Research Matters Blog
On Nov. 22 and 23, 2017, Juan Haro of East-Harlem-based Movement for Justice in El Barrio came to Montreal to present their resident-led mobilizing strategies and exchange with local organizers on ensuring community-owned, community-led housing rights victories. Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a People of Colour (POC)-led grassroots movement that has successfully prevented the displacement of hundreds of racialized people (largely women and children), living in rent controlled apartments in East Harlem.
As part of this visit, two workshops were organized in collaboration between the Center for Community Organizations (COCo), the Office of Community Engagement at Concordia University, the Faculty of Education at McGill University and the Centre for Gender Advocacy.
At 9 a.m. on Nov. 22, approximately 30 people were settling in at the Imani Community Center in Little Burgundy. Among them were local residents, community organizers and neighborhood outsiders keen on learning from the effective East-Harlem-based collective, and considering potential extrapolations to a Montreal context that’s seen real-estate lost to private developers in several increasingly contested neighborhoods.
Little Burgundy is one of those places - traditionally home to Montreal’s working-class, English-speaking Black community, many of whom worked in nearby sites dedicated to supporting a bustling trans-Canadian railway industry. As in other bordering neighborhoods that have increasingly been positioned as convenient for urban professionals wishing to live downtown, Little Burgundy’s landscape has gone through significant changes over the last decade and a half. According to the Little Burgundy Coalition, “Little Burgundy is one of the most ethnically diverse communities on the Island of Montreal, with over 83 different ethnicities represented. The socioeconomic profile is also extremely diverse, given that the northeastern part of Little Burgundy is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Montreal, while the southwestern part is fairly affluent.” Indeed, private home ownership has increased dramatically, significantly altering the traditional race-and class-based composition of the neighbourhood; private homes and condominiums stretch along a main southernmost commercial artery now replete with high-price point cachet businesses targeting the incoming owning class; Black community cultural sites have closed down or been repurposed by incoming developers. (Notably, the Imani Community Center is housed in the same building as the St Joseph Church, a traditionally Black community church recently transformed by private developers into Salon 1861, a multi-use social economy incubator.)
In the context of Little Burgundy, the successful grassroots organizing campaigns spearheaded by Movement for Justice are inspiring, especially given Movement’s unwavering commitment to taking its cues from its membership. Movement for Justice in El Barrio is an immigrant-led, women-led example of sustained resistance to urban displacement. According to Juan Haro, the organization was founded by low-income immigrant women of color, mostly single mothers. Since the organization was founded, they have organized 95 Building Committees throughout our beloved East Harlem neighborhood. Currently, 80% of their members are women and 95% of their membership consists of immigrants. Movement’s commitment to self- determination, participatory democracy, and collective decision-making ensures that women and immigrant folks are the ones that develop the strategies and the overall path they take in their struggle for justice.
A sustained track record of pushing back on encroachment through a Zapatista revolution-inspired practice of direct democracy, and has led to undeniable victories including protesting and ultimately successfully preventing the 2008 take-over of 47 apartment buildings by realestate giant Dawnay Day Group.
In Little Burgundy, the 2-hour Movement for Justice workshop led to polarized exchanges, reflecting the cleavages between a widespread institutionalized approach to community housing, funder-dependant and advocacy-reluctant service-provision organizations, and engaged tenants findings themselves experiencing the same sorts of displacements that have occured in New York City, and in other urban centres across Canada -- most notably Toronto and Vancouver.
These are the exact same displacements occurring in the Parc-Extension neighborhood, home to many newcomers to Canada where Movement for Justice showcased its next day workshop to 60 odd concerned individuals. There, Juan Haro stressed the importance of building solidarity among residents experience financial precarity, striking a chord given that Parc Extension is home to many low-income individuals, children under 6 from a low-income family and low-income seniors. Many of these residents live in precarious housing. The neighborhood holds high amounts of renter households and high amounts of renter households that dedicate 30% or more of income to housing. Yet, Parc Extension is also experiencing increasing encroachment, partly as a result of a major university initiative slated for development. In 2019, the Université de Montréal will open a $145 million dollar science complex that will contribute to re-shaping the fabric of the neighbourhood, including changes to the cost of housing and potentially displacing large numbers of families who are already struggling to make ends meet.
There was a palpable sense of urgency among participants, particularly in relation to the recent purchase of Hutchison Plaza, a neighborhood building currently used by several locally owned businesses and faith-based centers. The announced Hutchison Plaza evictions were evidently seen by many workshop participants as heralding incoming shifts to the neighborhood.
