In Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada, Dr. Stephen Gaetz argues that ending youth homelessness is not simply assuming that youth will never need emergency services again, but rather that we develop strategies to resolve a broad social problem that traps young people in an ongoing state of homelessness. When young people come to depend on emergency services without access to permanent and age-appropriate housing and necessary supports, this leads to declining health and well-being and most certainly to an uncertain future. An alternative is to look at approaches that emphasize prevention and/or interventions that lead to appropriate housing options with supports (2014: 2).
It's important to highlight that the main shift advanced by a plan to end youth homelessness refocuses our efforts on prevention as opposed to emergency supports. This represents a new way of thinking about youth homelessness, which may challenge the prevailing norm in a community. Rather than ‘managing’ homelessness through emergency services, we are proposing a concerted focus on prevention.
A strong prevention approach requires a coordinated and strategic systems approach and as a consequence, must engage, include and mandate action from mainstream systems and departments of government as well as the homeless-serving sector. No solution to end homelessness can or should depend wholly on the efforts of those in the homeless-serving sector.
Preventing youth homelessness, then, means doing things differently.
What is youth homelessness prevention?
Primary prevention means working upstream to prevent new instances of homelessness through identifying and reducing risks that may increase the likelihood that individuals and families become homeless. Primary prevention strategies can be aimed at individuals, families or whole communities. Primary homeless prevention includes the following:
- Broad, population-based approaches intended to address risk factors well before they have an impact. This includes poverty reduction, ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing, addressing interpersonal violence and anti-discrimination work.
- Systems-based prevention to stem the flow of individuals and families leaving institutional care and falling into homelessness. This includes a policy framework and discharge planning and supports targeting individuals leaving institutional settings such as child protection, corrections and mental health inpatient facilities.
- Targeted interventions aimed at sub-populations that are at higher risk of homelessness. These strategies are intended to address risk factors such as income precariousness, family conflict and violence, mental health or addictions, criminal involvement or dropping out of school, for instance. Interventions are targeted to those broadly at risk (but not necessarily imminently at risk) and can include school-based early intervention programs, Family First supports, conflict mediation, etc. that are usually delivered in the community.
Secondary prevention means early intervention strategies when young people have recently become homeless or are at imminent risk. These early intervention strategies seek to keep young people ’in place’ in their communities where they have natural supports, divert them from emergency shelters and mainstream homelessness services, help them stay in school and work with their families so that young people can safely remain/return home or move into their own accommodation in a safe and planned way.
Secondary prevention strategies typically require systems integration and coordination (coordinated intake, shared information management systems) as well as specific case management interventions designed to avoid the experience of homelessness and/or reduce the time spent homeless. In other words, the goal here is not to have young people avoid homelessness on their own (‘bootstrap’ their way up), but rather shore up their natural supports in the community to help them avoid entering and becoming entrenched in the homelessness ‘system.’ Emergency services and supports (shelters, day programs, soup kitchens, etc.) are important community resources and can be considered preventive (early intervention) if they proactively assist young people through case management to return home, address family conflict or move out of homelessness as quickly as possible.
Tertiary prevention means ensuring that young people who have experienced homelessness exit that situation as quickly as possible and do not return to homelessness. Housing First for Youth strategies are designed to provide stability, reduce the risk of future homelessness and help ensure a safe and nurturing transition to adulthood and independence.
For more on prevention see http://homelesshub.ca/solutions/prevention.
Elements of youth plans
A quick internet search will reveal a number of plans to end youth homelessness, several of which are from Canadian communities. Though research on successful youth plans does not exist at this time, we do know the characteristics of solid community planning apply to youth plans as well. Look to the A Way Home website to see the various youth plans currently published.
An effective youth plan:
- Includes a statement of guiding principles and core values,
- Engages the necessary players from the community, all levels of government and the non-profit and private sectors to work toward real reductions in homelessness,
- Depends on collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders including funders, governments, service providers (mainstream as well as homeless-serving organizations) and those affected by homelessness,
- Articulates necessary actions at the service, local and government levels,
- Involves young people in planning, delivery and evaluation,
- Has clearly articulated goals and objectives, timelines, responsibilities, benchmarks and measurable targets,
- Outlines the resources needed for implementation, including projected budgets and cost-savings,
- Provides direction on implementation actions and governance options to move actions forward,
- Leads to real changes in young people’s lives in implementation and
- Is a ‘living plan’ renewed on an ongoing basis to ensure relevance and progress is maintained.
