Shelter Diversion - Respite Housing

Shelter diversion is a strategy targeting homeless youth that refers to the provision of alternative temporary housing options, supports and interventions designed to reduce the likelihood that young people in particular will wind up relying on the emergency shelter system. There are compelling reasons to consider strategies that help young people avoid this route. Because most small communities do not have emergency shelters, moving into one often means not only leaving home, but leaving – and losing – one’s community. This invariably has a negative impact on an individual’s social capital, in that the natural resources and supports (family, friends, teachers and other adults) that might help someone move forward and avoid longer term homelessness become strained and weakened. A second thing to consider is that most emergency shelters for youth bring together a mix of young people, some who are new to the streets and some who have been on the streets for years and who have very complex challenges relating to mental health, addictions, criminal involvement etc. that are not being adequately dealt with. The challenges for shelter staff are considerable, and preventing young people who are new to the streets from exposure to crime, sexual exploitation, violence and addictions can be a difficult challenge. There is every reason to want to help young people avoid becoming mired in street youth culture. Since many young people who use shelters are fleeing difficult, conflictual and potentially traumatic situations, life in an emergency shelter may be experienced by some as ‘freedom’ and a relief. Without adequate support to address the underlying issues that created the crisis, or to help move forward into housing with appropriate supports, it is all too easy for young people to become stuck in the street youth life, surrounded by other youth who may help them meet daily needs (food, companionship, survival skills), but who have weak capacity to really help them move forward with their lives. While for many young people who become homeless, the relationships they establish on the streets are important in reminding them that they can be liked, they can trust people and they aren’t alone, in many cases these relationships can involve exploitation and be quite limiting if they undermine people’s confidence to leave the streets.

The underlying goal of shelter diversion, then, is to help young people transition to stability and prevent homelessness. This is best done by providing young people with locally-based supports, drawing on the resources that exist in the community, and by giving young people temporary housing options (with extended family, friends, religious institutions, etc.).This allows time to work through the problems that led to homelessness, ideally with case management support.

A program model for shelter diversion should integrate other elements of early intervention, including common assessment, case management and family reconnection. Again, as part of a ‘system of care’, there should be an effort to develop the program drawing on mainstream supports in the education and health care systems. We need to do what we can to keep young people in their communities and close to home (if it is safe to do so) where they can draw on their natural supports.




Youth Reconnect

RAFT  Niagara Resource Service for Youth

Youth Reconnect is an early intervention shelter diversion program developed in Southern Ontario’s Niagara region. This region includes rural areas, many small towns and a mid-sized city, St. Catherines. The outcome of a collaborative pilot project involving youth homeless service providers, the goal of this community-based prevention program is to help homeless and at-risk youth, from both urban and rural areas, stay in their communities and obtain needed supports. “The initiative helps clients access resources and increases their self-sufficiency, by assisting adolescents to maintain school attendance, secure housing and develop a social safety net in their home community”(Youth Reconnect Program Profile). The desire is to prevent them from frequenting youth shelters in St. Catherines or Toronto, by which time their exposure to a range of risks, including addictions, crime and sexual exploitation, may make helping them move on with their lives that much more difficult.

Program Design. The program developed as a partnership between a broad range of service providers. The program targets young people between the ages of 16 and 19, who are referred by high schools, community partners, social service agencies and police. The young person is then met by a Reconnect worker to assess their needs and develop a community-based plan of action designed to help them draw on local supports, enhance protective factors, reduce risk and stay in school. If they need crisis housing, they are transported to one of the local hostels on a temporary basis until arrangements are made for them to move back into their community. Typical program interventions include:

    1. Helping youth remain in schools whenever possible by securing living arrangements.

    2. Working directly with individual schools and school boards to develop plans for youth returning to school after dropping out or creating education plans to help at-risk youth remain in school.

    3. Connecting youth with financial support programs and stable housing to ensure youth are able to continue with their education.

    4. Securing affordable housing and a stabilized income by reducing access barriers and providing advocacy when needed.

    5. Linking youth to specialized services (i.e. mental health, addictions, family counselling) as required.

    6. Directly assisting youth to develop a social safety net to support them in the future, and to help them as they move forward from the program.

“By creating a localized support network and keeping youth within their home communities, the youth reconnect initiative is able to help youth remain connected to their communities, with the support they need, instead of forcing youth to relocate to a larger urban area, where they are more susceptible to engaging in high risk behaviours” (Youth Reconnect Program Profile).


A key strategy of shelter diversion is Respite Accommodation and Host Homes. This is a strategy to provide young people with short term accommodation in private homes in their communities, where young people and their families can take a time out while appropriate supports are put in place.

FROMGaetz, S. (2014). Coming of Age - Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada.  Homeless Hub Research Report Series.