Not unlike the previous day’s exchanges in Little Burgundy, the Park-Ex exchange was characterized by a disconnect in organizing approaches between the ground-up perspective advocated by Movement for Justice in El Barrio, the more centralized approach of the CAPE, and the service provision of local non-profits. Many of these would pool together spontaneously at the end of the workshop in order to discuss joint strategies to the recently announced Hutchison Plaza evictions.
In that respect, Haro stressed the importance of an organization taking its cues from its membership and building, first-and-foremost, site-based resistance. Movement for Justice organizes in apartment building lobbies, and only commits to organizing in a building if a majority of the tenants commit to leading the fight and subsequently show up to meetings.
This commitment to the development of site-based, on-the-ground capacity-building, means that they work without requiring cues from funders or politicians, and in partnership with other organizations across the U.S.
“We have formed relationships with people of good heart fighting for justice in their respective communities throughout the U.S. and in other corners of the world such as Montreal. We believe it is essential to collaborate with other organizations in the broader social justice movement to fight injustice on multiple levels and to walk together as we strive to create a world where all worlds fit … Over the years, we have collaborated with local service-provision organizations by referring folks to them that may be in need of the services they offer and/or asking them to inform folks they work with about our struggle for justice. We have also partnered with organizations that have pro-bono attorneys and/or can contribute efforts towards policy change,” said Juan Haro.
Movement for Justice offers a deceptively simple and inspiring example that has struck a chord with many outside of the East Harlem context. This has led to Movement for Justice organizers traveling far and wide, offering workshops and giving talks.
To Haro, these connections are a crucial part of their strategy to improve access to safe and affordable housing for all people, by building similar capacity among organizers and residents on an international scale. Closer to home, according to Haro, Movement for Justice Organizers strive “to create spaces to bring together community activists and organizers by hosting gatherings such as Encuentros for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism and International Women’s Day celebrations. During these gatherings, we listen and learn from one another and contribute to the building of networks of resistance.” Additionally, the movement hosts an annual free 2-day symposium titled, Community and Movement Building for Justice for activists and community organizers seeking to learn from one another and share effective strategies for preventing urban displacement.
Sidestepping an oft-found Canadian tendency to situate housing advocacy in relation to developers and city centers, Movement for Justice ultimately emphasizes the importance of door-to-door work, led by the people directly affected by the issue at hand.
According to Haro, organizers must use decentralized approaches, moving towards strategies that are equal parts social movement facilitation, popular education and community organizing. The emphasis is on effective outreach and the promotion of ongoing collective social analysis among previously disconnected residents.
Together, residents, through participation in newly created affinity networks, work to prevent homelessness and increase stability through collective efforts. Fighting displacement, and resisting unlawful eviction practices, becomes a lived process in a context previously typified through precarity and vulnerability - as a result of joint investment, participants experience the means of forming strong and mutually supporting communities.
 60.5% of Park Extension residents are newcomers vs. city-wide average of 33.2%.
 12,725 Park Extension residents have below-poverty-line incomes or 43.5% (24.6% for Montreal)
 1,335 Park Extension children live below the poverty line, or 51.4% (29.3% for Montreal)
 1,340 seniors are low-income, or 33.2% (21.2% for Montreal)
 Renter households: 79.2% (vs 60.7% for Montreal)
 43.5% (vs 40.5% for Montreal)
It was in lower Manhattan nearly 15 years ago that a young woman experiencing “houselessness,” as she described it, gave me a copy of the piece of art that is below. She used it to tell me about her experience and wanted me to share it with others. It describes her disconnection from the world, her isolation, pain, and tough demeanor (spikes) she needs to project to survive. It shows the thorny connection to her mother, who was addicted to crack, suicidal and sex trade-involved, and who sex trafficked her. It shows a connection to a father who she never knew. She was angry, depressed, and traumatized. She was also going to high school despite being homeless.
Nearly half of homeless young people have severe mental health and addiction challenges and almost all are routinely experiencing serious psychological distress. Mental health challenges to varying degrees contribute to pathways onto the streets and difficulties exiting and are caused and compounded by homelessness. The routine exposure to violence, systemic marginalization and discrimination, and resource deprivation make homelessness inherently traumatizing. This is happening to upwards of 40,000 Canadian children and youth every year – with a disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous and LGBTQ2S young people.
The systems that are intended to prevent youth homelessness and help those who are homeless – be it with mental health supports or otherwise, are under-resourced and badly designed. Youth have great difficulty accessing timely and relevant supports – this problem is tragic (suicide and overdose are the two leading causes of death for homeless youth) and expensive with frequent cycling through emergency departments.
Strikingly, to date there has been very little guidance for service providers in the homeless youth sector on how to respond to mental health challenges including addictions. The academic literature is difficult to access and seldom details the approaches studied. Very little is available otherwise. In my 20 years working in this space, I have been asked countless times for suggestions about where guidance can be found on mental health and addictions approaches relevant to homeless youth and community provider contexts.
