Research Matters Blog
We often think of homelessness as an issue limited to big cities. In reality, homelessness does not discriminate, and occurs in all geographic contexts – from urban centres, to the suburbs, and in rural regions.
Homelessness in rural regions often goes unnoticed because it is largely “hidden”, unlike the more visible and broadly-researched street homelessness in urban centres. Fortunately, more and more research is being done in these regions. For instance, PiT Counts in Yellowknife and Brandon have been successful in enumerating and surveying the service needs of the local homeless population to inform systems planning in their respective regions. Drawing on research done to date, this blog post will discuss experiences of rural homelessness.
Rural Homelessness in Canada
A 2011 report from the County of Wellington, Ont. showed:
- The majority of interviewed individuals experiencing homelessness were very reluctant to self-identify as “homeless,” even if they were living in a car or couch surfing.
- Homelessness in rural settings continues to go under the radar, and is misunderstood as a social issue that only affects big cities.
- Lack of recognition for the existence of homelessness in rural communities contributes to the lack of funding and development in rural settings.
- Many rural residents are reluctant to access emergency shelters in the city: Only 5-6% of those who use Guelph shelters are residents who come from Wellington county, Ont.
1. Access and relevance of services and resources
In larger cities, it is more common to find individuals “sleeping rough” on the streets, panhandling, or relying on the available social services and supports nearby. Due to a smaller population size and the nature of hidden homelessness in rural regions, services are scarce. What’s more, funding towards building much needed social infrastructure is significantly lacking, as government allocated resources are often population-based. This means that funding for social services are usually concentrated to major urban centres.
Due to this lack of services, many people who are homeless in rural communities rely more on informal networks such as couch surfing with family and friends or look to neighbours for help. In cases of domestic violence that disproportionately affect women and children, emergency shelters are often inaccessible to those needing to flee unsafe situations, forcing individuals to return to an abusive partner for shelter.
In addition to a lack of services overall, services catered to marginalized populations (e.g. LGBTQ2S people, Indigenous Peoples, women) and their distinct lived experiences are essentially non-existent. Rural homelessness disproportionately affects women and children. On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home. The rate of violent crime against women in Nunavut in 2011 was nearly 13 times higher than the rate for Canada.
2. Indigenous Peoples
More than 50% of Indigenous Peoples live in metropolitan regions, and yet Indigenous Peoples still make up the largest share of the population of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Although the extent to which Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness in rural regions is unknown, we do know that Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness across Canada disproportionate to their population size.
For Indigenous populations experiencing homelessness in rural regions, not only are services scarce, but also often fail to provide a culturally safe space. One reason, among several, explaining the increased migration of Indigenous Peoples from rural to urban regions is the lack of culturally safe services and housing available locally.
According to the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness, what further exacerbates migration from rural to urban regions, thus separation from family and familiar surroundings, are structural and systems factors. These include: crumbling infrastructure due to a lack of government investment in building homes specifically for Indigenous Peoples, racism and discrimination among landlords and service providers (although this is also an issue in urban centres), and irrelevant and inadequate employment opportunities, to name a few.
“…an Inuit from Resolute Bay may want to procure identification. to work and access education for a planned move to Ottawa, but does not know what an identity clinic is, what forms to fll out, what ID is needed to obtain work or where to acquire such forms for that ID, and may not even speak English or French to be able to fill out the forms or communicate with state representatives.”Excerpt from the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness – J. Thistle 2017
Another challenge is access to transportation. To access resources such as food banks, emergency shelters, and health services, people experiencing homelessness in rural areas may have to travel far distances due to the sparse geographic layout. Because of this, transportation can become a barrier for those without cars in rural settings. Public transportation systems can also be unreliable in rural regions, making the process of travelling far for resources unrealistic.
4. Lack of Privacy
The small community-feel of some rural areas can help foster close social ties, while also implicating a lack of privacy. Due to a smaller population size, those who live in rural areas are more likely to know who is experiencing homelessness, resulting in stigmatization. This is problematic as stigma often acts as a barrier to obtaining housing. For instance, landlords may be reluctant to rent to individuals experiencing or who have experienced homelessness.
5. Rural Economy and Housing
As mentioned, rural regions have few housing options available. This scarcity is compounded by an influx of migrating workers and tourists to rural regions, contributing to an increase in housing prices. As a result, locals at a lower income level are frequently left with no other option than to settle for houses that are unfit for human habitation.
