The What Would it Take? study, released in early 2018, captured the voices of young people as they helped shape what youth homelessness prevention should look like in Canada. Across 7 provinces/territories, 12 communities, 17 focus groups and 114 participants, our goal was to amplify the voices, insights, and wisdom of young people in order to drive the policy and practice change needed to prevent youth homelessness.
Youth explained that they became homeless as a result of many intersecting factors, such as poverty, family conflict, difficulty transitioning from care, limited availability of services, and landlord discrimination. To best understand these complex factors and how our prevention efforts can target each one, we used a social-ecological model that frames the causes of homelessness within three domains: “structural factors, systems failures, and individual and relational factors” (Gaetz et al., 2013; Gaetz, 2014).
STRUCTURAL FACTORS are broad systemic, economic, and societal issues that occur at a societal level that affect opportunities, social environments, and outcomes for individuals.
SYSTEM FAILURES refer to situations in which inadequate policy and service delivery within and between systems contribute to the likelihood that someone will experience homelessness. These include barriers to accessing public systems, failed transitions from publicly funded institutions and systems, and silos and gaps both within and between government funded departments and systems, and also within non-profit sectors.
INDIVIDUAL AND RELATIONAL FACTORS refer to the “personal circumstances that place people at risk of homelessness.” (Pg. 3, 34)
If we are to make measurable and lasting impacts on homelessness, we must stop young people from becoming homeless, transition youth out of homelessness quickly, and ensure that they do not become homeless again. These three elements should drive any strategy targeted at responding to youth homelessness, locally, provincially, territorially or nationally. The recommendations contained in the report give policymakers and the ears of government the starting place for “how”. But we can’t just rely on policy to make change, we must also rely on communities investing in these issues and designing solutions.
Recently, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan and I were contacted by Dr. Iwasaki’s team at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Extensions. As a component of their Participatory Action Research study with youth experiencing homelessness, youth themselves requested to host a conference based on the What Would it Take? report because the document was meaningful to them and they wanted to mobilize it further. How could we say no? His team is using youth-oriented and community-based participatory action research in engaging and working with, and for, high-risk youth living in marginalized conditions. These conditions include poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, mental health issues, racism, and other forms of discrimination. In working with youth leaders, his team is in the process of developing, testing, and refining a framework for youth engagement to facilitate social change and more effectively support optimal development of marginalized youth.
The conference, held on July 27, 2018, attracted youth, service providers, youth workers, policy makers, elected officials, researchers, and community members. Organizers used the What Would it Take? report to present themes and facilitate "Ted Talk" formatted presentations from youth and service providers. What resonated was the opportunity for youth to share their stories about the challenges they experienced while facing homelessness and solutions identified in the report that aligned with their perspectives and goals. Leadership from the conference emerged from youth themselves, and they hope their work can inspire other “Ted Talk” opportunities across Canada.
This opportunity and initiative reflects the transferability, resonance, and importance of the report. If you are looking to shape your community’s work and focus on youth homelessness prevention, we highly encourage you to use the report to position that conversation. Please connect with myself or Kaitlin Schwan if you want support to approach, design, or facilitate that process.
From a human rights perspective, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) acknowledges the right of a child or youth to express their views, to be heard and to have their views given due weight according to their age and level of maturity. This promotes respect for children as active participants in their own lives and acknowledges their evolving capacity and gradual progression into adulthood. Further, it acknowledges the importance of a child or youth’s input to informing the decisions affecting their lives, at both an individual and systemic level.
Our goal is to ensure opportunities to embed youth voice are coordinated, strategic, and most of all empowering for young people. Embedding youth engagement into your policy and program development should always be underpinned by the belief that children and youth have a fundamental right to be engaged in decisions that affect them. Youth have an important role in directing and shaping their own priorities and interests.
Within our work, we push towards ensuring communities have the tools they need to make measurable change. We want to equip you with the resources you need to feel confident about moving forward, imagine solutions and ensure we improve outcomes for youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Together, we can help ensure that every young person has the support they need to have a healthy transition to adulthood and the opportunity to reach their full potential.