In this episode, we’re exploring what it means to be young and homeless. We start with the story of Conor, a youth with lived experience who was able to break out of the cycle of homelessness, and is now a student at Mohawk College. Conor tells us his story, from his leaving home before his sixteenth birthday to finding his footing in a transitional housing program. (20 minutes - Listen to Part 1 here)
Next, we examine youth homelessness in Canada through the lens of a new report, Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness. For this, we speak with Stephen Gaetz, the director of the Homeless Hub and the author of the report. We talk about the report, how he sees it being received, and whether Canadians are ready to turn ideas into action when it comes to solving youth homelessness. (22 minutes - Listen to Part 2 here)
And we wrap up the podcast with Mary-Jane McKitterick of Eva’s Initiatives. She’s already integrating the findings of the report into her own work, so we check in with her about that and what other organizations can take away from Coming of Age. (18 minutes - Listen to Part 3 here)
Listen to the full podcast:
Justin Vasko: Hello and welcome to the Homeless Hub podcast. I’m your host Justin Vasko. This is our second ever episode. While it’s taken a bit of a stretch to get here, we’re happy to have you. Today on our show we’re going to be talking about youth homelessness. We’ll be hearing from someone who found themselves homeless at the age of 16, was able to break out of that cycle, get housed, and get back on track. We’ll also be talking with Stephen Gaetz. He’s the Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and he’s just released a report entitled Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. We’ll hear about the report, we’ll discuss how to better respond to youth homelessness and we’ll find out a little bit more how he incorporates the ideas behind transitional housing into his own life. Finally, we’ll hear from an organization whose already incorporating the Coming of Age report into their daily work. That’s all ahead on the Homeless Hub podcast, stay with us.
JV: Conor M. is a student at Mohawk College studying manufacturing techniques, specifically welding and fabrication, and he left home just days before his 16th birthday. He spent almost two years on the street going in and out of supports from group homes to the streets to shelters and so on. Connor joins us now from Hamilton. So Conor, thanks for taking the time to join us on the Homeless Hub podcast!
Conor M.: Hey Justin, no problem. I’m really glad to be able to do this.
JV: So let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your experience on the streets?
CM: Well, I’ve had a pretty vast experience with it, I guess you could say. It started even before I moved, or not really moved, before I got removed from my household. I was – from the age of 13 or so – I was just not a really good kid you could say. With my parents, I treated them really awfully and I did a lot of things that I’m not really too proud of and that eventually lead to my parents saying that I created a “toxic environment” inside my household. So they moved me out to a group home out in Oakville. From there I didn’t do really well in that group home because it was like an extremely structured sort of setting so that really didn’t bode too well for the type of person I am, I guess you could say. Within like a month and a half I got kicked out for the first time from there and I stayed out for a very long time. Eventually, I came back and I was living, like I moved out – when I got kicked out of there for the first time I was living in a shelter in Hamilton and that, I guess you could say, that was my first real experience with life on the streets. From there it kind of went downhill I guess. I eventually came back to the group home after like three weeks of like couch surfing. From there I only lasted for another week and a half and I got kicked out for good. I moved around a lot, I couch surfed for a little bit and I eventually got a place with a person that I met the previous summer. Once again, it kept just going from one bad situation to another so I eventually had to leave there and live with my girlfriend – or my girlfriend at the time. Once again I wasn’t able to make things work out there, so I ended up in a shelter in Hamilton and I was panhandling. I was just trying to make ends meet with what I had, right. And, to be honest, you’d be surprised about how far $15 and two bus tickets can go.
When you have that sort of experience it kind of really does change the type of person that you are. So I moved into transitional housing in August of 2013, I want to say, or 2012 actually. I still remember that day actually, it was pretty influential. I was so happy to be out of having to sleep with four or five other people in the same room as you. And having to worry about them stealing your stuff and it was pretty good to actually have a place to call my own. People, I guess people take that for granted. Most people my age and maybe a couple years younger and older even, they really take for granted just how much they have. When, a roof over the head, free meals 24/7 generally they’re made for you and a lot of people really don’t understand just how impacting that is on your life when you lose all of this.
Now, I have – my parents actually – thank God for them, actually helped me figure out what I need to do and exactly how I’ve got to do it. My mom, I guess you could say, she sort of lit a fire under my ass. She helped me get back into housing. Stable housing, which I still live at now. That was at the end of September that she got me in there and all the way into the current program I’m enrolled in at Mohawk.
JV: Looking to your own experience, you know, it sounds like there were certainly more than a couple bumps along the way. Were you always, as soon as you kind of moved out from home looking for that help or did it take a little bit of time for even that kind of motivation for you to find that in yourself?
CM: Eventually it got to the point where reality just kicked me in the face I guess you could say. And I had to face the fact that I was out there on my own. I was 16 years old. I was living in a really – not the place that I should be. I wasn’t going any further in life. I was just sort of existing, I guess you could say, and poorly at that. I decided that there’s not really anything that I shouldn’t be doing to get out of that sort of life. That’s not a life that I wanted to live. It was a very slow process for me to be able to finally make those ends meet. It was extremely difficult to do so, but I eventually was able to, I guess you could say, I could push past some of those barriers and set myself on the track to get a, attain a better life.
