Does the term “demonstration project” excite and motivate you? It’s okay to say no. I’ll admit that I was inexperienced when it came to demonstration projects before joining the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MTS) team. But now I feel pretty confident in saying that we at the MTS Lab are so excited to officially launch the first of our Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) demonstration projects this month. A lot of hard work has brought us to this point; without sounding too cliché, this is when the Lab goes from an “idea” to a system of community-based programs that directly impact the lives of vulnerable young people.
What is a demonstration project?
Let’s back up for a minute – what do I mean by a “demonstration project”? As I insinuated earlier, it is a research term. Demonstration projects are large-scale studies focused on a theory or concept that has already gone through an initial testing process to sort out any logistical and/or core issues. The focus of the demonstration project then is, as the name suggests, to demonstrate the value of the theory or concept by allowing as much relevant information as possible to be collected. This information is then evaluated by researchers and used to assess the effectiveness of the theory or concept.
Demonstration projects are a necessary step in evaluating program implementation and outcomes, which is what the MTS Lab is seeking to do with the HF4Y research trial. Not only do demonstration projects provide researchers with critical data about their theories, they also bridge the gap between theory and practice. For MTS, this means implementing actual programs in community settings. This allows both qualitative and quantitative analysis to take place at the same time, providing a well-rounded knowledge base.
Demonstration projects and pilot projects
Another admission – I used to believe that demonstration projects and pilot projects were basically the same thing. And in non-technical terms, pilot projects are fairly similar to demonstration projects: both are conducted to test theories in real-life scenarios. There are, however, significant differences between the two. Generally, pilot projects are small introductory studies to learn about key factors associated with research topics like time, costs, and size. Before researchers are able to conduct larger and longer studies – such as demonstration projects – they benefit from information gathered during the pilot project phase. Pilot projects contain assessments that are designed by researchers to see if what works in theory actually works in practice, sort of like a test drive for new concepts and approaches.
So, the differences are pretty clear – pilot projects test the waters of new, yet-to-be tested topics (for those of you in Toronto, the King Street pilot is a recent example) while demonstration projects are larger, longer studies of topics that have already gone through an initial screening phase. The evaluation process attached to demonstration projects is another major distinction.
Where does HF4Y fit in?
The demonstration project that we are launching next month in Ottawa – and in Toronto and Hamilton, beginning in 2018 – is designed for the HF4Y intervention. Although there has been other research done in the Housing First realm, this project is focused directly on espousing the value of the HF4Y model outlined in the new Program Model Guide. In each of our HF4Y projects, the evaluation of the impact of services and the overall program is being handled by a team of researchers. This research is a critical for establishing a strong evidence base for HF4Y in Canada which, as you might remember from an earlier post in this blog series, is one of the fundamental goals of the MTS Lab.
The HF4Y intervention is taking place at the agency level; in each community, different youth-serving organizations are partnering to provide housing and services to their youth clients – consistent with the HF4Y intervention model. Primarily, this means following the HF4Y core principles and especially promoting the voices and expertise of the youth involved throughout the process. In practical terms, it means that a number of young people who are either currently experiencing homelessness, or are at serious risk of becoming so, are going to be provided with housing and widespread supports to help them stay housed and achieve other critical outcomes focused on well-being and a healthy transition to adulthood.
This is an exciting time for the MTS Lab. We are not only launching the first of numerous demonstration projects that will yield valuable data for researchers, communities, and policy makers, but we are also on the cusp of taking real, practical steps to aid young people who need it. When all is said and done, we are working hard to ensure that all young people have exactly what we would want for our own children – the tools and supports they need to thrive.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the third installment of the series; click to read the first and second installments.