The Safe at Home program developed by StepStones for Youth in Toronto, Ontario was recently selected as one of the winners of the second annual Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Prevention Awards. 

We spoke with Heather O'Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth, to learn more about the initiative, why it was designed, how it fills the gaps in preventing youth homelessness, and much more. 

About the initiative

Safe at Home is StepStones for Youth’s youth homelessness prevention program. The goal of this program is to prevent homelessness, poverty, and intergenerational dependency on social systems for vulnerable young people from the child welfare system. This is achieved by re-connecting youth who are currently or have previously been in foster care with five people from their past who agree to become part of a support network for the young person. This support network provides long-term housing solutions, unconditional care, and guidance. 


11 years ago, StepStones for Youth started a pilot project to decide what supports would enable a young person from the foster care system to be successful. StepStones for Youth developed many wrap-around support programs and every six months they tracked the outcomes of the young people in these programs. Through this process, they determined there were two key components that predicted the success of a young person: 

  1. Stable housing
  2. A network of people who care about them and are willing to provide meaningful support 

“At the beginning stages [of this process], what I thought was essential were things like food, and clothing, and life skills and those kinds of pieces. But, what we found was actually no, even with those things put into place, if that person did not have a strong network of people who cared about them, where they felt like they belonged, those things did not create significant change.” - Heather O’Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth

The Safe at Home program was developed out of this idea. They combined these two factors for success into one program in the hopes of creating an initiative that would provide long-term stability for the youth.

Benefits of Partnership and Collaboration

Partnerships and collaborations are essential to the work that StepStones does because no one can do it all. As Heather O’Keefe stated, “When you try to do it all, you don't do a great job of it... so, we really do value our partnerships, and we look to our partners to do what they do best.”

StepStones attributes much of their program’s success to the fact that they have built out a strong support network for youth by relying upon shared resources from community organizations.

“We as organizations can kind of use each other for support, so that we can all…do the work that needs to get done to best move a young person into the outcomes that they're hoping to achieve.”  - Heather O’Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth

Impact of COVID-19

The Safe at Home program was in its infancy prior to the onset of the pandemic. However, due to many new issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the development of this program was fast-tracked.

As a result of the pandemic, shelter beds were scarce and for young people in the foster care and group home system, the feelings of isolation were extreme. Likely due to the widespread feelings of isolation felt by society, people from these youths’ lives began reaching out in the hopes of reconnecting.

Based on this information, it was clear that a program of this nature was needed and the StepStones team needed to work quickly to make it available.

Lessons Learned

One of the key takeaways for StepStones is that if you educate funders about the importance of prevention work, they are very supportive and willing to contribute. Initially, StepStones worried that funders were not going to want to engage in prevention work; that they would rather support an emergency-based intervention. However, they found that since they began educating the funders about homelessness prevention, the amount of funding that they received significantly increased.

Another key takeaway is that energizing your staff is essential. It is important to remind staff about the impact of the work they are doing.

“Over your work life, you can support as many young people [as you have] on your care load…But with prevention work, with building support networks around a young person, you can support 10 times the amount of young people over the course of your work life.” - Heather O’Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth

Finally, StepStones believes it is important to remain focused on the outcomes you are trying to achieve. To be successful, everything you do should be based on achieving that outcome.

About the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Prevention Awards

This year marked the second annual Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Prevention Awards Program. The Awards are presented by Canada Life and co-led by A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. They were created to celebrate the important work happening to prevent youth homelessness in Canada. 

Note: This blog post is part of a blog series highlighting the winners of the MtS Youth Prevention Award Winners. To learn about the other award winner, read our blog here.