Put yourself in the shoes of your thirteen-year-old self. If you couldn’t stay at home, where would  you turn? I would have asked for help from my best friend’s family, or my aunt who lived in town. I’ve heard others say that they would turn to teachers, relatives, pastors, or mentors for support in this scenario. These people are all “natural supports”. Natural supports are people who can have a significant impact on the lives of youth experiencing homelessness. Sometimes, natural supports also offer youth a place to stay. 

Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago recently published a set of resources showing how community – including extended kin, chosen family, and other natural supports – can and should be part of the solution to youth homelessness. In this post, I share some key takeaways from that work.

Communities are stepping up to help youth, but may need resources to make it work

Even when youth stay with someone they trust, informal shared housing can involve disagreements, costs, and instability. In Creating Home in Community, I talk about these challenges as moments where outside help could make a difference. With the right resources and support, youth and their informal hosts could work toward longer-term housing stability. 

As in any kind of shared housing situation, informal hosts and youth navigate boundary setting, conflict management, and mental health needs. Some informal hosts struggle with increased food and utility costs. Hosts who rent also have to contend with lease guest policies and sometimes public housing benefit rules. This means that renter hosts may risk their own housing if they choose to offer hospitality to youth long-term. 

It’s important that we don’t forget that racial inequities can wear away community social safety nets. In the U.S., Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) are more likely to be renters and low income, compared to white individuals. Research has shown that these patterns are due to racist histories of redlining and exclusion from educational and economic opportunities. This means BIPOC households are more likely to face financial and housing barriers by offering youth a place to stay. We need to recognize and resource informal hosting in communities of color in particular, as one piece of the wider effort to address racial disparities in youth homelessness.

Youth-serving agencies, policymakers, and public agencies can play a role in supporting youth and informal hosts

In the U.S., most systems serving youth experiencing homelessness aren’t equipped to formalize or support informal hosting. Public agencies and renter protection policies that serve low income households also fail to consider the needs of informal hosts. This means that most informal hosts manage financial, relational, and housing challenges on their own. But there are many opportunities for change in practice and policy. This project starts to chart a path forward.

Building the Host Home Model around Chosen Family and Kin shows how the host home model can be designed to stabilize and support the informal hosting already going on in communities.  

“Stranger-match” programs recruit hosts to provide housing to youth they don’t already know. This program approach is common in the U.S. and Canada. However, these programs often struggle with recruiting and retaining a diverse roster of hosts. In contrast, kinship hosting draws on the community of supports youth already have. The service provider works with the kinship host to help navigate material and relational challenges. 

In the practice brief, we make the case for kinship hosting and compare the two approaches. If your organization or community is interested in starting a host home program, check out the Chosen Family Justice initiative. This set of resources, developed by our friends at CloseKnit, walk through some of the legal and logistical challenges that face chosen family hosts.

Host homes are just one place where family and natural supports approaches could find a home. I was inspired by the work of Making the Shift, which demonstrated how the Family and Natural Supports approach could be successfully implemented and scaled up across communities. Their research demonstrates that social services can strengthen youths’ relationships and community connectedness. 

But, if we want to create population-level change, public agencies, funders, and policymakers need to consider the needs and strengths of informal hosts. In the U.S., that means exploring policy levers to prevent instability for renter hosts and establishing shared definitions of permanent connection – one of the four federal outcomes for addressing youth homelessness. Of course, the policy and public system landscape in Canada is unique. We hope these materials inspire our Canadian colleagues to investigate what systemic changes could make a difference in their communities.

I hope this project begins a larger conversation about the important role that community can play in the fight to make youth homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. For questions and comments, reach out to Mallory VanMeeter at mvanmeeter@chapinhall.org.