Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) is a program, systems approach and philosophy that can be used to guide local system planning decisions, as well as service delivery.

In this blog, we explore the distinctions between HF4Y as a philosophy, systems approach, and program to bring forward a clearer understanding of what HF4Y is and is not.

HF4Y as a philosophy: Guiding community planning and implementation

As a philosophy, the core principles of HF4Y can provide a community or an organization with a foundational set of values to guide goals, outcomes, collaboration, and practice. When used in guiding community planning, the local system is designed around the core principles of HF4Y. All services should contribute either to the prevention of youth homelessness or ensuring that young people have immediate access to housing and support so that their experience of homelessness is brief and non-recurring.

While a broad range of crisis services and housing options/models may support youth under the age of 25 or specifically engage youth, not all of these interventions are consistent with the HF4Y model. Rather, these options exist within a broader systems strategy. In other words, different models of accommodation and support can be part of the community strategy and can support a housing agenda without actually meeting HF4Y fidelity or being considered HF4Y themselves. An example of this is models of permanent housing that come with conditions such as abstinence and/or mandatory participation in school or employment.

While mainstream services such as schools and health clinics support the work of HF4Y, they are not Housing First programs themselves. What connects them is integration into a service model that is guided by HF4Y principles. However, if a community only offers these types of programs and does not have any HF4Y programs that follow this program model guide, it cannot make the claim that it is a HF4Y community.

It is important to note that in some contexts young people have a right to housing, but this right may come with conditions or requirements that conflict with the core principles of HF4Y (e.g., youth need to show proof of  I.D., income, a bank account, sobriety to qualify for housing). In these cases, the youth homelessness/housing system is more accurately described as “housing-led” or “housing ready” rather than “housing first.”

HF4Y as a Systems Approach

In contexts where the core principles of HF4Y guide local planning, it is important that an integrated systems approach be used. This means that within a “system of care,” all services and program elements within the youth housing/homelessness sector work towards supporting young people to access housing (or avoid homelessness) and offer the supports that the youth requires. This includes both dedicated HF4Y programs with a mandate to provide the intervention and allied services including outreach, family and natural supports, emergency shelters, and other youth-serving organizations. 

A systems planning perspective requires engagement with public and private systems outside of the homelessness sector. The Systems Planning Collective describes systems planning as the “analysis, planning, and design of an integrated system and defined service-delivery components that work together towards a common end, in this case, to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness. It requires identifying the basic components of a system and understanding how these relate to one another. Alignment across the system is integral to ensure the components of the system work together for maximum impact.” The core principles of HF4Y can also guide the work of systems planning by focusing on the needs of young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. An integrated systems approach must also move beyond the homelessness sector and address mainstream systems and services that may contribute to youth homelessness, such as education, corrections, and the child welfare system. 

For instance, the 2016 Without a Home study found that while only 0.3% of Canadian youth have had involvement with child protection, 58% of youth currently experiencing homelessness have had such experiences, with 47% having been in foster care and/or group homes. Given this disproportionate experience of involvement in care, it is imperative that those services collaborate with youth homelessness service providers to ensure a smooth and sustainable transition to housing with appropriate supports. Young people should never be discharged into homelessness, whether they leave care voluntarily or “age out” of the system. 

Additional considerations from the systems level must be given to funding and policy alignment with HF4Y core principles. Barriers to successful implementation can arise if the broader systems that provide funding and policy directions do not align with the core principles of HF4Y. Efforts to align these resources and interests with HF4Y philosophy should not be understated. The goal is to transform the cross-system and sector response to youth homelessness by highlighting the importance of prevention.

HF4Y as a program model

Housing First for Youth is considered to be a program when it is operationalized as a service delivery model or set of activities provided by an organization. While HF4Y programs must demonstrate fidelity to the model, values, and core principles as described, it can and should be adapted to reflect the local context, including the range of existing services and supports. 

“The organization that is providing the Housing First program must have their policies and values aligned with the core principles. I have seen programs that struggle because their umbrella organization does not fully support all of the core principles.” – Wally Czech, Director of Training, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness


The philosophy and core principles of HF4Y should inform community strategies to address youth homelessness so that all young people receive the supports they need. Evidence shows that when young people become and remain homeless for any length of time, the risk of exploitation and criminal victimization, coupled with the challenges of life on the streets, can result in compromised health, declining mental health, increased substance use and addictions, and prolonged experiences of living on the streets. In some cases, homelessness can result in disconnection from the youths’ family/natural supports for long periods of time which can also be lethal.

The HF4Y model must also be considered a preventive measure for young people who are currently housed but remain highly vulnerable. Within a community strategy, population-based priorities should be set, where the most vulnerable homeless youth must always be a priority. As previously mentioned, communities may adapt the HF4Y model in order to target and meet the needs of specific sub-populations or to implement it in a preventive context. Examples of these adaptations include:

  • HF4Y adapted for Indigenous youth. Home Fire in Calgary, Alberta was the first HF4Y program designed for Indigenous youth in Canada. It has since been joined by Endaayaang (“Our Home” in Ojibway), a HF4Y program in Hamilton, Ontario operated by the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre and part of the Making the Shift Demonstration Lab. These adaptations of HF4Y must be Indigenous-led and involve a hybrid model combining the HF4Y framework and core principles with Indigenous ways of knowing and support models that emphasize cultural engagement and reconnection.
  • HF4Y supporting young people involved with Child Protection Services. HF4Y can be adapted to support young people who are transitioning from care, even if they are not homeless. The model can also be implemented as an early intervention (i.e., prevention) program. The First Place for Youth in Oakland, California, for example, was an early adopter of HF4Y for youth leaving care. This model inspired Lethbridge, Alberta to implement a similar approach to supporting young people. The HF4Y project in Waterford, Ireland adapted the Canadian HF4Y model to support young people who leave care. More recently, Free 2 Be Housing First for Youth Leaving Care was established by WoodGreen Community Services in Toronto, Ontario as part of the Making the Shift Demonstration Project. This program focuses on prevention by supporting youth who are transitioning from child protection services.
  • HF4Y for youth leaving corrections. There is a body of research that suggests that when young people are discharged/released from prison into homelessness the risk of reoffending goes up. HF4Y can be adapted as an important transitional support for young people leaving either the adult correctional system or the youth criminal justice system.

Though the model can be adapted to accommodate the needs of specific sub-populations, organizations must uphold the core principles and values of HF4Y to maintain fidelity. Incorporating the values and principles of HF4Y in community planning will no doubt result in fewer occurrences of youth homelessness in Canada.

Implementing H4FY in Your Community 

Download the Housing First for Youth Program Model Guide and Operations Manual for implementation considerations and case examples of what this work can look like in practice. 

You can also check out the 3-part training on HF4Y on the Homelessness Learning Hub to learn more.

Please feel free to contact us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca for further information on HF4Y Training and Program Implementation for your community or if you are interested in a HF4Y Fidelity Review.

Note: This blog has been adapted from THIS is Housing First for Youth: Part 1 – Program Model Guide (2021) authored by Stephen Gaetz, Heidi Walter and Chad Story.