaging with these programs.
Gender-transformative interventions aim to reduce the risk of harm associated with gender-blind ideologies creating opportunities to challenge mainstream gender norms and address the inequities among people of different genders.
This blog explores the benefits of using gender-transformative interventions for youth experiencing/at-risk of experiencing homelessness through a case study of Upstream Kelowna in Kelowna, BC, Canada.
Moving Forward with Gender-Informed Frameworks for Youth
To minimize life-long and compounded harms associated with gender-blind ideologies, youth-specific housing programs and policies must move toward becoming gender-transformative. Programs can begin by completing a .
A Case Study: Upstream Canada – Kelowna Site
Most interventions geared towards addressing youth homelessness are reactive rather than preventative. Upstream Canada takes a preventative approach to care. It is focused on providing support to youth aged 12-18 at-risk of or currently experiencing homelessness through supports at school. By working with students in a school setting, Upstream addresses gaps in current services (e.g., siloed care). It fosters collaborative partnerships between schools and other social service providers. This model of care has been adapted from the Geelong Project in Australia, which successfully reduced youth homelessness by 40% in its first three years.
Upstream Canada provides support to youth at-risk of homelessness in three main ways:
- Completing a standardized assessment
- Analyzing the results and flagging students who are potentially at-risk of experiencing homelessness and school disengagement.
- Providing students with the opportunity to participate in a validation interview with caseworkers. This allows for the unique needs of the student to be determined. The implementation team develops a care plan for the student which fosters collaboration between multiple sectors in the community.
The implementation of Upstream in Kelowna has advanced the principles of Upstream Canada with its focus on an intersectional approach to providing care to youth. They have a clear understanding that youth experience a variety of complex and intersecting identities and/or oppression (e.g., sexism, racism, colonization, heteronormativity, ableism). For this reason, Upstream Kelowna strives to meet and continuously understand the systemic needs of the youth they work with.
Gendered considerations within Upstream Kelowna are well-developed. All staff must be formally trained on how to effectively use a gender-based approach. Also, they are required to learn how to implement the principles of trauma-informed care before engaging with youth. The Upstream Kelowna site has a skilled team of professionals working together, each bringing a unique perspective. As part of their current process, the team asks questions about the students’ gender and sexuality during the initial assessment. The program site regularly engages with community agencies and programs such as The Bridge Youth and Family Services (Etcetera), Reconnect (Glow Up), and Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society which provides youth with case management, access to gender diverse-based counsellors, land-based programming, counselling, 2SLGBTQIA+ specific peer support groups, and self-esteem specific training workshops. In addition, the program is working with the schools to create safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ to socialize with mentors.
To advance the work Upstream Kelowna is doing and to ensure they remain gender-transformative, the Kelowna program site could:
- Integrate a gender-informed analysis to determine whether current assessment questions and/or aspects of the intervention contribute to gender-specific harm for girls and gender-diverse youth. The use of the gender-informed analysis frameworks could be integrated within Upstream for both current and future program implementations and adaptations.
- Continue to embed trauma-informed practices. For example, expand current trauma-informed training for staff and facilitate the integration of trauma-informed support to students (e.g., during student needs assessments).
- Expand existing practices which help empower girls and gender-diverse youth such as life skill-building activities.
- Hire more women and gender-diverse staff into the Upstream Steering Committee and Direct Support Options who will work with students to develop care plans. There should be an option for students to access support within the Upstream site as opposed to referring them out to community allies.
- Ensure all Upstream assessments and care plans are culturally appropriate and person-centred.
As shown by Upstream Kelowna, youth homelessness interventions can effectively begin to adapt their services to be gender-transformative. Future research and practice must begin to consider how we can effectively integrate and adapt gender-transformative frameworks for youth-specific housing interventions while also considering other forms of oppression (e.g., racism, colonialization). Increasing the integration of this framework will assist in creating more effective and appropriate services for all youth who experience homelessness.
It is important to acknowledge that gender-transformative ideologies do not address other forms of harm associated with able-bodied, racist, colonial, classist, heteronormative, and/or cisgender ideologies- which must also be addressed to effectively meet the needs of youth experiencing homelessness.
Special thanks to Philippa Putlitz, Emily Collins, Kiara Dubrett, Mary-Jane McKitterick, and Karen Naidoo for their expertise and support in the development of this blog