The term relative homelessness has been used to describe individuals who are housed but who reside in substandard shelter (e.g. mould, poor heating, no insulation), and/or who may be at risk of losing their homes. Due to the inadequacy of their living arrangements, these individuals are considered to be in need of core housing.
The types of jobs that rural economies tend to rely on also differ from those found in the city. At times of economic boom, often in manufacturing and oil jobs, many rural towns experience a rush of migrant workers, thus increasing the demand for housing. For instance, in 2011, Estevan, Saskatchewan saw a boom in their oil and gas industry, resulting in an influx of economic migrants. Due to the existing lack of housing, many have been forced to sleep rough in cars or in public spaces. Similarly, in Revelstoke, B.C., individuals with lower incomes have been forced into trailers unsafe for habitation as a result of landlords renting out property to higher paying tourists in the region.
Here are some statics on core housing and low-income for rural communities:
Low income: 32%
Core housing need: 21%
Low income: 19%
Core housing need: 22%
New Glasgow, Nova ScotiaPopulation: 9,562
Core housing need: 19%
Wellington County, Ontario
Low income: 15%
Core housing need: 22%
Preventing and addressing rural homelessness
These are some of the ways that homelessness can be prevented in rural areas:
More volunteer driver programs such as the Wellington Transportation Services, made possible by volunteers and funded by the County of Wellington, are a way to address the challenges of accessing remote services in rural communities.
Creating shared spaces in rural communities can address the privacy issues and consequential marginalization faced by people experiencing homelessness in many tight-knit rural areas. This may help to alleviate the discrimination those experiencing homelessness encounter when accessing resources. Other benefits include such the ability to develop social networks, and greater safety in the community.
3. Access to Resources and Services
Alternative shelter programs such as respite accommodation or host homes are options helpful in diverting youth from street homelessness, while also temporarily connecting them to a support system. These shelter options are typically offered by volunteers or paid individuals. Individuals experiencing homelessness are provided with temporary shelter and other resources as part of these programs. For example, the NightStop program connects Canadian youth in crisis with a verified volunteer who provides safe shelter on a night-to-night basis.
4. Services that Target Specific Populations
Creating services specifically tailored to populations such as women, families, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, LGBTQ2S, and/or veterans are necessary in addressing homelessness for marginalized individuals in rural regions. For example, the Repairing the Holes in the Net action research project sought to understand the barriers northern women who are homeless or marginally housed, and who face mental health and substance use concerns. Women experiencing homelessness or who were marginally housed in Whitehorse, Yukon, Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Iqaluit, Nunavut faced 4 interconnected challenges including: unresolved trauma, poverty and social exclusion, an inability to find and maintain housing, and ineffective services. The women in the study suggested a number of changes at each of these levels such as:
Treatment that was trauma-specific and that would get to the root cause of their substance use problems, a daily living allowance, rent geared to income and changes in services hours on weekends and evenings for easier access. The results of the study went on to inform and tailor service provision catered to the women surveyed.
Despite a lack of research on the nature of homelessness in rural regions, from the information we do know, we know that more must be done. Solutions such as: services specifically tailored to marginalized populations; affordable, accessible, and safe housing; reliable and accessible transportation services, and; alternative shelters and rural Housing First programs are desperately needed in the region. Due to the distinct nature of rural homelessness discussed, more research is needed to cater solutions relevant to the experience of homelessness in rural and remote communities.
Carey Doberstein, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has written a book about homelessness governance in Canada. The book’s focus is on the way homelessness funding is targeted and allocated in three cities: Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. It focuses on the 1995-2015 period.
Here are 10 things to know:
1. There are some major differences in homelessness across Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. On a per-capita basis, Calgary has the most homelessness of the three cities, and Metro Vancouver the least. Between 2008 and 2014, Calgary saw a 62% drop in street homelessness, while Metro Vancouver saw a 39% decrease and Toronto a 24% increase. Both Calgary and Toronto saw modest increases in Indigenous representation among their homeless populations during the period under consideration (17% and 6% respectively) while Vancouver saw a 15% decrease during this time. Finally, families constituted just 5% of persons living in Vancouver’s shelter system in 2014; in Calgary the figure is 12%, and Toronto 20%. All of these figures are accurate as of 2014 and do not reflect results of more recent enumerations (keeping in mind that cross-city comparisons of homelessness populations do come with challenges).