JV: Talking about the barriers that keep you in, sort of, that state of mind. Keep you, either coming in and out of shelters or on the streets, what kind of barriers are you referring to when you’re talking about that?
CM: One of the main ones that I’ve seen is, at least to my understanding and to my experience with it, was social assistance. The social assistance system in Ontario is very poorly designed, I guess you could say. You can’t be on social assistance and try to get scholarship or tuition loans at the same time. It would have been impossible for me to be going to college right now if it wasn’t for my parents. That’s just really idiotic, I guess you could say. I tried to, when I found this out I was completely and totally surprised by the fact that I needed to be off of social assistance, but how would I be able to pay my rent, how would I be able to actually live without having to go back to a shelter. And that’s another problem entirely of itself. You can’t, you have to have an address to go to college.
A couple of the other things that I was, that I guess you could say are barriers is how hard it is to actually exit the street life. There’s so many thing you get involved with when you’re living in a shelter or sleeping on streets or even couch surfing. That it gets really, really hard to be able to, I guess you could say, shed those troubles.
Another barrier that is really difficult is the fact that some of these people that live at shelters that are, I’ve met people that are 23 years old and have lived in a shelter and my little brother is more mature than them and my little brother is 15 years old. A lot of these kids do not have the emotional or actual mental stability to be able to fully live independently. That’s where you see a lot of these kids coming back into a shelter because of the fact that they don’t have the ability to fully live independently. They don’t know how to budget their money. They don’t know how to keep a clean place. They don’t know how to solve a potential issue with a landlord or a roommate or something like that. They keep on coming back to square one. They’re back at the shelter. They might be on social assistance. They might have been kicked off of it and they are literally back to – it’s like nothing ever happened. They’re living back at the same poorly lit place which has a massive amount of people that maybe don’t even like that person.
And when you look at it there isn’t really that much support in terms of the fact that these people might have some issues that aren’t assessed. Whether it’s mental, physical, or anything else really. So when people are standing around wondering, “what the hell is going on? Why are these people coming back?” Then maybe they should look at the fact that these people do not know how – they haven’t really matured I guess you could say. They haven’t matured as a person to the point where they can actually develop skills to live on their own.
JV: So let’s talk about that transitional housing. How was it that you came to be involved or connected to the transitional housing in Hamilton?
CM: I actually, the first time that I even did anything towards actually being able to live at this place was because of my ex-girlfriend’s step-mother. And she brought me over to a, she took me over to a youth community resource centre in downtown Hamilton. I was told by a, by one of the workers there, who is an awesome person, of this great youth housing program. I filled out the application there, but that was in April of 2012 and I didn’t even hear a call back until August, no not August, until about July of the same year.
JV: What was it about sort of the transitional housing model that really appealed to you? You know, because the thing that I’ve always kind of struggled with in terms of people’s experiences is you know, listening to your story, you’ve touched on all the sort of different levels of assistance. You know, you’ve spent time in group homes, you’ve been in shelters, you’ve been on the streets, you’ve been couch surfing with friends. You’ve done everything else, what was it about this idea of transitional housing that really appealed to you? That you thought, you know maybe this is the thing that’s going to really turn things around for me. What was it about that, that appealed to you?
CM: There was one thing that I knew about the things that I needed and it was the fact that I knew that I was not fully ready for independent living at the time because I had tried it before. The thing that, I guess you could say, really appealed to me was that I was going to be able to have a meticulously cheap place to live in a really nice area of Hamilton. And it was just a place of my own, I had a bed, I had a room of my own, I had a bathroom, I had a kitchen.
Another thing that really appealed to me was the fact that it was something that I could look forward to and actually try and excel at because my parents were really, they said that they would help me out and pay for it if I actually gave this program my all. I saw that as an opportunity to show my parents just how much I had changed as a person, so I jumped at the opportunity. And I tried and did everything to be able to move into this place. Not only was it like an accomplishment to show my parents, it was a personal accomplishment. I was so happy to be in this place that I literally cried. I sat down at my desk the first day inside this room of this new place. I hadn’t really finished unpacking my stuff and I sat down and I just thought in my head, “this is it, I’m done fighting. I’m done searching. There’s a place that I could sleep at. There’s a place that I could really call my own. I’ve been searching for this for so long. This is finally happening. This is here, this is my moment. Like this is what I’ve been fighting tooth and nail for, for the past however long. And it’s a safe place for me to be. I can do good here, I can become a better person.”
JV: Earlier when you were saying that you didn’t know your own needs when you started out on the street. Looking back and especially looking at going into transitional housing, what were your needs? What did you need to kind of turn things around? And what about transitional housing was sort of the solution or the answer to those needs?
CM: I really do believe that when you actually have a place that you know is secure and you know is safe, like an actual stable house or stable housing, you really can begin to work on that whatever way possible. Not only did I like personally develop as a person, I also developed the skills that were needed for me to be able to fully live independently. Things like: how to properly cook for yourself and how to budget your money, how to keep a clean place, how to actually deal with the fact that a lot of people will have roommates in their first couple of years out on their own.
Transitional housing is really a great option for a lot of people because of the fact that it gives you an experience of what it is like to live on your own; however, it still has supports there put in place for you to fall back on just in case you need help with some sort of thing. And a lot of the staff that were at the transitional house really saw the things that I hadn’t even considered and geared something towards being able to develop those skills. That’s what I really liked about this place once I started living there was the fact that they developed a plan geared towards the individual person.
