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Early intervention initiatives aimed at preventing youth homelessness involve identifying young people who are at risk of homelessness, dropping out of school, or other significant and negative life altering circumstances and then providing them with the necessary supports to reduce these risks, strengthen families and keep them in their community.

In thinking about homelessness prevention, it is important to note that such early intervention activities are not technically school programs. Rather, they are community-based strategies that are placed within schools. The key is that a range of services and supports are integrated into a ‘system of care’ model, so that young people and their families are provided with the necessary supports to adequately address the presenting issues.

A strong school-based prevention initiative requires a coordinated and strategic systems approach, and must necessarily engage, include and mandate action from mainstream systems and departments of government. No solution to end youth homelessness can or should depend solely on the efforts of the homelessness sector.

Why do schools matter?

Virtually every young person who becomes homeless was once in school. Moreover, there was likely an adult in their life – a teacher, a counselor, a coach – who knew something was wrong, but did not know what to do. Educators are often the first adults outside of the family to suspect or become aware of underlying problems that may lead to youth homelessness. Whether this means bullying, educational disengagement, signs of abuse, trauma and/or family conflict, teachers are often able to identify young people at risk. Teachers lack, however, the knowledge, resources and supports to intervene.

Keeping young people engaged in school for as long as possible pays dividends for all young people, their families and communities. This is equally true of homeless youth. By providing young people with ‘place-based’ supports that align with natural supports (family, friends, community), we increase the likelihood a young person will thrive. At the same time, we reduce the probability that a young person will leave their community in search of supports and become mired in homelessness. 

The importance of family-centered prevention strategies

A family-centered early intervention strategy works not only to support the young person, but to mediate conflict within the family, and help parents and other family members who may be struggling to meet the needs of their children. The idea is to connect families to community resources, promote positive parenting and enhance parents’ capacity to care for their children. Successful approaches often rely on “home visits” that bring the supports directly to parents and families, and/or work through schools.

The key to such a preventive approach is that for most youth, life chances generally improve the longer they stay with their families, and the more ‘planned’ their transition is to living independently. Young people and their families need to be able to make good choices about whether to continue to live together or apart, and if the latter is the case, they need access to appropriate resources and skilled support to help them avoid homelessness.

“Key elements of ‘what works’ include flexible and client-centered provision, close liaison with key agencies, and building in support from other agencies when necessary. The need for timely intervention was also highlighted, as was the need for active promotion of the availability of the service and early contact with clients on referral.” - Hal Pawson, 2007

How is this approach different from “business as usual”?

Very rarely do young people leave home for frivolous reasons. Rather, it is usually a combination of factors, including a history of family violence, involvement with child protection services, mental health or addictions issues, learning disabilities, bullying, school disengagement, social exclusion and discrimination. Yet when young people are at risk of homelessness or become homeless, typically the only supports available are emergency supports, such as shelters or day programs. This traditional welfare approach focuses on support after a crisis has occurred. The short-term goal is to meet immediate needs and the longer-term goal is stabilization.

Despite the presence of complex needs, young people are often presented with a fragmented, incoherent range of service responses that make addressing their issues a challenge, and in many cases needs go unmet. Young people are often expected to adapt to program requirements, when in fact, programs and supports should fit the needs of the young person. Ideally, this work should begin well before a young person is at serious risk of becoming homeless.

Successful school-based prevention programs operate in a very different way, and by definition rely on an integrated systems response involving homeless service providers, schools and a range of other mainstream services and supports. Programs, services and service delivery systems are organized in an integrated way at every level – from policy, to intake, to service provision, to client flow – based on the needs of the young person. Integrated service models are typically client-focused and driven, and are designed to ensure that needs are met in a timely and respectful way. This is often referred to as a “System of Care” approach. Originating in children’s mental health and addictions sectors, the concept can be defined as: ‘‘an adaptive network of structures, processes, and relationships grounded in system of care values and principles that provides children and youth with serious emotional disturbance and their families with access to and availability of necessary services and supports across administrative and funding jurisdictions’’.

Ultimately, then, school based interventions ensure that when a young person presents as being at risk of homelessness, they and their family’s needs are assessed and plans are put in place immediately. All of this is client-centered, so that the young person is in charge of determining their needs. As they move through the sector, different agencies work collaboratively to help meet those needs, prevent homelessness and/or move them out of homelessness as quickly as possible.