In this bi-weekly blog series, Abe Oudshoorn explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Follow the whole series!

Taking a slight detour this week from my usual research reviews, I wanted to reflect a bit on a new “housing first emergency shelter for youth” being built in my hometown of London, Ontario.

Our local news ran an article about the shelter titled, “Why Adult Shelters are Scary for London’s Homeless Youth” (CBC, 01/07/19). From the general public perspective this seems rather non-controversial: there are youth experiencing homelessness in London so we should build a youth shelter. However, with the advent of Housing First as a best practice, communities across Canada are actually attempting to reduce their use of emergency shelters. Indeed, London’s own Homelessness Prevention Plan explicitly speaks to spending less money on emergency shelter and more money on homelessness prevention and permanent re-housing. This represents a shift away from managing homelessness to solving homelessness. A message being shared across the country is: “Stop building shelters as the solution to homelessness (because it isn’t).”

So, what is London doing, and why on earth do I support this? As highlighted in the CBC article above, the current system that involves youth accessing emergency shelter in a shared space with adults is highly problematic. We know that these sorts of shared spaces put youth at greater risk of: 1) violence; 2) drug use; 3) being trafficked; 4) chronic homelessness; and 5) mental health decline. Therefore:

Youth should have dedicated youth shelter space.

However, that doesn’t really answer the broader question about the value of emergency shelter, in general. If Housing First is working and people are being diverted from shelter and rapidly rehoused, shouldn’t these funds be spent elsewhere? While this is true to some extent, it misses the point that there will always be some portion of people who encounter a housing crisis and have no place to go. This is particularly true of youth who often don’t have independent income or any rental history and therefore have fewer options to be quickly rehoused. Therefore:

Within the homeless serving sector there will always be a need for some emergency shelter spaces.

But that doesn’t mean that we necessarily do emergency shelter in the same way that it has always been provided. Indeed, shelters themselves are learning how to be congruent partners in communities that are striving to provide Housing First. So, while we will always need emergency shelters as a crisis landing space, and youth should have access to their own dedicated shelter spaces, these shelters should be part of the solution in providing people rapid access to quality, safe, permanent, affordable, and supported housing of their choice. This is why I’m in favour of what is happening in London. The lead organization, Youth Opportunities Unlimited, has from the beginning of planning defined this as a Housing First emergency shelter for youth (before we even had a lot of guidance about what a “Housing First shelter” really meant… and while some were (and are) skeptical that these terms can even be used together). I believe that this particular space has the potential to serve as a best practice for other shelters looking to evolving their work to more of a re-housing focus over basic needs and crisis intervention.