JV: From your experience, what about all the various supports that you’ve interacted with, all the elements you kind of made use of, what about them was sort of lacking or perhaps not well suit to the needs specifically of homeless youth? What was missing that you saw?
CM: A couple things that were really missing were any sort of supports or information about how to try and transition into post-secondary education. What’s a huge problem is that so some of these kids that are accessing social service are so uninformed about what they can do and courses of action that they can take towards actually being able to get off of assistance that some of them just say, “screw it, I guess this is all I’m going to get in life or I’m going to do an under the table job” or something like that and they really don’t have the ability or just they don’t have the chance of being able to attain something better in life. Some of the kids even try to get out of the situation that they’re in, in terms of yeah they got a place, they’re on welfare and what’s the next step?
I think that there should be some more information as to what a person can do and flexible ways for a person to be able to go about doing them. What happens with the welfare system is the fact that a lot of these people are literally getting condemned to poverty because there’s no way for them to get off of it. There’s no way for them to actually be able to attend a post-secondary education.
Another thing that I really do think is missing is that yes there is programs in place, at the city I’m in at least, to actually try and get a person some sort of post-secondary degree, or education or something like that. It’s a very select few of these options or these courses that a person can take and really why would a person do that if somebody is really extremely business minded like they want to go into business or something like that why would they be going to a course where they can air-brush t-shirts?
JV: What do you think is most misunderstood about the experience of being a homeless youth?
CM: Well there’s a lot of things that are really, there’s a lot of stigma and just stereotypes involved with a person living on the street. One of the major things is, I remember I was panhandling one day. I was sitting down on the street and I was asking a person, like I was asking for change which was pretty much the only thing I could really do because I still hadn’t really accessed any services in Hamilton. I was still borderline growing into it. I remember somebody literally looking at me with the biggest amount of disgust on their face and tell me to go get a job and frankly that’s kind of hard to do when you’re living on the side of a road.
Another thing that is really misunderstood about them is the fact that when a person is living in a shelter or something like that just because they’re there doesn’t mean that they want to be there. A lot of people think that a person is out of their house because they don’t want to live with the rules or they – there’s so many other reasons why a person would have to do that. It’s generally more so those reasons than anything else. Like a person could have been abused by their parents and didn’t know where to go and didn’t know what to do. A person’s parents could have drug addictions or problems like that.
There’s so many different things that could lead to a person being homeless that so many people just look past. It really all comes down to, for those people than, that will never experience it or will never have any sort of look into what it’s like to be somebody else or in that situation that it just always comes down to, to them it all boils down to the fact that this person that they’re looking at. That’s sitting down on the side of the sidewalk asking you for your spare change, that person is in that position because they didn’t want to live with their parents or couldn’t really deal with their parents rules or didn’t like how it was at their house. That is so ridiculously wrong for a person to think that whenever a person really says that about anybody else it naturally makes me physically mad and sick to my stomach. To think that somebody could be so withdrawn and isolated from these issues that are going about all around them, that they actually have the nerve to say like, “ok so why don’t you go back home or why don’t you go get a job? Just because you’re out here doesn’t mean that I need to help you out,” – it’s just wrong.
If a person has the ability to look at somebody and make judgements then they should also have the ability to actually get to know that person or look at that person and then understand maybe there’s another reason, maybe there’s some underlying factor or thing going on with this person that has lead them to be standing in front of you with dirty clothes and with their hand out asking for help.
JV: So Conor thanks so much for taking the time today and making yourself available to talk on the Homeless Hub podcast!
CM: Thanks a lot Justin for giving me the opportunity to even talk about it!
JV: I’m here with Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University. Thanks so much for joining us on the Homeless Hub podcast!
Stephen Gaetz: Thank you.
JV: Right out of the gate we can start by looking at the report. One of the first points that you make is that Canadians aren’t jarred by the sight of youth homelessness and in particular you cite panhandlers and squeegee kids. Why do you think that is that people aren’t concerned when they see youth homelessness kind of in the wild?
SG: I think that in Canada we’ve kind of got used to the idea that there are homeless people. To the point where we think it’s normal, typical, and it’s ok. We’ve gotten use to the idea that there are young people that are homeless, but also that the best way to address youth homelessness is through emergency programs that kind of thing, shelters and supports.
A lot of the problem, in terms of how we deal with youth homelessness has to come with the stigma that’s attached to being young and homeless. Where we’re both taking a lot of ideas we have about who is homeless and why they’re homeless. That, you know, many people believe people choose to be homeless, that kind of thing and combining it with many negative attitudes we have about young people. That many of them are bratty, disrespectful, don’t want to follow the rules, are delinquent, those kind of things.
We mash them up to create this notion of the homeless youth who ran away from home because they don’t like to do the dishes, is purely rebellious, is out to do nasty things downtown, is dangerous. In other words it’s somebody that we should not necessarily feel sympathy towards, but we should be afraid of. So if you think that that’s who is young and homeless then you don’t really have to care. It doesn’t matter you don’t need to care because they’re just bratty and they’ll either pull themselves up by the bootstraps and go home or something’ll happen but it doesn’t really pull at you.