In response, my close colleagues (Slesnick, Frederick, Karabanow and Gaetz), and I have taken on the task of curating a book written to provide intervention guidance based upon the best available knowledge and evidence in the field. The focus is on mental health and addictions challenges for homeless and street involved youth. We sought out leading practitioners and intervention researchers internationally – asking them to write chapters of clear relevance to direct service providers in the community. It was to be practical and describe approaches that are readily implemented. We had a two stage review – by an internationally recognized academic and by leading practitioners in the field. It tackles topics such as crisis response and specific approaches like DBT skills. It addresses specific populations such as Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, and Black racialized youth. It addresses assessment and evaluation and trauma-informed care frameworks.
There are big strides forward happening in Canada to address the structural barriers and inequities that lead to and perpetuate youth homelessness. While this is happening, however, young people are suffering and dying on Canadian streets – with mental health and addictions challenges closely woven into these preventable losses. This needs to be addressed while we work to end youth homelessness. This book is a part of that effort – responding to the needs of providers working in the field. We will make this book as widely available as possible – both open access and for low cost in print – giving providers more effective tools to address mental health and addiction challenges. We hope that it helps to make a difference – helping young people like the woman that I described above – with more knowledgeable and skillful providers – helping her tap more fully into her already formidable strength and tenacity.
I’ll close with a poem that another youth gave me – a young man with a Benedryl addiction who spent his nights sleeping in unfinished homes at a construction site – scrambling out each day before dawn when the crews arrived.
Download Mental Health & Addiction Interventions for Youth Experiencing Homelessness: Practical Strategies for Front-line Providers for free at: homelesshub.ca/mentalhealthbook
We often think of homelessness as something that transcends certain demographic markers, such as age, gender, and sexual orientation. To a certain degree, this is true. Individuals experiencing homelessness are unified by a singular characteristic: the lack of safe, adequate, and affordable housing.
With this being said, it is also important to recognize that the right to housing should include having choice in the type of housing one life in. Generalized, “one size fits all” solutions will not necessarily work for everyone who experiences homelessness. For example, we know that the response to youth homelessness is different than adult homelessness and that the experience of homelessness is different among Indigenous Peoples compared to non-Indigenous individuals. We also know that LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit) youth have a different experience of homelessness than non-LGBTQ2S youth, particularly as it relates to service use experiences.
Therefore, housing interventions that address the multiple layers of a person’s identity, is one way to recognize the diversity of individuals who experience homelessness.
LGBTQ2S Adult Housing Needs Assessment
With this knowledge in hand, I’d like to share the results of a needs assessment that I conducted with Daybreak Non-Profit Housing, through the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The project, based in Ottawa, Ontario, examined the housing needs of LGBTQ2S adults who have experienced homelessness. There is a paucity of research on LGBTQ2S adults who experience homelessness, so this project filled a much needed gap.
What did we do?
We conducted interviews with 22 LGBTQ2S adults who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness, and focus groups and surveys with local service providers. The participants of the focus groups and surveys were staff members from agencies representing various types of service models (e.g., emergency shelters, drop-in services, congregate supportive housing agencies, scattered-site supported housing agencies, and community health centres).
What did we find?
Key findings from the interviews with LGBTQ2S adults include:
- Half of the participants had an experience of homelessness prior to the age of 21.
- More than half of participants discussed the impact of their LGBTQ2S identity on their entry into homelessness, particularly in regards to landlord discrimination, harassment from other tenants, and struggles with their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
- The participants generally felt supported by staff members of agencies across the homeless serving sector, but some participants did recount interactions with staff that were homophobic, biphobic, and/or transphobic. Further, not all participants felt comfortable disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with staff.
- Many of the participants did not feel safe disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with other clients. This discomfort arose from the potential of verbal and physical harassment from the other clients. Housing experiences followed a similar pattern, as some participants felt safe in their housing and other participants experienced verbal harassment from other tenants.
- The housing needs of clients were diverse. Over half of the participants stated that they would access housing specific to the LGBTQ2S community. There was no consensus on the type of housing that participants wanted, although a majority of the participants stated that they preferred to live independently.
- Some participants expressed that housing options specific to certain identities and orientations within the LGBTQ2S spectrum are warranted, including housing specific to transgender individuals.
- Neighbourhoods were important, as some participants expressed wanting to live in a LGBTQ2S-friendly neighbourhood and others wanting to live outside of the downtown core.
- Regardless of the type of housing that is potentially developed, participants thought it was important to include supports for those who needed it and to staff the housing with individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ2S community.
Where do we go from here?
