A photo of Allyson Marsolais and Lesley McMillan at the White House.
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On Friday June 3, the True Colors Fund (in partnership with The White House and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness) hosted a policy briefing on ending youth homelessness at the White House (Washington, D.C.). Luckily (for us!), we were on the guest list! The focus of the policy briefing was to strategize solutions to prevent and end youth homelessness. This event brought together almost 100 experts from the homeless youth sector, child welfare, juvenile justice, education and employment systems, as well as stakeholders in government, philanthropy, and research. The most important participants were youth who have experienced homelessness.

It was also the official launch of A Way Home America. A Way Home America was inspired by the efforts of A Way Home Canada to mobilize across sectors to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada. Though the structures and activities of the two entities will differ, the vision to prevent and end youth homelessness is the tie that binds. The cross-border learning emerging from both countries will take us further faster in our efforts to ensure that all young people have what they need to transition into healthy adulthood.

The highlight of the event was youth sharing their experiences in the “Intersectionality: Identities, Experiences, and Solutions” session. Seven youth from across the United States shared how their experiences with the systems (that far too often act as pipelines for youth into homelessness) were influenced by their intersecting identities and based on these experiences what solutions are needed to prevent other youth from sharing similar experiences. Part of their talks were their thoughts on the Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan To Prevent And End Homelessness produced by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH).

Seven youth sharing their experiences in the “Intersectionality: Identities, Experiences, and Solutions” session.
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Several young people spoke about their experiences with having multiple foster families while they were in care (one had 21 moves as a “foster kid”). One youth who had been in care spoke about how when she had her first child, she did not have any parenting role models and this is one of the reasons why her child was taken into care. All youth spoke about the systemic racism, homophobia and/or transphobia they encountered that played a part in their becoming homeless and shaped their experience of homelessness. Their insights into how systems fail youth in the United States translates to what youth in Canada experience and highlights the importance of including the voices of youth with lived experiences of homelessness into discussions on preventing and ending youth homelessness.

The “Shared Responsibility: a coordinated movement” session featured TED-style talks, in which the speakers shared their thoughts on how their sector can work cross-sectorally to end youth homelessness in the United States.

For instance, Megan Gibbard (Director of A Way Home America) stated that they are building on Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. The goal is to acknowledge the progress and successes made via Opening Doors to end homelessness for a targeted population (veteran homelessness) and encouraging the next administration to continue the work with a focus on youth experiencing homelessness.

Rafael Lopez (Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) discussed the importance of collaboration at various levels of government and shared local success stories of coordinated responses. 

It was inspiring to learn about the impressive work happening in the US around youth homelessness. It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the progress we are making here at home. 

Not only have attitudes shifted in recent years about the need to prioritize youth homelessness, the conditions necessary to support such a shift have begun to take hold:

Knowledge base

A growing body of research, evidence informed practice and policy now supports the proposition that we can effectively end homelessness. Innovative approaches from across the country, as well as effective interventions from around the world, demonstrate how prevention focused approaches reduce the number of young people who become homeless, and shorten the experience of those who do.

For instance, Raising the Roof, in partnership with the COH and A Way Home Canada, has launched The Upstream Project, which will take an innovative approach developed in Australia (The Geelong Project) and adapt it to the Canadian Context. The Geelong Project is a ground-breaking partnership that helps young people at risk of homelessness. TGP uses a proven tool to assess students in schools and identify those who may be at higher risk of homelessness. The goal here in Canada is to transform the way we respond to youth homelessness by shifting the focus to prevention.

Community action

There are at least ten communities across the country engaging in processes to plan and implement youth homelessness strategies, and many more have indicated a readiness to do so. Since launching their community plan in 2014 A Way Home Kamloops (BC), for instance, has over 100 stakeholders working together to end youth homelessness. Strong collaboration has resulted in multiple initiatives across sectors, including child welfare to corrections, education and employment. Through their work, they developed the Wrapforce, a solution for smaller communities to address gaps in the housing and supports continuum. The Wrapforce assisted 39 young people experiencing homelessness in its first year and is on its way to doubling that number this year! 

Community capacity and readiness

A Way Home Canada is dedicated to co-creating and amplifying solutions with communities and all levels of government. To support the enhanced capacity to respond to youth homelessness in unique local contexts across Canada, A Way Home has developed a Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit to help communities create plans to prevent, reduce and end homelessness among young people. The toolkit is designed as a resource for organizations and/or individuals considering or already leading community efforts to develop strategic responses to youth homelessness.

Youth engagement

There is a commitment by service providers, researchers, and all levels of government to meaningfully engage youth to ensure their voices are amplified and reflected in policy and programming. A Way Home Canada’s Youth Voice constellation work, for instance, is being led by the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. This work includes the following objectives: convene spaces for youth consultations on resources, toolkits, policy briefs etc. developed by A Way Home and our partners; identify promising practices for youth engagement; identify youth engagement models that A Way Home can adapt; explore the viability of the development of a national youth table; and create opportunities for youth to develop leadership and communications skills and other necessary skills to take part of a national youth table.

Provincial/Territorial engagement

Alberta is the first provincial or territorial government to release a youth homelessness strategy, while Ontario has made this one of its four key homelessness priorities. Other provinces, including Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba, have signaled a strong interest in moving in this direction.

Federal commitment

In the 2016-17 budget released by the Government of Canada, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy received an increase of almost 50% in funding, and youth homelessness was identified as a priority. In addition, the federal government has prioritized youth unemployment, affordable housing, infrastructure, the environment and Indigenous issues, all of which impact youth homelessness.

While the work being done by our neighbours to the south, as well as the work we’re doing in Canada is quite impressive, we must not become complacent. We have reached a critical juncture in Canada where the timing is right to make real progress towards ending homelessness: let’s capitalize on it!