The way we think about youth is going to impact on how we respond to their needs and I think that has lead to a very kind of passive approach to youth homelessness in Canada where we have relied too much on emergency shelters and soup kitchens. Sometimes they’re targeted for homeless youth but many communities don’t have any shelters at all for homeless youth so they just toss them in with the adults. To me that’s a huge mistake. It’s highly destructive and may contribute to, for these young people, a lifetime of poverty and for many of them eventually chronic homelessness.
JV: So you cite Saegert’s 2012 study on homeless youth and in particular Saegert’s finding that, despite efforts to the contrary, Canada’s population of homeless youth using the shelter system saw little change in its numbers from 2005 to 2009. And then you say yourself that that window could be expanded to the last 10 to 15 years. Saying that in that larger window we still haven’t seen a lot of change in terms of the population of homeless youth. What is it about the experiences of homeless youth that just isn’t addressed through contemporary response models?
SG: There hasn’t really been any evidence of progress in reducing the numbers of homeless and the reason is, I would argue, is because we’re coming at it the wrong way. Our investment has been in the emergency response. If we wanted to really see a shift, we would have to move aggressively to change from focusing on emergency services to focusing more on prevention on one hand and on identifying people in the homeless sector, in the shelter system who are chronically homeless and move them into housing as quickly as possible.
The communities that have made that shift with the homeless population as a whole have seen great results in Canada. In Alberta, that’s where a lot of the real innovation is, so Edmonton for instance has seen a 30% reduction in overall-all homelessness between 2008 and 2012. That’s very dramatic. Medicine Hat, the figures are quite stunning. They haven’t released this yet, but they’ve virtually eliminated chronic homelessness in their community so that the only people in their shelters are there for a day or several days and move on. They don’t have people who are mired in the shelters for 10 to 15 years anymore.
So this is important in that if we shift from an emergency focus to prevention and moving people out of homelessness who are chronically homeless we can make an impact. What we need to understand with youth is how to do that with young populations. Understanding that because the causes of homelessness are different for adults and young people the solutions are going to have to be different as well. Some communities are starting to develop strategic responses to youth homelessness. Calgary has, Kamloops has, Kingston is starting to do this and if we cans see more of that where they really put issues of adolescence and young adulthood at the centre of the response we’ll probably start to see some of those numbers that Saegert reported drop in time. But the reality is very few communities are targeting youth homelessness in that kind of concerted way.
There’s a lot of good reason to really focus our energies on youth homelessness. In Canada now, the priority of the Government of Canada and many provinces is to focus on chronic homeless adults. In particular, adult men who make up the bulk of the homeless population. This is people who’ve been homeless for multiple years. Who have very complex mental health and addictions issues. I would argue that we need to focus on youth homelessness because I would predict that many if not most of those people who are chronically homeless adults, their homelessness started when they were teenagers. So we really need to stop right there if we want to think about it in a preventive way. Putting our energies into ensuring that young people get the supports they need, so that not only they can they get off the streets but that they can live healthy lives and can live well. That means giving them time and support and an opportunity for an education to help them move forward with their lives.
JV: You mention that youth homelessness, as a broader issue, really began to grow about 20 years ago. Now obviously going by the name of your report which is Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada you’re looking to revamp the current models of response to youth homelessness. However, before we really start talking about what’s wrong and how it can be fixed could you highlight some examples of what’s been done right over the years in responding to youth homelessness?
SG: Well there are many communities that have done a good job of addressing youth homelessness in Canada, but most communities don’t. It is worth identifying those that do though. Sometimes it’s a community level response, an integrated response like in Hamilton or in Red Deer, Alberta where they’re actually trying to work to pull together the different players to develop an integrated model of support.
In other cases it’s outstanding programs which pop up all across the country. In St. John`s Newfoundland there’s Choices for Youth which is a big innovator that has done an incredible job with developing employment and housing support for young people with the focus on green jobs, developing training to address energy poverty in that province. In Winnipeg you have the RaY Program that`s also a big innovator providing supports for young people who are homeless so there are those kind of examples across the country. The Boys and Girls Club of Calgary is one of the ones I always look to because they have eight programs that on their own are integrated models of support. That involved some programs that target youth homelessness prevention, you’ve got emergency supports, and they also have interesting housing models from transitional housing to Housing First and so these are like shining examples and there are many more in Vancouver, in St. Catharines and Hamilton that really point the way to what we should do for Toronto.
Part of the problem, I think though, is that innovation historically has stayed very close to ground. As these programs do the innovation they’re not funded or don’t have the capacity to sort of tell their story more broadly to others. If you were in Saskatoon or somewhere could be anywhere, and you wanted to figure out, “well how should we address youth homelessness?” It’s kind of hard. You have to rely on your connection you know, “I heard that there’s a cool thing in Ottawa! How am I going to do that?”I think for too long we’ve relied on that. That just sort of, the luck, serendipity of having to know someone in a different city. We have to get better at doing research on and evaluating programs and describing through case studies what works, for whom it works, and how it works. That’s part of the responsibility of the research community, but it’s also a responsibility of funders. We’re starting to build, in a sense, really good examples in this country. Now what we have to do build the means for other communities to learn from and adapt those models to their own communities.
