As a member of the Making the Shift team, I’ve noticed a curious sort of trend: quite often, when I start talking about the importance of “youth choice” in the context of youth homelessness service delivery, people falter. It seems to me that many people are intrigued by the idea in theory but then get stuck on how it could possibly work out in practice. And I can understand that – it’s not opposition to young people having choices, it’s just hard to picture how it would work: What choices would youth be making? How would options be presented to them? Wouldn’t this just slow down the service system more? These – and other concerns along similar lines – are important questions to ask ourselves, as long as we don’t let our underlying concerns overpower the potential to dramatically improve the lives of young people.
For anyone who has been following along in this blog series, you’ll probably recognize “youth choice” as a Core Principle in the Housing First for Youth ethos. For any new readers (welcome!) or anyone who needs a refresher, let’s take a closer look at what we’re talking about here.
What do we mean by “Youth Choice”?
To be frank, youth choice is exactly what it sounds like: young people having the opportunity to make decisions that are pertinent to their own lives. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Of course, it gets more complicated when applied to young people who are vulnerable to, or experiencing, homelessness; these youth may not be given many chances to make decisions. This may arise from an existing service system that was not designed to emphasize choice, or from a possible habit among adults to infantilize younger adults and adolescents – which can manifest in the widely-held assumption that youth can’t make their own decisions, or won’t make ones that are positive and in their “best interests.” Young people are just as deserving as their older counterparts to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have their rights upheld. Not only that, but decisions made and driven by youth are bound to be impactful, as youth can draw on their own experiences and knowledge about what they need. Young people have a right to voice their preferences and choose options that work best for them; after all, they know themselves best! This can lead to greater success, since youth are more likely to be invested in following through on choices they are involved in, and that they believe will work for them.
Part of why youth choice is so important is that it helps youth develop critical thinking skills that are essential to adult life. Choices can only really be made when youth are informed, so it is necessary to support them to retain the necessary knowledge and critical thinking to be able to make an informed decision. This could be anything from providing background information on a topic, to weighing in on pros-and-cons, to advising a youth about what choice you would make in their position and why. It can also be supporting youth in making a decision that you don’t necessarily agree with.
This brings us to a fundamental pillar of youth choice: youth must lead the work. They are the ones to choose when they are ready to begin specific services, what issues they want to work on first (or at all), and who they want to be involved in their journey. This last point can be most clearly seen in family and natural supports work, where young people decide for themselves who counts as family and who does not, regardless of biological ties. It is highly likely that youth will want to work on one challenge, or with one support, a time, building their skills and resilience over time to tackle larger challenges. This process will need to take place within a context of safety and support for the youth.
Limits to Youth Choice
One huge caveat here is the fact that there are limits to youth choice, as there are for everyone else making choices. It’s important to not mistake choices with desires or wishes; just because a youth wants something does not mean they will automatically get it. Choices have to be curbed to realistic and attainable options. For example, a young person’s “choice” to live in their own apartment without roommates in the most expensive area in town is likely not an attainable option. Instead, one might encourage them to consider living with roommates or expanding their search to more affordable neighbourhoods. The essential part is that they are still involved in making the choices, as long as such choices are appropriate for them to make.
Appropriateness is one of the limits to choice that are common among the youth population; factors like age, stage of development, and any potential delays must be considered. While we say “youth,” the reality is that there is quite an age gap between young teenagers and early twenty-somethings. What’s appropriate for a young teen may not be the same as what’s appropriate for a young adult; as young people age and mature, they should be encouraged to take on more of their own decisions. Every individual matures in different ways, so there are no set rules for choice related to age.
Limits related to potential developmental or cognitive delays are trickier to pin down, but are so important to think about – even though a youth might be a certain age, their cognitive abilities may be different than their peers. This certainly will impact the types of choices that young people can make. However, care must still be taken to ensure that youth are involved in decision-making in their own lives.
How Can Youth Choice Be Implemented Practically and Effectively?
When we talk about youth choice, it is often in the context of service delivery – that youth are to take part in choosing services they may require and where they would like to receive said services. This is a great place to start because it is relatively simple to ease elements of youth choice into existing service delivery models. Youth can actively engage in setting their own goals and contribute to developing programs they feel will benefit them, for example. In housing programs, youth can explore the different models of accommodation (transitional housing, supportive housing, scatter-site, etc.) and consider which option they would prefer. When developing new programs for youth, it is crucial that flexibility is built into the design so youth would be able to join or leave the program as they choose.
It is important to note that, in a practical sense, youth must have the freedom to change their mind after making a decision and to try something else. As discussed earlier, young people are developing their decision-making (and life) skills and so they will need some space to make mistakes and learn from them. Not everyone will get it right on their first try and that’s okay! Failure is a natural part of life and we all experience it. Encouragement from supportive adults can help a youth learn from a setback or failure and develop their personal coping skills and resiliency.
So, after this careful study of what youth choice is, isn’t, and could be, what are we left with? Hopefully, with the sense that youth choice is not daunting or overwhelming, and, far more importantly, that it is achievable – and even desirable – to implement across youth-serving systems. There are so many benefits to including youth in decision-making processes, both at the individual level (such as building life skills and resiliency) and the systems level (such as increasing youth engagement en masse) that, it would honestly be tough to list them all here. If nothing else, implementing a youth choice policy is an excellent and clear example of respecting youth as autonomous beings who are capable of making choices; specifically, choices that they determine are best for themselves and their own needs.
The “THIS is” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the fifth installment in the blog series; click to read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.