2. One such difference pertains to policy and governance. According to Doberstein: “These three cities differ dramatically in how government and civil society actors organize themselves in governance arrangements to solve public problems” (p. 6). These differences ultimately have an important impact on what homelessness looks like on the ground; however, they do not fully account for the many differences discussed in point #1 above (for more on the many factors that impact the size of a city’s homeless population, see point #3 of this blog post).
3. Better decisions pertaining to homelessness policy and governance are made when multiple stakeholders are involved in decision-making. With regard to homelessness policy and governance, the book is referring to policies with respect to where homelessness funding should go, how homelessness programming should be designed, and which subgroups of a city’s homeless population should be given priority.
4. Multiple stakeholders play important roles in such decision-making in both Vancouver and Calgary, more so than in Toronto. Vancouver and Calgary both have community advisory bodies that meet regularly and where members engage in important debate that leads to decisions pertaining to the disbursement of homelessness funding from the federal and provincial governments. By contrast, Toronto has a community advisory body that advises Toronto’s municipal government on how to direct federal homelessness funding; however, it meets just once or twice a year, and “essentially functions as a rubber stamp for the [municipal] bureaucracy’s homelessness agenda” (p. 95). The book goes on to state: “Toronto advanced many important policy debates and changes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the city has since lost its position on the cutting edge…” (p. 88).
5. Toronto may be turning a corner. The book notes that, in 2014, Toronto City Council tasked the newly-formed Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness “to serve as the designated advisory group to the City of Toronto on all aspects of its policy response to homelessness and housing…with the aim of engaging with community stakeholders in a more sustained and substantive fashion” (p. 123). This may give some Toronto-based readers reason for optimism.
6. Government plays a crucial role as a funder of homelessness programming, but government officials have a limited line of sight. Former BC Housing manager Michael Anhorn is quoted in the book stating: “It’s way too easy as a government bureaucrat to sit in our office and look at stats and think you know what’s happening [on the streets] is because of this or that. And, in part, that is because your statistics will only tell you what you measure, whereas service providers are in the day-to-day, and they will recognize trends that are happening before the statistics can identify them” (pp. 83-84).
7. Government officials can be risk averse. Public servants ultimately need to have their proposals vetted by elected officials, who in turn are nervous about risk. By contrast, staff at smaller non-profit agencies tend to be governed by board members who are often more nimble and less risk averse.
8. The book argues that Vancouver and Toronto’s municipal governments have been more directly involved in housing and homelessness than Calgary’s. For example, according to the book: “The City of Calgary has the same key homelessness-policy levers as other cities do—namely, the control over land use and development—yet it has not fully leveraged that control through inclusionary zoning policies such as we see in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent, in Toronto.” (p. 129).
9. The book could have done a better job of outlining the various funding streams for homelessness programs across the country. In Calgary, for example, funding available for the local homelessness governing network provided by the provincial government dwarfs federal funding for homelessness by roughly a 4:1 ratio. And in Vancouver, provincial spending on homelessness exceeds federal spending on homelessness by a 20:1 ratio (if one includes capital funding). These arrangements vary tremendously across Canada. What’s more, across Canada there are approximately 3,700 municipal governments (many of which are quite small); yet, only some of them directly receive federal funding for homelessness. A general overview of the homelessness funding framework early in the book would have been helpful.
10. The book contains a few factual errors, though none of them undermine the book’s main arguments. In Chapter 3, the book notes (incorrectly) that in 1993 it was the Chrétien government that put an end to federal funding for new social housing units in Canada (with the exception of on-reserve housing). It was actually the Progressive Conservative government that ended this housing (in its April budget that year). Chapter 3 also notes that Vancouver’s community advisory body has shown innovation in “being the first to fund low-barrier homeless shelters (no requirement to be clean and sober)…” (p. 65). In fact, the first homeless shelter I worked at in Toronto in 1998 (Dixon Hall Men’s Shelter) had no such requirement.
In Sum: I believe this book is important for people interested in homelessness policy and governance in Canada. Officials in both government and the non-profit sector should read this. So should volunteers and consultants. I also recommend that professors read it and assign it to their students (especially graduate students).
