You must develop a solid understanding of the body of evidence on youth homelessness and what it takes to end it. This involves not only becoming proficient in the existing research on youth homelessness and available local information, but also taking on additional data collection and analysis if needed. You will need to tap into any available information that can shed light on the local youth homelessness situation by firstly becoming familiar with ‘what’s out there.’
So, what type of information do you need and how do you get it? This will depend on the level of coordination and data sharing in your community, as well as your research and ‘detective’ skills to get a hold of necessary information. However, there are certain pieces of data you will be able to access as a starting point. Use this information to paint a comprehensive picture of community capacity and gaps, which you can confirm in the consultation phases further.
A research agenda
Engage local researchers in the beginning of the process. Researchers can be part of your steering committee or working groups, as noted previously. Consider developing a local research agenda that identifies key research questions, aimed at enhancing your community’s understanding of youth homelessness. Develop the research agenda collaboratively with the community and researchers. The research agenda should support planning and implementation of the plan by addressing gaps in knowledge, developing program evaluation capacity and by bolstering data collection systems and practices.
A common starting point is to host a forum bringing together various researchers from your local universities and colleges, those working in government, public systems and service agencies. Refer to A Way Home for an example of a youth homelessness research agenda: http://awayhome.ca/our-work/research-agenda/. The COH can provide additional examples from Canadian communities, as well as provide support and technical assistance to develop your own research agenda.
You may locate these key sources of information on your own or with the help of your steering committee members and contacts in the community and government. Be comprehensive, but be mindful not to become overwhelmed by information.
Table 15: Information Sources
Local researchers may have already produced an analysis of trends, gaps and resources on youth homelessness that you can use to build your plan. However, it is equally common to find very little synthesized information to help you. In some cases you may need to develop a research initiative, as part of your planning process, to gather critical missing information.
For example, in Wellington County, a report on rural youth homelessness identified the need for a youth-specific strategy and was the impetus for the County to apply to Mobilizing Local Communities for support to develop a youth plan. Their first step was to hold youth focus groups with 60 youth in nine locations across rural Wellington County. A report was generated from these consultations to identify gaps. The planning group synthesized key findings from both reports and two Point-in-Time (PiT) Homeless Counts and brought these findings to a community roundtable for input. In this manner, local research was a key part of the Wellington process to develop a youth plan.
Similarly, in Edmonton, HMIS data and PiT Count reports were mined for youth-specific data, which was in turn used to develop the rationale for the local youth strategy. Edmonton Homeward Trust, who provided backbone supports to the initiative, conducted a literature review that they presented at a planning forum to kick-start the consultation process. Research and data on youth homelessness is important for two reasons. First, you must build a rationale for action. Why should youth homelessness be a local priority? Second, the solutions contained within your plan must be based on evidence. To prioritize youth homelessness, you must have a sense of the issue.
- How many youth are experiencing homelessness?
- What are their needs?
- What are their demographics?
- What are their pathways into homelessness?
- What would work best for whom and when?
- What are emerging trends we need to be aware of?
- What solutions work well?
- What solutions have proven to be less effective?
- How do policies and practices within agencies and government departments impact youth homelessness?
- What is the cost of the status quo?
- What is the cost of resolving the issue?
While existing research can provide some important clues to help you answer these basic questions, the better your local data is, the more likely that your plan is appropriately tailored to make an impact.
In some communities, the lack of available local research has meant that the planning process had to include data collection and analysis. It is not uncommon for communities to undertake a homeless PiT Count during the plan development phase and use the results to inform the process.
This was the case for Saint John, Kingston, Wellington County, Yellowknife and Brandon. For instance, Saint John conducted a youth-focused homeless count that engaged schools and other key stakeholders. The homeless count process can be adapted strategically to simultaneously engage key stakeholders but also gather critical information. Be mindful to adapt the homeless count methods to ensure the youth population is adequately enumerated given the underrepresentation of youth common in the adult shelter system that standard count methodologies tend to focus on.
