Jen (a pseudonym) is a bright, cheerful young woman who is wise beyond her years. In Grade 10, she calculated the number of credits she would need to graduate early and followed through with her plan, taking a high concentration of classes and even a college course in agriculture to become a horticulturalist, which certified her to work in green houses. She graduated this past January, six months ahead of time. Despite these accomplishments, not all has been well with Jen. Home life has been difficult and full of stress; over the last two years, she has stayed intermittently at friends’ houses. She sought help from the school counsellor and principal to find alternative housing and ways to cope, but “everyone was busy, and my issues were at the bottom of the list,” she explains.
It was not until Jen got caught shoplifting that her needs were brought to the attention of people who could help, through the Edmonton Police Service’s (EPS) DIVERSIONfirst program. Through DIVERSIONfirst, which works to connect youth who have committed a first time, low-level offence to community organizations and family supports, Jen was referred to the YMCA of Northern Alberta’s Youth Diversion program. She was connected with Laurie Morin, a Youth Diversion Worker, who has changed her life in a very short period of time. “I’m not a fan of cops,” Jen warns. “[But] getting arrested was the best thing that could have ever happened… what I actually did was bad, but when I sat down with Laurie my eyes lit up.”
Laurie has helped Jen receive free, quality counselling and has connected her to a housing program that is working on the paperwork to secure her first rental unit. She has also supported her through the restorative justice process in identifying and encouraging her to do volunteer work that is relevant to her interests. Laurie discovered that Jen is passionate about skateboarding and suggested that she mentor the younger kids at her local skateboard park. “I have a fan club of 20 kids,” Jen says. “I buy them iced tea… give them life lessons and relationship advice.” But more than these individual actions, Laurie has become a positive role model in her life and provided invaluable mentorship through a difficult period. Noticing that Jen could use a new skateboard, Laurie was able to purchase one for her birthday. Jen says that Laurie is so different from other adults she has known: “She’s very bubbly, outgoing; she talks to me every single day, about anything,” adding, “She is a good soul.”
The Youth Diversion Program uses a client-centred, individualized approach to support youth through a restorative justice process, in partnership with Edmonton Police Service’s DIVERSIONfirstprogram and supported by Homeward Trust Edmonton, a not-for-profit organization committed to ending homelessness in the city. Youth are referred through DIVERSIONfirst to the YMCA’s Youth Diversion Program and connected to a Youth Diversion Worker, who, in addition to addressing a young person’s basic needs (having a safe and stable place to live, access to food and clothing, etc.), builds on the youth’s strengths alongside the people they care about most. In this way, the Youth Diversion program applies a Family and Natural Supports (FNS) lens to the concept of diversion to ensure that young people can re-engage and expand their network of support.
The Youth Diversion Worker also acts as an advocate for the youth as they navigate the program. Together, youth, DIVERSIONfirst Constables, and Youth Diversion Workers determine an appropriate plan that “holds the youth accountable, but engages,” according to Michael Peters, Program Manager of Community and Housing Initiatives. “The joint effort aims to prevent youth from getting entrenched in the criminal justice system and instead take them through an individualized process of engagement and reflection that leads to better outcomes for themselves and the community. It’s turning a negative event into something positive,” he explains. Laurie adds, “They get these labels early on, that they’re a bad kid. When they come to meet us, they have the chance to think about the positive aspects of who they are. I’m not just my label, I’m more than that.”
The restorative justice process includes an agreement reached with the DIVERSIONfirst Unit, where a variety of accountability items are discussed in a final meeting with a DIVERSIONfirst Constable, the Youth Diversion worker, and, if deemed appropriate, the victim of the offence. Some youth write a letter to the victim if they cannot attend. Youth are also encouraged to do personal projects. One youth in the program wrote and performed a song on their ukulele. Others paint or write poetry, if they are artistically inclined. One young person was hired to work in a bakery as a result of their volunteer work.
There are clear links between poverty, homelessness, and involvement in the criminal justice system. As advocates point out, being born into a low-income family significantly increases the chances of becoming involved in criminal behaviour. Youth who are experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for being criminalized, and youth who exit systems are at increased risk of becoming homeless (Gaetz & O’Grady, 2006; Gaetz, O’Grady and Buccieri, 2011; Kennelly, 2011). Research has also demonstrated that contact with the criminal justice system increases the likelihood of re-offending (Wilson & Hoge, 2012). One could imagine a story like Jen’s turning out differently. With instability at home already an issue, she may have struggled to advocate on her own without a supportive adult, and the bureaucratic processes and legal challenges she would have faced might have led her down a path of criminalization and homelessness.
In a time of heightened scrutiny around policing and the need for greater investment in social services, the Youth Diversion Program has been forward thinking. It provides a unique example of the kind of symbiotic partnership that can happen between police and social services to meet the needs of the community in a more holistic way. Moreover, the program demonstrates how FNS principles can be applied to support justice diversion efforts by addressing the root causes of unlawful behaviour and the links between criminal justice involvement, homelessness, and mental health.
The Youth Diversion program would not be possible without the support of Homeward Trust Edmonton, whose mission is to end homelessness in the city by working with agencies, neighbourhoods, mainstream systems, community members and all order of government. According to reporting data, the program has reached 75 young people as of September 2020; of these, 64 have improved health and well-being, 13 have improved their housing stability, 62 have remained or return to school, 47 have improved relationships with family and chosen supports, 51 have enhanced connections to community, and 26 have been employed or received pre-employment training.
Jen recently completed the program in a final meeting with Laurie and a DIVERSIONfirst Constable. There, she spoke about her responsibility to the community, the nature of her volunteer work, and how this whole process has impacted her. Since graduating from school, Jen decided to take a year off and think deeply about her career. She works part-time at a hardware store as a “mini boss,” the name her boss has affectionately given her. She skateboards every day, every hour that she is not working. This coming year, she plans to move into her first apartment with two good friends.
Gaetz, Stephen, Bill O’Grady, and Kristy Buccieri. Can I see your ID? The policing of youth homelessness in Toronto. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network, 2011.
Gaetz, Stephen and Bill O’Grady (2006). The Missing Link: Discharge planning, Incarceration and Homelessness. The John Howard Society of Ontario.
Kennelly, Jacqueline. "Policing young people as citizens-in-waiting: Legitimacy, spatiality and governance." The British Journal of Criminology 51, no. 2 (2011): 336-354. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azr017
Wilson, H. A., & Hoge, R. D. (2013). The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(5), 497–518. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854812451089