JV: One of the topics that you bring up is this idea of adolescence interrupted. Now in the report you do expand on what this is, but I think our listeners would really be interested in hearing a bit more about just what this is and how it factors into the broader discussion around youth homelessness.
SG: Yeah this is an idea that I’ve thought about for a long time when I used to work in the youth homelessness sector in the ‘90s. We have, in Canada or any country, we have understandings about the transition to adulthood and what it involves. In Canada, here are some of the things that I think most people agree with. Adolescence can be a challenging time for young people, depends on the young person, but it involves all kinds of changes. Physical changes, physiological changes, becoming sexual beings, cognitive shifts, all these kinds of things that are important. Learning to be an adult, learning to have adult relationships, learning how to communicate, how to work together, so these kind of things are happening during adolescence. Also there’s a whole lot of other kinds of learning that goes on. Young people stay in school, and nowadays they stay in school much longer than they would have 10, 15, 20 years ago, but young people are also learning how to get by in the world. Everything from how to drive a car, how to set up a doctor’s appointment, get a dental appointment, how to rent your own place, getting a first job, what do you do with your first paycheque, all of these things happen to young people in dribs and drabs gradually over time and they accumulate. That experience accumulates to the point where we can move out, hopefully, in a successful way, get our own place, earn enough income, develop relationships, and become independent. Any adult went through that process and for most of us it took a number of years to do that.
What happens with young people who are homeless is they experience what I’d like to call adolescence interrupted, so that gradual process of becoming an adult suddenly comes to a crashing close when a young person becomes homeless. Rather than have the time to become an adult now everything changes. At 16, 17, 18 you’re now expected to figure out what they want to do, they have to go get a job, school is now part of the past, they have to start being responsible in terms of their money, save their money for rent, don’t spend money on frivolous things. All of these things come crashing down on somebody where they have to instantly become an adult at the very moment when they’ve left home and are suffering the trauma of loss of family, and friends, and community maybe are escaping traumatic situations. So you take young people who are in this extraordinary context of loss and difficulty and now expect them to be more adult than a young person who is living at home and has the time to grow up. We’ve turned that completely upside down, right.
These are the very young people who need support and need time and need the chance to grow into adulthood to repair the damage that maybe contributed to their becoming homeless in the first place. Instead we’ve created a system that suddenly puts the emphasis on becoming independent as quickly as possible. And I think that’s a real set up. It’s unfair to the young person to place these kinds of demands on them when we wouldn’t with somebody who’s housed and it’s going to produce the kinds of results that we don’t want to see. Which is, young people are going to get stuck. Their self esteem is going to decline. Their ability to move forward in life’s going to be compromised. They may get involved with addictions. They may get in trouble with the laws. All of these things happen when we don’t take seriously the needs of a growing and developing adolescent.
This is a key thing that’s different, right. It’s because many programs and models and funders will only give young people support for a limited time. Shelters may only allow you to stay for only three weeks or three months. Transitional housing models might give you support for a year. None of this makes sense when we’re talking about young people. The story I always say to people is that my own children live in transitional housing and it’s called my house. What happens in my house is that they get shelter, they get financial support, they get adult mentoring, they get the time to grow into adulthood. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make two steps forward and three steps back on occasion. They’re going to learn life skills. They’re going to get a chance to develop healthy social relations. All of these things, but it’s going to take as long as it needs to take. When my kids turned 16 I didn’t say “you’ve got one year to get it together and out you go” because it doesn’t make sense today.
They need to take as long as is necessary and so we should actually build our model of accommodation and supports around that sensibility, not time delimited. If we want young people to stay in school we can’t tell them they have to leave in a year because then they’re focused exclusively on getting work. We have to contract with them and say, “we’re going to support you until, up to 24, for instance, and if you want to go to school that’s great, if you want a job that’s great, but we’re going to help you move forward in a way that makes sure that you are healthy, that you’ve developed healthy social relations, that you get involved in meaningful activities.” And if we do that, we’re going to have better results.
JV: There’s a line about a third of the way through the report, and if you blink you’ll miss it. You say, “many Canadians now get the idea that homelessness prevention is a good idea.” What’s different now that Canadians finally get that importance?
SG: Well I think what’s happening is that people are starting to realize that simply putting people in emergency shelters and day programs, while meeting an immediate need, isn’t providing a long term solution. When homelessness exploded in Canada, it was quite natural to say, “we need emergency shelter beds or we have to do something it’s an emergency” because if you see somebody, you know here we are in Toronto today it’s 20 below, if you see somebody outside you’re obviously going to go right to the place of we have to get that person out of the cold, get ‘em warm so that they can not die, that kind of thing. But after a while you start to realize that that’s only part of the solution. That’s no solution if that experience of being in an emergency shelter becomes transformed into a place where the young person lives for years and years. If that happens, then we’ve got a problem on our hands and we’ve done something terribly wrong.