For more on homeless counts and adapting these for youth, the COH has developed a Youth Count Toolkit. Additional information is available from the Homeless Hub and USISCH and on homeless counts and engaging youth. For rural communities engaging in homeless counts, another useful resource provides information on PiT Count methods, challenges and best practices. Communities that conduct regular homeless counts will have some data on youth; this should be analyzed in a manner consistent with the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness (that is, unaccompanied youth 24 and under).
Administrative data, collected through HIFIS or HMIS, can be effectively leveraged to identify youth shelter and service trends. Such data will be more comprehensive than a homeless count and, where reliable and accurate, should always be your primary data source for analysis. Where administrative is not available, you can solicit local shelters for data on occupancy, service use, demographics, etc. during a designated time period. This can produce useful data to get things started in lieu of formal data management system.
With respect to best practices, it’s important that you don’t reinvent the wheel. There is significant research on best practice programs and strategies for ending youth homelessness; such analyses are readily available online through the Homeless Hub and are even developed as toolkits for communities. Section one outlines best practice resources. In section three, we will delve deeper into promising approaches. Remember, your role is not simply to cut-and-paste such recommended approaches, but to synthesize the available information, consider its relevance to your local context and develop specific solutions that will resolve youth homeless in your community.
Finally, consider these best practices within your local context. For example, it may be best practice to build new affordable housing, but is it realistic given the socioeconomic and political context in your community? Your job is to develop a strategic youth plan that is visionary and grounded in best practice, but can be practically implemented in your community.
You should be looking at government reports and information closely as well. Has child protection undergone a major review recently? Has the Speech from the Throne mentioned vulnerable youth or homelessness? Does the province have strategies for addressing youth in general or, more specifically, youth employment, involvement with the justice system, education engagement and achievement, etc.? Where does youth homelessness fit among government priorities? What are the key policy levers which you can tie the youth plan to? Have other strategies and plans been crafted that have direct intersections with the key systems youth experiencing homelessness may access?
Answer these questions by building on existing relationships with public servants and political allies and strategizing with your planning group. Incorporate a review of existing policy as part of the plan development process and present this information to your steering committee. Through this process you may identify additional stakeholders to consult. This will also provide you with a framework for policy changes and funding requests to support the implementation of the plan.
In your conversations with government representatives, probe for which areas are most likely to garner buy-in, develop an understanding of who’s who and identify the most effective process for advancing change. An excellent example of funding ‘policy levers’ for ending youth homelessness can be found in the Government of Alberta’s Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness: Appendix 1 and 3, which outline how the proposed direction aligns with broader government initiatives and the mandates and of various departments.
If you have committee members who are in government, leverage their expertise. They can point you to information, provide critical background context, facilitate access to reports and introduce you to key contacts. They can also point you in the right direction in terms of building support in government for the plan and advise on how best to approach the right decision makers. Of course, such allies may not be on your formal steering committee; you may have other relationships you can leverage to this end.
As a non-profit organization taking on an advocacy role, you may be diving into unfamiliar territory and may even feel uneasy about being perceived as adversarial to government. Or, you may be concerned about losing charitable status. Familiarize yourself with Canada Revenue Agency’s regulations on charitable advocacy. A useful overview from Imagine Canada is available here.
If you are able to tie your activities and asks to existing government policy and direction, in many ways you are re-affirming their direction rather than ‘calling them out.’ By positioning your asks within existing frameworks, the youth plan can be a means of helping government enact their vision in community. The way you take on policy work should leverage and enhance your relationships with government, rather than strain them. We will look at this further in the coming section on Engaging and Influencing Government.
Aligning with local initiatives
Align with other local initiatives such as broader community plans to end homelessness, poverty reduction plans, additional and mental health strategies, etc. Connecting with such coalitions/lead organizations and developing a sense of their work and potential areas of alignment will help your plan development process while ensuring these groups are informed about your initiative.
When it comes to local homelessness initiatives, it is imperative that you are able to articulate how the youth plan ‘fits’ within the broader goals of the community. Where the potential for misalignment exists, a clear message developed ahead of time can go a long way toward alleviating misunderstandings and tensions in community.