When I first started at A Way Home Canada, one of the areas I found most exciting was our work with the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. The Learning Community is a pan-Canadian community consisting of leading youth-serving organizations across the country who work collaboratively on key issues, share emerging and promising practices, and develop strategies and tools to strengthen our sector and work towards preventing and ending youth homelessness in Canada.
The Learning Community is working to achieve a reduction in the length of time that youth experience homelessness through prevention programs and improved practices and policies. The primary focus is to increase the capacity of our sector to improve how we manage youth homelessness at the organization and local community levels. This is done through the following three areas of work:
1. Active community of practice
2. Youth Voice
3. Informing the national policy agenda
I was thrilled to be part of the annual in-person Learning Community meeting this past May in Calgary. We spent three days discussing emerging issues in the sector, affirming our strategic priorities (housing, Indigenous youth, prevention and youth voice), and designing our work plan for 2018-19.
At our 2017 in-person meeting, we finalized our Theory of Change model. We began our meeting this year discussing our process for measuring our success. Our main question was: Are we completing tasks based on our priorities?
The Learning Community is dedicated to creating inclusive spaces for young people and staff. A few years ago, the group designed its LGBTQ2S Toolkit (an online resource that supports service providers to better support LGBTQ2S young people). Currently, our focus is creating culturally safe places for Indigenous young people. At this year’s meeting, Nikketa Campbell and Kelly Holmes from Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY) in Winnipeg facilitated a session on the work done at RaY to ensure that staff and their programming are culturally inclusive. They provided us with some important calls to action, including: speaking about racism and stereotyping when we see it happening at our organizations, examining where and why cultural harm occurs, and consistently reflecting on workplace culture. We all have much work to do, but I encourage you to consider how you can start implementing these calls to action yourself, wherever you may work.
Another main topic of discussion was the Opioid Crisis and where communities need the most support. Prior to the in-person meeting, the group had several discussions about the issue. The discussion in Calgary focused on three themes: resources (what resources are needed and what resources are available); staff safety; and crisis response protocols. This year we will continue to work through these themes, with the guidance of the Learning Community’s Leadership Team.
There were also presentations on the amazing shelter diversion work happening in the Cambridge/Waterloo area by Argus. Afterwards, we had a presentation about the HelpSeeker App (dubbed Yelp for social services!). Finally, we spent an afternoon learning about how to impact policy within our communities across Canada, and heard more about the incredible work being done to prevent and end youth homelessness at Boys and Girls Club Calgary (the folks who generously hosted our meeting this year).
On the last day, we identified key areas of work for us to dedicate efforts to throughout the next year with Indigenous youth in housing, in prevention, and with youth voice.
As you can see, it was a jam-packed three days. And though we spent time celebrating what the Learning Community has been able to achieve as a group over the past year, we all left recognizing that there is still so much work to be done improving practices and policies to reduce the length of time youth may experience homelessness in Canada.
Personally, I am looking forward to seeing all that the Learning Community does this year! If you are doing exciting work in youth homelessness and would like to get your organization involved with the Learning Community, please check out our General Membership page and sign up for more information here.
What is Coordinated Assessment?
Communities across the globe are adopting coordinated assessment in an effort to more efficiently allocate scarce housing resources based on the support service needs of single adults, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. Through coordinated assessment, all people experiencing homelessness in a given continuum of care or local jurisdiction participate in a standardized assessment of their mental health, medical, and social vulnerabilities. Based on assessment scores, individuals are triaged to housing services offering varying levels of support services, and centralized waitlists for housing resources in the community are prioritized accordingly.
Why is Evidence-based Coordinated Assessment Important?
Coordinated assessment instruments are at the foundation of centralized housing waitlists. Without a strong foundation, the whole house may come crumbling down. Instruments that do not accurately assess an individual’s housing support service needs may unintentionally reduce a highly vulnerable individual’s opportunity for housing. Alternatively, inaccurate assessment may inappropriately prioritize a person with lower support service needs for costly housing interventions like permanent supportive housing. In some cases, a difference of one point on an assessment instrument could determine whether a person is prioritized for a particular type of housing service. Ineffective housing prioritization has major implications for the wellbeing of vulnerable people and for the systems serving them.
Due to the complexities associated with homelessness, what it means to be “vulnerable” or “self-sufficient” cannot be objectively measured. Therefore, we are left developing assessment tools composed of items that we believe—or research would suggest—measure these concepts. However, there are numerous considerations to take into account when it comes to developing effective measurement tools. For example, the types of questions, the response options, and the overall assessment approach can influence whether people respond accurately on an assessment.