You see we’re always going to need emergency services, but the emergency service can’t be a solution to the problem. I’ll give you an example, about 10 years ago there was a major fire in Kelowna in British Columbia. The fire moved towards the city. At a certain point they realized, “we’d better start evacuating” because houses started to burn. And so what they did is they put people in motels and hotels. They put people in hockey rinks, in school gymnasiums. Other people were able to find accommodation on their own, sleeping on the couches of their friends and neighbours. So that’s what you had to do in that crisis. In an emergency people need their immediate needs met for food and shelter and that kind of thing. But can you imagine if we came back to Kelowna in 2014 and there are still people living in the gymnasium or the hockey rink? We’d being going, “wow, we screwed that one up.” That emergency response was never intended to become a permanent support for people. That’s exactly what we’ve done with homelessness.
There are lots of homeless people who’ve been homeless for 5, 10, 15 years, including young people, who, not necessarily for fifteen years, they wouldn’t be young anymore, but I know with my own research there are lots of examples if you take out the people who are short-term homeless, the average length of time that they’ve experienced being homeless is four years. Four years! If a young person is in an emergency shelter system for four years, we have failed them in the same way as if somebody was still in a gymnasium in Kelowna.
JV: You use the term “retooling” when you’re talking about how emergency services can better respond to youth homelessness, and if I can read into that a little bit, you’re implying that the system isn’t a complete loss or a write off it just needs to be adapted or adjusted to better serve the younger population. What are some of the key adjustments that need to take place?
SG: When we talk about retooling the emergency response what we are not talking about is jettisoning it because there will always be a need for emergency services. What’s happened though because we haven’t had in place effective prevention strategies or a robust model of accommodation and support for young people the emergency sector has been tasked with doing way, way, way too much for doing everything for homeless youth. Including providing them shelter for years on end and that’s a problem because the emergency response was never ever intended to become a permanent kind of support.
So when we say retool it we mean on two levels. One is to orient the emergency response so that it supports both the prevention of youth homelessness, but also the movement of young people out of homelessness as quickly as possible. That means things have to happen outside of the emergency sector to make that happen. It’s not the emergency sector’s responsibility to provide accommodation and supports or to deliver all the prevention services there. That’s other sector’s responsibility, but most certainly the emergency sector should be there to help facilitate the movement of young people through homelessness as quickly as possible.
We need to create real targets of short term time limits for young people in the homelessness emergency sector, but give the sector places to send young people to, so that they don’t get stuck in the system. We need to make sure that the emergency response is respectable, works from where they’re at. Many emergency services do a wonderful job in this regard where they operate in a non-judgemental way, ensure that young people have access to healthcare, that young people get support around sexual health issues, that young people have access to harm reductions supports. We need to ensure that those emergency services are non-discriminatory, right, so that they don’t reproduce some of the problems that lead to youth homelessness. No emergency service should be allowed to operate, for instance, that promotes homophobia and discrimination because in many cases it’s homophobia that lead to youth homelessness and if the sector itself contributes to that it’s creating harms.
There are certain changes that have to happen in many emergency responses but the key thing is that the emergency services shouldn’t be on the hook to be responsible for solving youth homelessness.
JV: And, as you see it right now, do you think there’s sufficient political will to enact these sorts of changes you’re putting forward?
SG: I think we are starting to see some big changes in different places. Hamilton’s got a great response that they’ve developed at the community level. In Alberta many communities from Red Deer to Calgary have developed youth specific responses. The Government of Alberta’s getting ready to release it’s strategic response to youth homelessness and then you have organizations working across the country. Eva’s national initiatives has been a key player in working with communities to start to develop the idea that we need to focus strategic responses to youth homelessness. So there is definitely a big shift. The world looks very different now than it did in 2010, I would say even. There’s a lot more sharing of ideas, a lot more planned responses and I think we’re going to start to see some real changes.
JV: Again that was Stephen Gaetz, the director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network talking about his new report, Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. Coming up, we’ve got an interview with someone from an organization that’s already putting that report to good use in their own work, stick around.
I’m here with Mary-Jane McKitterick, National Coordinator for the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness program with Eva’s Initiatives and she’s here to talk to us about the Coming of Age report and how organizations can use that report in their own operations, so Mary-Jane thank you for joining us here on the Homeless Hub Podcast!
Mary-Jane McKitterick: It’s a real pleasure to be here Justin, thank you so much!
JV: Probably a logical place to start would be for you to tell us a little bit about the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness program. What that is, what it does, and kind of go beyond the long title and just tell us a little bit about what makes the program what it is?
MJM: OK, thanks very much, so the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness program or we like to call it MLC for short, because it’s a very long name, is an innovative, new approach to youth homelessness in Canada.
We have two components. To start with we have a component where we work closely with communities to develop plans to prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness. The communities are between 50 000 and 200 000 in size and there is an application process and you know we can only work with two per year. We provide resources and support in terms of expertise, what we call community processes, so there’s a lot of support for them to develop that plan, and I coordinate that piece. We also have another aspect of the program that is a movement base or campaign base. We want to create a national movement and prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness in Canada.
And the partners involved with this are quite broad and quite amazing. We obviously, Eva’s Initiatives is the backbone organization for this program and I work directly with them, for them. We have the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness as a major partner as well and they are a network of organizations that serve homeless youth across Canada. We also work with the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association and of course the CHRN, the Homeless Hub is also a big partner and has been a big supporter of us. The incredible research coming out of the Homeless Hub has really supported our program. So that’s kind of a general gist of it. We also are funded currently right now by the wonderful Catherine Donnelly Foundation who are working really closely with us to ultimately create systemic change on youth homelessness in Canada.
