Data: The Elephant in the Room
On November 17th, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness in partnership with A Way Home Canada and with support from The Home Depot Canada Foundation will launch the results of the largest national study on youth homelessness ever conducted in Canada, Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey. The National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness and youth with lived experience were critical in helping design the study with researchers and then in delivering it to more than 1,100 youth experiencing homelessness across the country.
All of this raises questions about the role of data. D-A-T-A. As soon as this word is enunciated in a room, eyes glaze over and folks start scrolling through Facebook looking for a cat video distraction. When we’re talking about youth homelessness (and any social issue for that matter), data is actually pretty important, especially given how little of it we have. I think folks are tired of hearing about the NEED for data as much as anything. Why do we need data, what kind of data do we need, and what can we do with that data once we have it?
Why do we need data?
At the service provider level we know a lot about youth experiencing homelessness. I can talk to any person delivering services or a youth with lived experience first-hand and understand a lot about what’s working and what needs to change. That said, good data is the foundation of a system response. System-level planning and the investments to support it require good data. For example, if I were to invest in a new house, I would spend a lot of time looking at the house itself to know whether or not it is the one I want to buy, if the price is right, if it is in good shape, etc. However if I were a developer investing in a whole neighbourhood or community, I would also be interested in data, but of a different kind. I would definitely want good data - and a lot of it - about the neighbourhood and surrounding community, level of services, whether or not the plan makes sense and whether this project could get done. So what about if we are working with young people who experience homelessness? In the youth-serving sector, we tell personal stories of young people experiencing homelessness that get the services they need and are forever transformed. We don’t often tell the stories of the young people that fall through the cracks in the system and end up mired in a lifetime of poverty and instability and then dig into why this happens. Understanding what isn’t working is as important as learning what does.
What kind of data do we need?
Enumeration for planning and tracking progress
We need to understand the scope of the problem so we can craft our collective response appropriately and for understanding whether or not that response is having an impact. In Canada, we have only recently begun implementing Point-in-Time Counts that help us count the number of people experiencing homelessness at a given time. Counting youth is even more difficult, as they are often part of what is called the “hidden homeless”, meaning that they will couch surf, double-up, etc. in order to avoid leaving their communities without services or will then be forced to leave in order to access services in communities that offer them. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness worked with my team and a number of service providers and youth with lived experience to develop a Youth Count Toolkit to support efforts to reach young people that don’t show up on the streets or in shelters. Another strategy that is gaining traction in Canada is the use of “By Name Lists” to ensure that we know exactly who is homeless “by name” and can ensure they receive the services and supports they need.
We also need data that helps us understand more fully the causes and conditions of youth homelessness, again, for ensuring our collective response is getting at the true nature of why young people are homeless or at risk of homelessness and then what transpires once they are - both at the service level and in terms of what they experience while on the streets. For example, if we know from our Without a Home study that 75% of the respondents wish they had support to re-engage with family then our collective response is to ensure that all young people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness receive family mediation/reconnection supports. If we know that a large portion of young people who end up homelessness were once in foster care, then our collective response must be to work upstream to ensure we have transition planning and supports in place for young people exiting care.
I have this great pin that says “I love Outcomes.” You might be thinking, ‘Who doesn’t love outcomes?’, but that interest in outcomes doesn’t shine through where we invest time and resources in evaluation. We are starting to do more in the area of program evaluation and that is important. But we also need to invest more in generating really good outcomes data that goes beyond simply measuring whether someone gets housed or receives a specific support. Our desired outcomes should focus on housing stability, of course, but also wellness: the building of relationships (community integration), health and mental health, participation in school, happiness and involvement in meaningful activities. Again, designing our outcomes to focus not just on exiting homelessness but also actualizing the full potential of each person will inform our collective response and most importantly, ensure the best possible outcomes for young people.
What can we do with the data?
As noted above, data is critical in helping us understand the scope of the problem, plan accordingly, and then know whether or not our efforts are having an impact. That’s all critical, but what else can we do with the data? We can use the data to tell the story to the public and to funders and to advocate with all orders of government. With good data, the advocacy efforts can take the form of solutions-focused advocacy. If we know the scope of the problem, the causes for and conditions of the problem, then we can pretty clearly point to the solutions and figure out how we can all work together to resource and implement them. Now that all sounds simple, but it isn’t. It requires that we also commit to working across systems, and stop doing what isn’t working in order to invest in emerging solutions. It may also require an inflation of investment while those changes are made and to support innovation to fill the gaps. As Dr. Gaetz often says, even if people don’t like the present, they hate change more. We have to have the courage to change, as condemning young people to a lifetime of instability and poverty just isn’t good enough, and we know it.
This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman.
Melanie Redman is the co-founder and President & CEO of A Way Home Canada. Melanie also leads the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness, which is a national community of practice of youth homelessness service providers committed to reducing the amount of time any young person is in an emergency shelter or mired in homelessness. In her previous role as the Director of National Initiatives at Eva’s Initiatives, Melanie led a national pilot project to support a number of communities to develop targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Learning from that project, other communities, and international best practices in planning led to the development of A Way Home’s Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit (authored by Dr. Alina Turner), which is utilized in communities around the world. She most recently led an international consultation process to refine and build consensus on the Canadian-made Housing First for Youth program model, which responds to the needs of developing adolescents. Melanie is an internationally-recognized thought leader on utilizing Collective Impact to work across the systems that drive young people into homelessness to ensure they are also be part of the solutions.
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