Defining Youth Homelessness Prevention
Despite broad political and community-based interest in youth homelessness prevention, there has been lack of clarity about what it entails. We offer the following definition of youth homelessness prevention:
Youth homelessness prevention refers to policies, practices, and interventions that either (1) reduce the likelihood that a young person will experience homelessness, or (2) provide youth experiencing homelessness with the necessary supports to stabilize their housing, improve their wellbeing, connect with community, and avoid re-entry into homelessness. Youth homelessness prevention thus necessitates the immediate provision of housing and supports for youth experiencing homelessness, or the immediate protection of housing, with supports, for youth at risk of homelessness. Youth homelessness prevention must be applied using a rights-based approach and address the unique needs of developing adolescents and young adults.
This definition is adapted from Gaetz and Dej’s (2017) broader definition of homelessness prevention, drawing into focus policies and practices that are responsive to the distinct challenges that young people face. In implementing youth homelessness prevention, governments and communities should seek out evidencebased and promising interventions and policies that are both developmentally and individually tailored.
To determine what the prevention of youth homelessness might look like in practice, it is useful to consider how other fields think about and operationalize prevention. Public health has provided the most robust conceptualizations of prevention, specifying that the overarching goal of prevention is to minimize harm to individuals or communities through lowering the risk and outcomes of disease, illness, and injury. This is done by identifying risk and protective factors, and putting in place structural and universal interventions (e.g., mass immunization, clean water supplies, public education), as well as targeted interventions for those deemed to be at higher or more imminent risk.
What Youth Homelessness Prevention is Not
The definition above articulates what youth homelessness prevention is, but also what it is not.
All youth homelessness prevention interventions must include either “(1) the immediate provision of housing and supports to youth experiencing homelessness or housing precarity, or (2) the immediate protection of housing, with supports, for youth at risk of homelessness” (Schwan et al., 2018, p. 9).
While we know many emergency services and supports prevent many of the most negative consequences of youth homelessness, such as starvation or exposure to extreme weather, these interventions cannot be viewed as homelessness prevention because they do not directly (or indirectly) prevent the occurrence of homelessness.
Similarly, the term ‘prevention’ is sometimes used to describe interventions that may, in the long run, contribute to housing stability. Such interventions might include life skills and employment training, addictions supports, and trauma-informed care. While these supports are highly valuable, life-saving, and critically important to improving overall quality of life, they cannot be considered prevention unless they also provide immediate access to housing. If a young person remains in an ongoing state of homelessness within a program or service, with no immediate prospect of exiting, these interventions should not be considered prevention. At its core, youth homelessness prevention is a housing-led response.
The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness aims to function as a useful guide to the critical role that prevention should play in a comprehensive systems response to youth homelessness, detailing evidence-based and informed program areas that will help communities and governments to implement plans to prevent and end youth homelessness.