“Down East” Moves to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness

It is possible to prevent and ultimately end youth homelessness. This is our mantra. We wholeheartedly believe this. One role that A Way Home Canada plays in seeding and supporting this international movement for change is elevating and sharing the important work our partners are engaged in on the ground. Almost daily, we remind ourselves how critical it is to think and act like a movement, and not like an organization. This month we turn the spotlight to Newfoundland and Labrador, where efforts are underway to do just that - act like a movement.

Choices for Youth in St. John’s is a long-time member of the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. Over the years, they have contributed exponentially to this international movement for change. At the same time, they have been laying the groundwork for a provincial strategy to prevent and end youth homelessness. This dedication is paying off. A Way Home Canada is proud to work alongside them in support of these efforts. For the last year, we have been part of a cross-sectoral working group led by Choices with substantial involvement from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Nunatsiavut Government, and a growing list of community partners across the province and the country. Together we’re identifying provincial policy levers on which we can build our work - and there are many of them. 

Thanks to an unprecedented alignment across multiple government departments and community agencies and a powerful youth voice, Newfoundland and Labrador is on the verge of systems change that has the potential to make it a leading jurisdiction in providing support to at-risk and homeless young people.

Driven by the 54 recommendations of an All-Party Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, major change is already well underway in the province’s mental health and addictions care system. It is notable that the first priority in the recommendations involves supports to vulnerable families, identifying the importance of prevention and early intervention. The education system is also making a major shift, driven by the 82 recommendations from a Premier’s Task Force on Improving Educational Outcomes included in their Now is the Time report. Relevant components of this work include the need for an early identification system regarding attendance, mental health and addictions, and youth homelessness. The housing and homelessness system in the province is also in the process of transformation, with a new Housing and Homelessness Plan expected in the coming months. This plan will align with the work of End Homelessness St. John’s and will add additional frameworks such as the adapted Housing First Framework for Youth. The provincial government has also announced a new Children, Youth and Families Act. This new legislation substantially reconfirms the vital importance of systemically supporting vulnerable families and youth as preventative measures to harm and re-traumatization, which far too often leads to youth homelessness. This legislation also contains a specific commitment to focus on improving outcomes for Indigenous youth. Outside of government, Choices for Youth is embarking on an expansion of its programming outside of St. John’s for the first time and many other community agencies are looking to provide more wrap-around services for vulnerable youth. Taken together, this is an extraordinarily far-reaching and well-aligned set of reforms.

A couple weeks back David French, Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Terrilee Kelford, Dr. Steve Matthias and I all made the journey to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador for a Social Innovation Summit hosted by Choices for Youth. This two-day event brought together people with lived expertise, Indigenous leaders, policy makers, politicians, youth leaders, service providers, etc. to continue the important work of building the provincial strategy. One of the outcomes of the meeting was the drafting, revising, and adoption of the following “Statement of Principles: Support for Vulnerable Youth in Newfoundland and Labrador”. These principles are applicable to all of our collective efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. Our hope is that these principles will help guide your efforts to develop and implement systems plans to prevent and end youth homelessness.

We the undersigned agree that the following core principles, which incorporate and build on the principles of Housing First for Youth, should be consistent across our work. This means consistency across all systems and organizations that support youth and emerging adults, and particularly systems and organizations supporting youth who are more likely to be marginalized. This includes Indigenous, racialized, and LGBTQI2S youth and youth with disabilities as well as those facing mental health challenges, addictions, family breakdown, and involvement with the child protection or criminal justice systems.

1. Recognize the distinct needs of young people and emerging adults

Systems of support and how they are delivered must be strengths-based and aligned with the unique ways children, youth, and emerging adults function, think, and interact.

2. Reduce barriers

All organizations have a responsibility to identify barriers to access (including administrative barriers such as wait times and hours, policy barriers such as age limits, as well as cultural and geographic barriers) and to work to eliminate them. Programs should instead be flexible, needs-based, and culturally appropriate for the young people they serve.

3. Focus on prevention

Interventions with children and youth should be prioritized, made as early as possible and include the provision of support for their families, with the goal of avoiding future challenges and strengthening connections with their existing community of support. Efforts should be made to identify those who are a risk of educational disengagement, family breakdown, connection to child welfare and related systems, involvement in the criminal justice system, and use of  crisis response systems.

4. Family-centered interventions

Support systems should encourage the participation of young people’s families (however young people define them), help strengthen those families and explicitly focus on supporting young parents and their children from the beginning of pregnancy.

5. Youth choice and self-determination

Systems supporting youth should be co-designed by youth to offer the maximum amount of choice – including in housing options, support interventions, and opportunities to engage in training, education, employment and leadership, all without judgment. Service providers should work to ensure that seeking support is in itself an affirming, supportive, low-risk act.

6. Support for Indigenous youth

A commitment to reconciliation means a commitment to Indigenous youth. Indigenous young people face a challenging landscape of intergenerational trauma and discrimination. Systems supporting youth must recognize this and support the strengthening of connections to culture, to the land, and to the community for Indigenous youth, while recognizing the diversity of Indigenous cultures and experiences. This work must be led by Indigenous organizations and communities, whose ways of working and knowing provide important lessons for all, and particularly for service providers.

7. Support for LGBTQI2S youth

Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, or Two-Spirited (LGBTQI2S) youth face much higher risks of family breakdown, homelessness and violence and require targeted supports. These supports must recognize how different kinds of marginalization intersect. They must also include education for service providers and communities, and engage peers, schools, and families in the struggle against homophobia.

8. Harm reduction

Services for youth and emerging adults should be designed to meet them where they are at, regardless of behaviour or the choices they are able to make at any given time (e.g. addictions, mental health challenges, criminal-justice involvement, attendance, etc.). Instead, they must be provided with the resources and tools they need to attain maximum safety in their current circumstance as well as being offered additional support aimed at long-term stability and growth. Service providers must focus on the training and support needed to make their staff champions of this approach in the community, and on providing diverse service options that still offer youth choice.

9. Integrated services (integrated models of care) and coordinated access

Closer integration, prioritization and information-sharing between programs, organizations, and systems should be an explicit goal of all youth service providers, and should extend to a broad network of organizations that includes all levels of government, community organizations, and the private sector.  This includes low-barrier and province-wide coordinated access to a wide range of support services, as well as physical co-location of youth supports.

10. Targeted supports for the most vulnerable

The most vulnerable youth (those facing multiple, overlapping barriers related to addictions, mental health, family breakdown, and involvement with the justice system) often have the most limited access to resources and can be very difficult to engage. Targeting engagement and supports towards these youth, particularly supports focused on prevention, helps avoid lifelong impacts and system involvements and should be a priority for youth-serving organizations. When services are not accessible, service providers must work to provide alternative options.

11. Trauma-informed practice

Supports and organizational practices should be designed to recognize that many young people seeking support have experienced one or more types of trauma, and to acknowledge the distinct impacts of intergenerational trauma. Service providers should always be seeking education on the impacts of trauma and how to respond to them so as to provide trusting and nonjudgmental spaces for youth.

12. Support for youth and emerging adults with disabilities

Youth and emerging adults with disabilities have equal rights to support and to opportunities to thrive. Service providers must identify ways to make programs more inclusive and to provide targeted supports where needed.

13. Recognizing Intersectionality

While providing targeted supports is important, it is also important to recognize that many young people and emerging adults live at the intersection of multiple identities, strengths, and risks and should not need to self-identify within one particular group to receive support.

14. Celebrating successes and strengths

Service providers should make every effort to identify and celebrate the many ways in which each young person has strengths, achieves successes (however small), and how they can be a support to their peers.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.