One of the things we know is that there has been incredible success with the 10 year homeless plans in, particularly the US, but also Alberta – communities out there – and that’s for general homelessness and we are going to apply some of those principles directly to youth specific plans. One of the things that we want to ensure is that the youth plans address the specific concerns of youth. For example, they need an Adolescent Development lens for youth and homeless youth and we need to understand better what families, the role of families in education, the education system has in solving – actually preventing youth homelessness and in the intervention. Some of the things that we want to ensure is that we get a measurable reduction in youth homelessness. If enough communities develop strategic plans that address general homelessness, but also all the youth specific issues we’re going to have a measurable reduction.
We want youth homelessness on the public agenda, and that’s a big one. We also want youth homelessness on the end of the decision makers. We’ll do this by making sure that local communities feel very well supported and that we create a systems approach that is committed to preventing, reducing and ending youth homelessness and I think that’s one of the things that’s been lacking. We have people, folks, amazing folks across this country, with incredible programs, incredible creativity, but they’re all working in isolation and we want to bring the shared learnings and also the strategies and the resources to support communities across Canada to be able to develop community plans to end youth homelessness.
JV: So you’ve already been implementing some of the learnings of the report into your own operations. So tell us about that?
MJM: It’s been an amazing resource for us because, as you know, we have been working with first of all four communities to help them develop plans to prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness. But, as this is pretty new work, pretty new field, not many plans out there for youth homelessness specifically and because youth homelessness is unique and has some very specific, requires some very specific strategies. We were looking for resources to help us develop a menu, a checklist, what would you need to consider if you’re going to develop a strategic plan in your community to end youth homelessness. It was wonderful when the Homeless Hub was working on this report because we have been partnering with them and they’re been providing us with all the technical expertise that we so require around youth counts, etc. They were able to, as they were developing this report, send us some of the results, send us some of the information and we were able to use this information to develop our own framework for communities to develop their plans to end youth homelessness. So for example, we combine this report with work from the National Alliance to End Youth Homelessness in the United States to create a list of essential categories we need to consider. You need to make sure that you have an integrated prevention framework. You need to ensure that you’re considering at least some kinds of early intervention for your plan. What about a youth development orientation? Is that being considered? What kind of research, data gathering, and information sharing are you using? And especially, one of the key things that we’re working on right now with our communities, is how to create an integrated systems response and how to facilitate active, coordinated government involvement
Now I think what’s really important about this though is that the communities are local, so they want local solutions for their issues. Though we have a framework for them, and it has given us an amazing language and a way to think about our solutions, the data and the solutions are local. So communities are not forced into a one-size-fits-all. They can take the framework that’s come out of Coming of Age and use their own data to come up with their own unique plans that will solve their problems.
JV: And you know I’m really excited to have you here on the podcast talking about the Coming of Age report. Detailing how you’ve been able to use it, but you know I’m thinking about organizations who haven’t yet seen the report and those who would or even should be using the report. What are some of the big learnings that you’ve taken away from using some of the knowledge in that report already sort of looking to the challenges or the things that might not be contained within that you think are good for other organizations to know? What would some of those be?
MJM: Well one of the things that was really striking about this report is yes there’s a lot of research. We have an amazing new language that articulates some of the paradigm shifts that are occurring in the youth homelessness sector, but what was really, what is often lacking in a lot of report are examples of where it’s happening and how it’s being done right. One of the beautiful things about this report, for us, was oh when we talk about an integrated prevention framework we can find examples listed there from the UK, from the US, from Australia, other parts of Canada. Specific programs with contact information, descriptions of those programs that help us say, “oh that’s what that looks like and hey we can contact those folks and ask them and have a chat with them and ask them how they’re doing it so maybe we can implement some of those programs and solutions in our own community.”
JV: In, I think, one of the things that, in talking to you a little bit before are sort of report chat. We talked a bit about youth being involved as part of the solution to youth homelessness. I think that’s a really interesting bonus that we can take into some of these processes, but can you talk a little bit about how youth being involved in solutions to youth homelessness, how that kind of factors into some of the things that you’ve taken away from the Coming of Age report.
MJM: Thank you for asking Justin. This has been one of the most surprising, and probably shouldn’t be, but it was one of the most surprising developments particularly with our first two communities. In the initial stages of the planning when we’re working with our partners, we ask they consider what type of youth involvement they would have? What kind of youth voice they would include in the process? So one of the things we ask the communities is to ensure that they get a broad range of stakeholders involved at some point in the process. Either right from the beginning or on-going and in starting with Kamloops and then followed by Kingston they quickly realize they didn’t just want, you know, one youth from the community or one youth with lived experience on a stakeholder group.
They wanted to find ways for real youth engagement and what’s blossomed from this is a strong youth voice that’s added a great deal of creativity because they created a youth lead process, in many respects, or a youth partnership process. In Kamloops this resulted in the formation of the group YAYH, Youth Against Youth Homelessness, in Kamloops. They have been instrumental in directing the research, in talking to the media. They’ve had huge learnings themselves from this process because they were able to really delve deep into the issues and I think many of them started out with one view of homelessness and maybe it’s more of a person’s responsibility or fault and they really learned about the systemic reasons for homelessness for all people. This has created a huge energy in the City of Kamloops and the youth have developed a really powerful video. I hope you put the link up to this Justin because I think it’s one of the best five minutes that talks about how complicated youth homelessness is but in very simple language, that’s been very exciting.
