“A truly effective response to youth homelessness must consider the important role the family and community connections can play for any young person.” - Family and Natural Supports: A Framework to Enhance Young People’s Network of Support.

The Family and Natural Supports (FNS) approach to preventing and ending youth homelessness was developed to help strengthen youths’ relationships with family and other meaningful adults in their lives. FNS helps ensure that youth at-risk of or experiencing homelessness are equipped with a sense of belonging, identity, security and a strong support system moving into adulthood.

The FNS approach has been implemented in agencies across Canada with with great success.  Based on experiences in those agencies, this blog will highlight key challenges to consider when implementing FNS and how to overcome them.

Ensuring Safety

Safety is a primary focus of FNS work. One of the first steps in ensuring safety is understanding what safety looks like for each person in a family unit.  A child could define safety very differently than their caregiver. So, FNS staff must spend time with each family member/natural support to understand and learn what safety means to them. FNS staff should also support the young person and their family/natural supports to develop a plan that ensures safety and security for everyone when they are together.  

When the desired goal for the young person and their family is moving the young person back into the family home, it is important to assess if the home is a safe space and what each person involved needs throughout this process. It should be noted that moving youth back into the family home can be a lengthy process. It may take several conversations and meetups because building and repairing relationships takes time and so does creating a feeling of safety.

There are also safety considerations for young people who may be unable to return home or choose to not return home. The goal of FNS is not necessarily to have youth return home but to strengthen relationships and prevent young people from experiencing homelessness. If the young person is not able to live at home, the FNS support worker and family should work together to explore other options such as living with extended family, family friends, or in a neighbour’s home. Using an emergency shelter or accessing a “by-name list” should be the very last resort.   

FNS staff also ensure that meeting locations are safe for both the young people and their chosen adults and meetings between families and youth always take place in mutually agreed upon locations. Some families prefer a neutral location like a counselling room at the organization’s office, while others may invite their FNS support worker into the family home for this time together.

Navigating Unsupportive Relationships

There will be times when a young person or their FNS support worker will want to connect with adults that the young person has an unsupportive/unhealthy relationship with or whom a family member sees as unhealthy. In these situations, the FNS approach states that staff should honour the young person’s choice in a way that is safe, trauma-informed and incorporates a harm reduction approach. 

FNS support workers need to approach these relationships with an open mind and take the time to get to know all the supportive adults that the youth have in their life. This will allow the program staff to learn which adults can support the youth and in what area. Some family and natural supports may have differing capacities due to complex events going on in their lives. This does not mean the adults are unsupportive or do not love the child.

 It is important that FNS staff support youth and families in learning how to navigate unsupportive relationships. For example, a support worker could work with the youth to determine what safety feels and looks like, what they want from that relationship and how to achieve that outcome while maintaining healthy boundaries. In this situation, the FNS support worker would be responsible for supporting the youth in processing the types of interactions that occur with unsupportive relationships. 

When appropriate, FNS staff can also support the young person to share their thoughts and feelings with their family and natural supports to help their learning. It is okay for youth and families to disagree, as this is part of all relationships. However, FNS support workers must support them to disagree in a way that is not harmful or traumatizing to one another and explore how to move forward after the disagreement. 

Protection Vs. Connection

Traditional thinking has been that for youth experiencing homelessness (and especially those who have been involved with child protection services) any connection to family is potentially harmful. The goal of the protection approach is to protect people from negative family dynamics by separating them from everyone in their family. Because the FNS approach supports youth in staying connected to family, it can appear to go against protection principles.  

However, keeping youth separated from their families and natural supports can be harmful. The FNS approach gives young people the opportunity to build and explore connections with the caring adults that they want and need moving forward. It does not disregard safety, it simply means support workers define safety with the youth, family and natural supports, rather than for them.

There might be some tension if an individual or organization wants to prioritize protection over connection. This conflict is often due to a lack of understanding about FNS and can be resolved by educating organizations about the goals and premises of this approach.

Preparing for Change

To prepare for the ways that FNS may change an organization or community, it is critical that organizations invest in change management supports. To do this, organizations should review their policy/procedures and internal systems to identify barriers that would contradict the FNS approach. The FNS model is the foundation of service delivery for many models aiming to prevent youth homelessness, including HF4Y, so it is vital that the entire organization - from the top down - understand and support this way of working.  

The Nuances of Working with Families Vs. Working with Natural Supports 

There are key differences to keep in mind when working with families compared to working with natural supports, as the type of relationship will influence the work. 

Working with families often involves a more complex history, and specific efforts are needed to reconcile these past conflicts. In contrast, working with a young person’s natural supports does not usually entail a long history that needs unpacking. Instead, the focus is often on how best to build and sustain a relationship with their supportive adult. FNS workers support the youth by identifying the limits, boundaries, and expectations that they have of these relationships. When strengthening natural supports, FNS support workers should also be conscious of the fact that these relationships may disrupt or complicate family-strengthening efforts. 

‘Coaches, not Mediators’

FNS support workers must also acknowledge that they are not experts in these families' lives. Each family has their own value system, journey and beliefs that must be respected.  For FNS to be effective, support workers must ask questions, listen, and truly seek to understand the perspective of the family/natural support. 

FNS support workers cannot just be seen as a mediator who resolves conflicts between the youth and their family/natural supports.  More accurately, they should be received as a coach who guides people but does not actively do the work on their behalf. FNS staff help people to enhance their skills and provide support in reaching their goals, but they allow space for the youth and families to resolve things in their own way.

Implementing the FNS Approach in Your Organization

To learn more about FNS and how it works, download the full framework: Family and Natural Supports: A Framework to Enhance Young People’s Network of Support 

You can also check out the FNS resource collection on the Homelessness Learning Hub for tips and tutorials. 

If you have any questions regarding training and/or program implementation opportunities, feel free to contact us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca.

Note: This blog has been adapted from Family and Natural Supports: A Framework to Enhance Young People’s Network of Support (2020) authored by Meryl Borato, Stephen Gaetz, Lesley McMillan. It was compiled by Promise Busulwa, COH Communications Coordinator, for publication on the Research Matters Blog.