• 78% of youth who have participated in programming have achieved housing stability.
• 96% of youth involved in the program are employed or self-employed and/or have returned to school.
•74% of youth involved in programming have improved health and well-being.
•70% of young people have strengthened family relations, with 71% having strengthened community relations.
When looking at these results, one might surmise that they are the product of a well established program model that an organization has taken years to refine. You’re wrong! This is data pulled from 12 new demonstration projects that have been able to thrive in a space devoted to prevention and innovation over the last three years.
The Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS) is a multi-year, collaborative project that is working to prototype and test approaches to support the prevention of and facilitate sustainable exits from homelessness. For Phase One of MtS DEMS (2017–2020), program models (Housing first for youth, Family and Natural Supports, and Youth Reconnect) that have been adapted from jurisdictions where they have proven promising, were put in place across 12 sites in Canada. The delivery of services as well as the research and evaluation of these demonstration projects is funded by the Employment and Social Development Canada as part of the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy (YESS); it is led by A Way Home Canada and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; and powered by countless individuals working in policy, planning, research, and practice who have committed their careers to improving the wellbeing of youth.
Using design thinking to expand our knowledge and understanding of innovative approaches to preventing and ending youth homelessness, our collective work has allowed us to identify, co-create, test, evaluate, and mobilize promising innovations in policy and practice. This work is ultimately about transforming systems to reduce youth homelessness and ensure the best possible outcomes for young people. The latest resource that has emerged from this work is the Five Critical Lessons from the Making the Shift Demonstration Projects report which outlines the complexity and magic of this work. These learnings have been bundled into five categories:
1. Developing and refining program models: This means respecting, identifying, and adapting local practices to equip organizations with the tools they need to succeed. Through mobilizing technical and training resources, this enhanced local practice and improved overall literacy of the program models. Given the innovative space we were working within, nurturing and building a community of practice was also necessary to allow for like minded thinking, meaningful peer to peer dialogue and a common language amongst partners.
2. Supporting communities to achieve Collective Impact: Beyond the learnings we’ve gleaned about community readiness for change, we also have a lens towards how Collective Impact in this work can reveal important and overdue natural partnerships across systems. This also means having a gauge on knowing when and how to push against the status quo and how essential that can be for nurturing innovation within an organization and across the homelessness sector.
3. Enabling technical training and assistance to build capacity: Building capacity can be so many things. Supporting youth and families using new program models also means supporting organizations to shift “how” they operate. We have had to increase the level of technical assistance originally positioned for this work to ensure program model fidelity and continuous quality improvement. Perhaps the most important learning, that can foreground all of our work in prevention, has been how to interpret and operationalize the concept of youth choice.
4. Overcoming system and structural rigidity to support social R&D: It might be assumed that innovation can overcome any barrier, but real constraints highlighted the systemic, practical and programmatic barriers facing young people who find themselves homeless. From requirements for government issued ID to finding low cost and accessible housing, we need an “all-hands-on deck” approach that addresses systems barriers and the current lack of affordable housing in Canada.
5. Fostering a different kind of leadership: This work isn’t about individual achievements. We have grown to understand that ALL of the program models and our collective efforts are enhanced by adopting Indigenous ways of knowing into our work. The learnings we have gleaned from Indigenous research and practice, that is led by Indigenous peoples and knowledge, has shaped growth across all of our work.
As we continue to mobilize the Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness (the Roadmap), increasing comfort levels with promising program models will bridge the gaps between evidence, practice, policy and investment. Concrete examples of program delivery and resources that can assist with implementation of models coupled with a knowledge base that can further support refinement of those program models is paramount for collective action to take root. As we make progress towards understanding what kinds of programs and practices lead to better outcomes for young people, we can factor in how those outcomes translate into public policy and how they can inform a range of department mandates. From a public policy perspective, specifically when it comes to defining courses of action, funding priorities and required policy shifts, the learning within MtS DEMS offers the answers to very important questions that are at the precipice of decision making. The Roadmap details recommendations that are intended to guide investments, policy development, and community implementation of youth homelessness prevention. Specific attention was given to the recommendations focused on Funders:
1. Increase comfort levels with funding pilot projects to not only contribute to a growing evidence base, but support innovative practice at the community level. To make the most of these pilots, funders should mandate precise evaluation.
2. Provide program funding to service organizations for a minimum of three years to allow for concentrated program development, establishment of robust program evaluation and data measures, and adequate time to report on program successes.
3. Develop granting streams that support activities across the Roadmap’s prevention continuum, building a foundation for delivering and sustaining effective prevention-based practice.
Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) as part of the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy has in real time addressed these recommendations and created the space for maximum learning and growth. Their leadership and vision for meshing policy intersections and supporting a vision for innovation cannot be understated. These commitments, along with the flexibility built into the new Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy Directives have created an important space for prevention to take hold. Reaching Home’s mandatory community-level outcomes (New inflows into homelessness are reduced and Returns to homelessness are reduced) point communities in the direction of prevention and that the goal of a reduction in chronic homelessness does not mean only working with those who are currently chronically homeless.
Phase One of MtS DEMS is a living example of how to employ the principles of social innovation to address complex social issues. The knowledge and evidence developed through this work will contribute to the systems transformation necessary to truly prevent and end youth homelessness, thus ensuring the best possible outcomes for young people. Phase 2 of MtS DEMS looks to build on the existing Phase One partnerships to ensure long-term sustainability of these interventions. Phase Two will also introduce additional demonstration projects in Ontario and British Columbia as well three new HF4Y projects coming online in Toronto with program dollars from Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and research and evaluation funded by the Making the Shift is a Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab.
• If you’re a policy maker reading the report - Give careful consideration and thought to how you can create this kind of space, growth and innovation to stakeholders in your jurisdiction.
• If you’re a practitioner reading the report - Assess if these lessons resonate for yourself and your organization. If they do, get in touch with us to learn about the tools and resources developed through MtS DEMS and apply them to your work.
• If you’re a funder reading the report - Mirror the recommendations mentioned above from the Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness and give organizations permission to grow and learn while at the same time shifting trajectories for our most vulnerable young people.
• If you’re a young person reading the report - Use your voice for change, for advocacy and for yourself. We are listening!