In Kingston, similarly, they started out with a mostly adult stakeholder group, but the youth who are living with experiences in homelessness participated in some of the research and said, “hey you know what, we don’t just want to do research we want take part in this. We want to have a say. We want our voices really heard.” And since then they’ve also developed media in terms of videos. But they’ve had a really powerful community forum with the youth of the community, both with lived experience and not from the schools. Talked with the mayor, looked over the research themselves, decided where the focus should be in terms of the issues and causes of youth homelessness. That’s been a very powerful thing in Kingston so we’re very excited about that. So this has been surprising for us because I think we thought, “oh yeah you know we’ll have a youth voice in there somewhere,” but we didn’t realize how much it would become the focus for the communities and how much it would raise public awareness. That`s one of the pieces that, you know, we can build all the plans we want or develop all the plans we want, but if the communities aren’t behind it. I mean if they don`t have the information or the understanding then the plans will just sit there and having the youth front and centre in terms of all the way through the process but also leading the voice in those communities themselves has been spectacular.
JV: So you talk about the benefits from the community perspective that having youth involved with the development of these plans, but what about from the perspective of the homeless youth themselves? What sort of benefit is there to having youth so intrinsically involved in the development of these plans?
MJM: I think this speaks to the broader issue of people with lived experience participating, and not just participating, but really engaged in all processes. I think we’ve had a long history of trying to find solutions and not talking to the people where those solutions most impact. There’s no difference with youth, it’s the same. I know that in, again I’m speaking for the communities here, but I can’t speak for them, but from what I understand, especially in Kingston the youth themselves said, “we’re tired of being interviewed, researched, talked about and not actually having our voices heard.” It also addresses the issue of vulnerability and resiliency. We often position youth as vulnerable, as victims and youth don’t want to be, at least that’s what I’ve heard, they don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or victims. They’re had some very difficult experiences, life experiences, which has impacted them, but our focus now, and what the communities have told us is their resiliency. They’re incredibly creative, tough, smart, fantastic youth who’ve had some really difficult things to manage. By ensuring that they’re engaged in the process this also reaffirms to them that we believe they are as resilient as they’re trying to tell us they are. So not just saying, “we want your name on a list of stakeholders so we can say we have a youth input,” but actually participating equally with youth in different formats. You know depending on each community they like the use of different methods. This is really, this says that we believe in what we’re trying to actually say we actually believe in and we stand by them. Youth are resilient and they’re impact is important and we need to hear their voices and not just in a token way.
JV: So just before we wrap things up, just before we let you go. I think it would be really helpful especially for you to kind of talk about what’s next for you, for Eva’s, and kind of looking ahead to the future what we can expect?
MJM: Well that’s a very exciting question. First of all we’ve been working with communities to develop their community plans and the first two will be releasing their plans in the next few months. We’re very, very excited about that. The following two communities will be releasing theirs in the fall to the winter of 2014.
But we also realize that developing the plan is just the first step. If you’re really going to have a measurable reduction in youth homelessness you’re going to need to support the implementation of those plans. That’s a big, big decision that we’ve just recently made at the Mobilizing Local Capacity. All our partners have decided that we’re really going to get behind and find the resources to support all the communities that we’re working with intensively on this program.
At the same time, we also realize that there are a lot of other communities across Canada that have also contacted us. They’re very excited in what we’re doing. We can only work with two per year kind of intensively or we introduce two each year. But there are a lot of resources that we’ve developed in terms of frameworks and toolkits that we can put online, that we can support communities across Canada. So we’re going to have another layer, I think to call it a catalyst layer for our program that will enable us to provide resources for all communities who want to participate in creating and developing plans to end youth homelessness, but not at the same level of intensity. So we won’t have had a formal partnership with them, but we’re going to create these, basically do some really strong knowledge mobilization so that all communities can participate.
Also, we’re talking with our partners in terms of really thinking strategically and getting youth homelessness on the agenda; decision makers, policy makers, and the general public across Canada so that it becomes the issue, a strong issue for the future. Oh, because it is right now. We have 20% of homeless are between the ages of 16 and 24 across Canada and that’s a huge number to think of that waste potential and issues that, obviously, we’ve talked about in Coming of Age.
JV: Ok well think the only thing that’s left to do is wish you and Eva’s the best of luck in everything that’s going on in the future and thank you so much for your time here on the Homeless Hub podcast.
MJM: Thank you so much Justin. It’s been great to talk to you and to share all of the exciting developments of the Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness’s program and I look forward to talking to you again, thank you!
JV: And with that we’ve come to the end of episode 2 of the Homeless Hub podcast. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing Conor’s story, hearing about the Coming of Age report, and if you want to know more you can head over to www.homelesshub.ca/comingofage and check it out for yourself. If you’ve got questions, comments or any sort of feedback for us you can reach the Homeless Hub any number of ways. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/homelesshub. And, of course, you can tweet us at @homelesshub. For everyone here at the Homeless Hub, I’m Justin Vasko, thanks for listening.