Psychometric research is used in many fields that lack objective measurements of concepts of interest. In the field of clinical psychology, psychological assessment measures of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions undergo rigorous research and vetting before they are recommended for use in research and clinical application. Unfortunately, the same process did not occur before coordinated assessment unfolded, despite the high stakes involved. There is currently very limited evidence to support the psychometric properties of instruments available for coordinated assessment. In other words, we do not know whether we are building our houses on shaky foundations.
Overview of the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool
The Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), now on its second version, has been widely adopted for coordinated assessment. The VI-SPDAT was designed for rapid, interview-style administration that can be applied with minimal training, making it a desirable choice for communities tasked with assessing a large homeless population. The instrument primarily relies on the self-report of those assessed; the original version also included four observer-rated items indicating a subjective evaluation of the extent of impairment related to daily living skills, physical health conditions, substance use, and mental health observed by the assessor. VI-SPDAT items are grouped under four subdomains: History of Housing and Homelessness, Risks, Socialization and Daily Functions, and Wellness. The VI-SPDAT triages people for three housing types, or housing assessments, based on their score: a) permanent supportive housing (i.e., permanent housing subsidies with housing support services) for those reporting the greatest range of vulnerability, b) rapid rehousing (short-term housing subsidies or other financial support and temporary support services) for those scoring in the moderate range, and c) mainstream affordable housing (i.e., individuals directed toward mainstream affordable housing options) for those scoring in the minimally vulnerable range.
In addition to its ease of use and other potential strengths, the VI-SPDAT has gained traction due to the developers’ assertions that it is “evidence-informed” and the strongest tool available based upon its evidence and testing. However, the evidence base for the VI-SPDAT versions 1 and 2 is largely unclear. Indeed, there has been little to no independent research conducted on the tool’s reliability and validity.
We recently published a study in which we used Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data from a continuum of care in a Midwest county in the United States to assess several types of reliability (i.e., the extent to which an assessment tool gets consistent results) and validity (i.e., the extent to which an assessment tool measures what it intends to measure) of the first version VI-SPDAT for single adults. Here is an overview of our main findings:
- The VI-SPDAT did not produce consistent results. In terms of reliability, we found individuals that were administered the VI-SPDAT twice did not produce consistent scores. In fact, 89% produced either higher or lower scores during their second administration. The observer-rated items were not reported consistently across administrations, suggesting the omission of these items in the VI-SPDAT version 2 likely improved the tool.
- The questions did not fully measure the concept of “vulnerability”. In terms of the validity, we found that several questions on the VI-SPDAT were not strongly related, or were related in an unexpected way (e.g., the presence of a health condition was associated with lower vulnerability), with the concept of vulnerability and/or with the VI-SPDAT subdomains. The Socialization and Daily Functions domain and health-related items on the Wellness domain demonstrated particularly poor validity.
- The type of housing support a person had was a better predictor of returning to homelessness than their VI-SPDAT score. It is reasonable to expect that individuals who are more vulnerable are at higher risk of housing instability or homelessness than those who are less vulnerable. However, among individuals in this study who were permanently housed after taking the VI-SPDAT, higher scores were only marginally associated with the likelihood they would re-enter homeless services (a proxy measure for housing stability). Rather, the type of housing a person obtained (i.e., rapid rehousing or unsubsidized housing) was a stronger predictor of increased risk of homeless service re-entry.
It is important to acknowledge that this study was conducted in the context of community implementation and not under standardized or experimental conditions. While the psychometric properties of the instrument in “ideal” circumstances remain unclear, our findings are likely more representative of the tool’s effectiveness when being used in practice. Findings suggest the VI-SPDAT has weaknesses in its reliability and validity. These weaknesses may result from problems with the tool itself, how it is used in real-world practice, or individuals’ tendencies to inaccurately disclose sensitive information.
Coordinated assessment and centralized housing prioritization procedures vary widely. Communities that have adopted the VI-SPDAT as the primary method for making housing recommendations should integrate other assessments that are more comprehensive in nature and that include other sources of information in addition to self-report. Additional research and development of the VI-SPDAT and other coordinated assessment instruments, such as the Vulnerability Assessment Tool, can help improve these tools and ensure people are prioritized appropriately and given the support services and housing they need.
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.