What a plan can & cannot do
It bears emphasizing that a plan will NOT in and of itself end youth homelessness. A plan should serve three purposes:
- Validate the good work that is occurring in response to this issue,
- Set clear direction for the necessary system changes and shifts required and
- Grant permission to move forward, innovate and create.
Specifically, a plan can kick-start a systems response in your community that can transform how services are delivered and coordinated. A plan can be a vehicle for system reform as well, particularly given the role of child intervention, justice and health in the lives of youth.
It is also important to have the foresight to consider implementation from the start. Aligning the youth plan to other initiatives underway, such as general homelessness strategies, child intervention system reform efforts, poverty reduction strategies, etc. can ensure these opportunities are both leveraged and reinforced by the youth plan.
The plan can be a vehicle for action; as such, the planning process can be conceived as an intentional relationship and trust-building effort to support eventual implementation. Those leading the development of plans should keep an eye on how the process can align people and resources for implementation. This toolkit provides guidance on ensuring you are setting the right conditions to support plan implementation. Without a vigilant eye on implementation from the start, the best-laid plans remain just plans.
Those leading planning should manage expectations of stakeholders around what a plan can actually achieve. This means being very clear from the start on what the scope of the youth plan is and, importantly, is not. Ensuring that stakeholders are clear on the objectives of the planning process and can refer back to these throughout will be essential to staying on track.
Despite our best efforts however, barriers will emerge throughout this process. You are effectively competing for limited resources – and if youth win, it can be seen that other groups may have lost. How do we communicate and legitimize the focus on youth in a scarcity context?
In the process of developing a plan, you may:
- Fail to include an important stakeholder in your consultations,
- Misinterpret the research,
- Not have data necessary for critical analyses,
- Have inadequate resources to develop and/or implement the plan,
- Fail to effectively engage a key public system partner,
- Lack a visible champion in community,
- Secure minimal support from the broader community,
- Experience changes in political leadership or
- All of the above.
These experiences are not unusual; in fact, you should expect them. Building a supportive planning team and coordinating infrastructure, maintaining open lines of communication with stakeholders and having a strong foundation for the work based on a common vision and shared values will go a long way toward weathering such challenges.
Do you need to have a specific plan to end youth homelessness?
As noted, the needs of youth are distinct and there is evidence of improved impact when an explicit focus on age-appropriate housing and supports is in place. However, that does not always require a youth plan per se. Your community may already have measures underway to address youth homelessness as part of broader homelessness strategies. Arguably, those strategies are working well – or not.
A youth plan is very useful in particular circumstances such as:
- There is interest in youth homelessness, but not necessarily knowledge of the specific actions needed to address it;
- Willingness to shift the homeless response from managing the crisis (through emergency services) to a prevention focus that includes moving young people out of homelessness rapidly;
- The community has the infrastructure and resources to take on the coordination and development of a youth-specific strategy;
- The community has a means of advancing implementation of a youth plan and monitoring progress;
- There is already significant movement on youth homelessness, which could benefit from strategic coordination to maximize impact;
- Political changes may be underway which could create a structural opening to advance system reform and funding asks to support an end to youth homelessness; and
- An infusion of resources (government, private, etc.) has been introduced that could be molded to advance ending youth homelessness goals if community leadership coalesced.
It is important to be mindful of your community’s readiness and local context when selecting your course of action. A plan may even derail community efforts if undertaken without proper consultation and buy-in from critical stakeholders, if development is lacking a solid evidence base and/or there is no foresight to implementation.
In certain cases, you may find that the youth planning effort may be challenged by other initiatives underway – particularly those focused on ending chronic and episodic homelessness. These initiatives should not work at odds with one another. Communities and governments can have more than one priority in their efforts to address homelessness.