Here are some thorny questions that can arise in these situations, which you may want to think about ahead of time:
- Why do we need a youth plan? We already have a local plan to end homelessness.
- What’s different about a youth plan?
- Won’t this take away from other groups?
- What about other populations, like women or families, do we need a special plan for them too?
As an example, let’s look closely at Alberta, a province with a provincial youth plan in place. Alberta has a broader provincial plan for ending homelessness and all seven cities have local plans to end homelessness, but only Edmonton and Calgary have specific youth plans. Calgary was the first city to develop a youth plan, which was followed by the provincial government’s youth plan in 2015 and then Edmonton’s soon thereafter.
In Calgary’s case, the initial plan was launched in 2011 and positioned as an extension of the Calgary Plan to End Homelessness focused on youth; it was launched as a collaborative endeavour between the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) and the youth sector. However, for a number of reasons, the actual implementation of the proposed actions was limited from 2011 to 2015 and the local youth sector sought to ‘refresh’ the plan given a number of key local changes. There was a general sense from participating stakeholders that the plan did not represent the collective will of the community to the fullest extent.
Since the plan was launched four years ago, considerable changes ensued that needed to be considered as the planning group embarked on the refresh process. These include the launch of the Alberta Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness (2015), which sets provincial policy direction and is driving new dollars to community to respond to the issue as well as the renewed Updated Calgary Plan to End Homelessness (2015). Both of these plans emphasize the critical role community ownership and joint accountability play in order to fully implement priority actions on homelessness.
The change in political leadership in Alberta to an NDP government also presented a unique opportunity to inform a new course for the province around social policy that advances an end to youth homelessness. The provincial youth plan signalled a new level of openness in government around policy and practice changes to advance common objectives, particularly relevant in the work with Child Intervention Services and Corrections.
The 2013 Child and Youth Advocates Special Report and the Human Services, Child and Family Services Division’s work on a revisioned Child Intervention Practice Framework point to significant reform underway at a systems level around natural supports and transitions that aligns with our ending youth homelessness objectives. At a regional level, Calgary and Area Child and Family Service’s work on developing a Permanency Framework, rolling out Outcomes-based Service Delivery and implementing the Signs of Safety approach further affirmed the need for re-thinking the local approach to ending and preventing youth homelessness leveraging this direction at the system level.
The work on the ground has also shifted as new learning emerges, particularly around family reunification, prevention and healthy transitions. There is unprecedented data and research available to inform a renewed direction and there are new partners at the youth sector table.
As a result, the planning group working on refreshing the youth plan undertook an initial policy scan to assist them in identifying levers for their work. The table below summarizes the key policy directions they identified with relevance to the youth plan refresh.
Table 16: Policy Lever Analysis Example
Service system mapping
Mapping out the current service system for youth experiencing homelessness will give you a good starting place for understanding current resources and a basis for analyzing gaps. A system mapping exercise can be useful in identifying the potential organizations you need to engage. How you access the information to develop this system map can vary.
You may be in a small community where you know who the players are; you may be in a community where the resources are already well analyzed and organized in a youth street survival guide. But you may also work in a context where such information is not readily available. Devise a way to collate it anew. Consider an online survey to assess current capacity and perceived needs around youth homelessness. You can also host gatherings among diverse providers to collect this information and gather input on current trends, gaps and emerging opportunities.
Be strategic about how you engage with and assess youth homelessness when it comes to adult-serving agencies. It is essential that your plan address youth homelessness, not the youth-serving system. Homeless youth often access adult shelters and services. Failing to recognize and include such providers in your planning work will hinder your initial assessment of the local situation and the solutions you generate.
System mapping does not have to be an overwhelming endeavour – in fact, you may already have a solid inventory of various services developed – such as a Youth Street Survival Guide, a 211-resource directory or even your HPS Community Plan. Look to the St. John’s System Mapping Survey as an illustration of how to collect this information in an online format (see the Resource section).