The Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS), co-led by A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, is supporting our community partners in 12 sites in 10 cities across Alberta and Ontario to implement, test and refine models of prevention and Housing First for Youth (HF4Y). At the same time, these models are undergoing rigorous research and evaluation in order to both strengthen service delivery, and therefore ensure the best possible outcomes for young people and their families, and to contribute to the body of knowledge generated by the MtS Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab.

As we enter year three of MtS DEMS, community partners leading the demonstration projects have much to teach us about the nuts and bolts of doing this work, as well as how it can be strengthened. I recently interviewed Erik Wexler, Program Manager of “Free 2 Be” (Housing First for Youth Leaving Care) at WoodGreen Community Services. Here’s what he had to say:

Melanie: Why did WoodGreen develop Free 2 Be in line with the HF4Y model?

Erik: Free 2 Be was developed in line with the HF4Y model because the core principles and philosophy of HF4Y, and the concept of a rights-based continuum of housing, aligned with all of the insight we gained from young people, service providers and the literature in terms of a youth-centred, holistic and trauma-informed approach to supporting the self-determination and self-efficacy of our young people as they navigate the tumultuous terrain of young adulthood. WoodGreen's Free 2 Be (HF4Y) has always been about young people transitioning out of care, recognizing that these youth and young adults face significant systemic barriers as well as higher risks of housing precarity and homelessness. In Toronto and nationally, more than 200 sector stakeholders and 60 young people with lived experienced contributed to our community-based action research to inform the Free 2 Be program design. These stakeholders advocated for a new, community-based program to provide longer term, intensive support grounded in positive and consistent role modelling, trust and relationships at the core, suggesting that key outcomes among youth exiting child welfare were dependant on these primary relational facets of service delivery. Our national environmental scan also demonstrated promising outcomes from HF4Y programs in Alberta which served young people leaving child protection services. 

What have been some of your key learnings to date?

HF4Y as an approach prioritizes smaller than average client case loads for staff (max. 7-10 participants per case counsellor). Small caseloads mean more time spent building solid relationships and thus more availability to support a continuity of care by being a constant feature of a young person’s transition from the system.

More specifically though, more intensive time spent enables features of the case counselling model that are less than traditional, such as movie outings, trips to the gym, or a formal celebration of a birthday or milestone, allowing the counsellor to become more than just a worker making trips to the doctor or psychiatrist; they can become a model of consistency and a temporary human that a young person can rely on to be their and to share important moments with, something often taken for granted in mainstream society and something regularly lacking for many youth exiting child welfare.

More often than not, we tend to conceive of social work as a distanced practice, one that has particular features and role boundaries such as “systems navigator” or “case manager”. Workers often rely on assessments to best understand their “clients” and rarely have the time or capacity to really get to know those they serve and vice versa. Because we know that young people in child welfare “age out of care” so many times through their childhood and young adolescent life, the experience of trauma, attachment loss and rupture of community must be met with the polar opposite, access to spaces of healing, opportunities to build new attachments that can be trusted and establish membership that will endure the test of time. Free 2 Be draws on the HF4Y model in this regard, with an emphasis on positive youth development, establishing spaces where young people can test their comfort zone in community settings, where youth are given opportunities for leadership and where the conditions for self-determination and self-efficacy is the intended outcome.

The lens on homelessness prevention within Free 2 Be is also unique, as most youth either in or from care are not street homeless, but housed in temporary, inadequate or precarious shelter with friends, relatives or the family members of intimate partners. Unfortunately, we have seen that these options are often accompanied by emotional and physical abuses akin to those our participants experienced in childhood, or new forms of abuse and instability as a result of domestic violence, sex trade work, human trafficking and/or the need to rotate through their housing options for a variety of interpersonal or systemic reasons.

Toronto is now the second most expensive city in the Canada. The rental market is competitive and young people often face bias and extra scrutiny by landlords. By providing a rental supplement, housing navigation assistance and support developing essential skills to be successful in the current housing market, Free 2 Be has had success helping young people access safe, affordable accommodation. That said, there is still a great need for youth-friendly affordable housing units in the city of Toronto.

Finally, we have learned about the resilience, strength and leadership of these young people. Many of the participants demonstrate considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide array of topics and skills. Many of them sit on councils and advisories across the city, even while experiencing ongoing adversity in their personal lives. Not only does this highlight what these incredible young people bring to the table, it also underscores their values and the social ethic they have developed – naturally and also as a result of their experiences. This furthers what we already know, in that, these young people need their voices elevated and amplified because they are the knowledge-keepers and must be at the forefront of the work of HF4Y.

What is your vision for the program moving forward?

Continuum of Housing:

Although initially launched with scattered-site housing in the community with rental supplements and start up supports, Free 2 Be would like to provide a true continuum of housing where a range of housing options could be available to participants depending on their needs and context (e.g., dedicated affordable apartments for Free 2 Be participants, a congregate housing option, transitional housing with supports, etc.) Currently WoodGreen is in partnership with a Toronto-based architect to co-design with our young people a transitional housing environment built for purpose.

Peer and Adult Role Modelling:

Free 2 Be is currently working on a peer leadership model that supports several drivers toward outcomes, such as the development of a broader community network, opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, growth and development, and the establishment of long-lasting, enduring relationships.

Access to Diverse Mental Health and Youth Services:

Free 2 Be is currently involved in a broader youth strategy within WoodGreen, in partnership with East Metro Youth Services and Michael Garron Hospital, through which a new Youth Wellness Centre is currently launching at 815 Danforth. This “hub” of services will together offer clinical counselling and psychiatry, primary care and additional youth programming. The launch of this Youth Wellness Centre also aligns with the vision of a dedicated youth-friendly space where program participants can come together, meet with staff, and feel a sense of ownership and belonging.

Lastly, are there areas where additional partnerships could help strengthen an already fantastic program?

Yes, this is true particularly in the areas of referral partnerships and housing partnerships.

Regarding referrals, Free 2 Be currently has capacity to intake at least 20 new participants. We are always looking for local referral partners who serve young people transitioning out of care who would be interested in connecting young people to MtS DEMS and Free 2 Be.

The other critical partnerships we are looking for are in the area of safe, affordable housing for participants, including a continuum of options. Although we partner internally with WoodGreen’s Housing Help, the Free 2 Be team is continuously seeking reliable landlord partners in the community who appreciate the impact of this program and want to rent to our participants. Similarly, we would welcome opportunities to connect with other local youth housing providers who focus on supportive and/or transitional housing for young people.

-- Learn more about the Free 2 Be program here.