How can we effectively address the largely hidden and pervasively misunderstood problem of youth homelessness in a safe and accessible way?

In this blog, we will explore how a promising initiative, Upstream Canada, addresses extreme barriers to youth resiliency in order to prevent homelessness and school disengagement.

What is Upstream Canada?

This cross-sector, social innovation addresses the staggering reality that 35,000 – 45,000 youth in Canada experience homelessness each year. The majority of our responses to youth homelessness are reactive – in other words, we wait until young people are homeless, disengaged in school and street-involved before we offer help. Adapted from Upstream Australia (previously The Geelong Project), the Upstream Canada initiative is a preventive approach that works to support youth between the ages of 12-16 who are identified as at risk of homelessness and school disengagement through a universal screening tool called the Student Needs Assessment (SNA). This universal approach sets Upstream Canada apart from other interventions as it offers a discreet and informative way for students to access help. The confidential assessment is a critical initial step in identifying students experiencing extreme barriers to resiliency in school engagement and the potential risk of homelessness. Students flagged as at risk by the assessment are invited to a validation interview. If needs are validated, students are offered coordinated supports. This prevention-focused intervention promotes access and inclusion with a privacy-protected approach. Upstream Canada offers an accessible pathway to supports that is especially important for students who would not otherwise be identified by educators as needing supports (no outward signs) and who might fear stigma or other consequences related to revealing their circumstances.

As an equity-focused early intervention that works through the collective efforts of schools and community-based organizations, Upstream Canada is part of a broader strategy to prevent youth homelessness. It is aligned with The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness and its typology of youth homelessness prevention. Within the Homelessness Prevention Typology outlined in The Roadmap, Upstream Canada is an example of an early intervention initiative that focuses on cross-sector partnerships of education and community social services.

Goals of Upstream Canada

Risk factors for homelessness and school disengagement are not always apparent until a young person is in crisis – and sometimes, not even then. Recognizing this, Upstream Canada aims to support these students through a more proactive approach to intervention. Ultimately, the goal of this program model is to prevent youth homelessness, and in doing so, support at-risk students in their educational opportunities and outcomes. 

Upstream Canada responds to the following overarching issues and opportunities: 

  • Youth who fall through the cracks because their circumstances are hidden or unnoticed, and they do not reach out for help.
  • Inequities faced by young people at risk of and experiencing homelessness – in educational and employment opportunities, experiences, and outcomes. 
  • Evidence that many first encounters with homelessness occur before the age of 16 (over 40%) – when youth are typically ineligible to access supports beyond child welfare 
  • The critical role of schools as a place of intervention
  • Teachers and other educators wanting to help but not being equipped with the knowledge or capacity. 
  • The potential for effective partnerships between schools and communities. 
  • The fragmented nature of the system that is complicated and difficult to navigate. 
  • The great existing work and resources in communities could be leveraged through collaborative partnerships to build better solutions.

What are the Core Principles of Upstream Canada?

The core principles of Upstream Canada are aligned with the Youth Reconnect and Family and Natural Supports program models. All of these models have been designed to keep youth stably housed and divert them from a trajectory of homelessness.

The values governing Upstream Canada include the following elements: 

  • Collaborative: Upstream Canada is co-designed from planning contextual adaptation to implementation with various stakeholders, including:
    • The education sector
    • The broader community of social services
    • Schools
    • The lead community-based organization
    • Youth
    • Youth’s families
  • Integrative: Supports are coordinated and delivered in partnership with local service providers, who are committed to a positive youth development and wellness orientation that focuses on individualized, client-driven supports.
  • Equitable: There are significant disproportionalities in youth homelessness related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Risk assessment and supports are offered with this in mind, highlighting culturally appropriate and needs-based social and community inclusion.
  • Longitudinal: Ideally, there are no time limits on supports, although this is subject to resource availability. Upstream Canada also aims towards longitudinal measurement as a way to ensure young people are supported to thrive while building knowledge about more effective solutions. Longitudinal measurement is critical to understanding the aspects of the intervention that are effective and those that might need adjustment. It also ensures that young people are offered supports that are aligned with their evolving needs. This data will also assist the Upstream Canada research team with important information including learning how the initiative can be sustainably scaled. 

Interested in Implementing the Upstream Canada Program Model in Your Community? 

Upstream Canada focuses on schools as key partners in early intervention. Schools can have an important role in supporting students at risk before the situation worsens and becomes more difficult to address. Equally, community organizations can serve as critical collaborators in this work. Leveraging the strong professional capacities and resources in both arenas can facilitate more effective interventions that ultimately lead to better outcomes for young people.

Download The Upstream Project Canada: An Early Intervention Strategy to Prevent Youth Homelessness & School Disengagement for considerations for implementing Upstream Canada in communities and case examples of what this work can look like in practice. 

If you have any questions regarding training and/or program implementation opportunities, feel free to contact us at

Note: This blog has been adapted from The Upstream Project Canada: An Early Intervention Strategy to Prevent Youth Homelessness & School Disengagement (2020) authored by Jacqueline Sohn and Stephen Gaetz.