Based upon the results, we developed a series of recommendations for service providers, service agencies, and municipalities to assist in the creation of an inclusive sector. These recommendations focused on:
1 - the development of housing options specific to the LGBTQ2S community;
2- the inclusion of LGBTQ2S-identified staff members in these housing options;
3 - improving staff training on the LGBTQ2S community across the sector; and
4 - entrenching the rights of transgender, gender non-conforming, and Two-Spirit individuals.
By recognizing the importance of an individual’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation, this study has demonstrated that the response to homelessness should be one that recognizes diversity, inclusivity, and above all, choice in housing.
The report can be found here: https://www.daybreakhousing.org/events-newsletters
The link to the report is here: http://homelesshub.ca/resource/lgbtq2s-adult-housing-needs-assessment
Happy New Year! A Way Home Canada opened 2018 with an even stronger commitment to fighting for the human rights of youth experiencing homelessness. Building on the success of the first International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth held in London in June 2015, the American Bar Association, in late November 2017, convened an even greater number of jurisdictions and advocates for street-connected children and youth from around the world to examine the mandate provided by the United Nations General Comment 21 on Children in Street Situations. Bringing together street youth experts across the globe, this was the second-ever convening focused on the legal rights of street youth as a path to ensuring dignity and human rights for a population often forgotten or ignored. The Summit Agenda reviewed the legal guarantees in the General Comment point-by point through panel and live, interactive discussion by leaders from around the world examining best practices and challenges in the face of the UN's General Comment and its renewed expectations of every signatory nation across the world -- including Canada. Canadian delegates in attendance were Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada; Stephen Gaetz, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; Bruce Rivers, Covenant House Toronto; and Julia Huys, Justice for Children and Youth.
A unique outcome of the summit was a vibrant exchange of information and best ideas across borders about how nations can implement the rights embedded in the UN's new international instrument. Second, and equally unique, the Summit is using the input to produce a first-ever publication of principles from the world’s experts on street-connected children and youth that will foster the implementation of each of the legal issues in the UN's General Comment. This publication will be delivered to world leaders in Spring 2018. As Canadians, we have an opportunity to leverage the results of the Summit in our advocacy work on behalf of youth experiencing homelessness.
Another important development with support from Baker & McKenzie in partnership with the Consortium for Street Children is an online resource called the “Legal Atlas for Street Children.” This website will highlight the areas where governments can do more to ensure street children can not only meet their basic needs to survive, but can develop to their fullest potential. We have an opportunity to support the development of this resource to include Canada. This will be yet another tool in our collective toolbox to not only hold all orders of government to account for our international human rights obligations, but also help government know exactly where improvements can be made and compare those efforts to other countries.
Over the coming months, A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Covenant House Toronto and Justice for Children and Youth will work to educate stakeholders across the country about UN General Comment 21 and Canadian opportunities and implications therein. We’ll host a webinar in collaboration with the American Bar Association to kick-off these efforts and provide opportunities for Canadian stakeholders to “sign on” to the recommendations for country-level implementation. Stay tuned for more updates and announcements in the coming weeks.
I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video above where young people with lived experience share their reflections on the importance of the Summit and all of our collective work on the human rights of children and youth. Let’s make “Youth Rights, Right Now” our rallying cry for 2018!
The Youth Assessment Prioritization Tool – which is usually just called the “YAP Tool” – is one of the new tools that Making the Shift (MTS) is enthusiastic about bringing to the conversation on ending and preventing youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a strength-based assessment of youth who are experiencing, or are at-risk of experiencing, homelessness that strives to be as non-clinical and non-prescriptive as possible – which is part of what makes it so different from other assessment tools. But, first things first:
What exactly is the YAP Tool?
That’s a fair question; to put it simply, the YAP is an assessment that is undertaken when a vulnerable young person comes into contact with the service system. The assessment is designed specifically to determine what the youth’s risk factors and strengths are, through a short “pre-screen” questionnaire followed by a more fulsome interview, if deemed necessary. The pre-screen is primarily focused on identifying the level of risk of long-term homelessness that the youth is facing. The subsequent interview delves deeper into strengths. The information gained through the assessment helps the interviewer (who is generally a caseworker) to make decisions on the best service pathway for the young person. The tool uses the knowledge of both the youth and the worker completing the assessment, as there is ample space for discussions, clarifications, and recommendations.
Unlike many other assessment tools currently in use, the YAP Tool’s design is strength-based – so it captures the youth’s positive attributes, skills, and goals in addition to any vulnerabilities. A strength focus requires developmental supports and opportunities that promote success, rather than those that just get rid of failures. While this can be a daunting concept, the YAP Tool is a clear example of how to implement a strength-based philosophy in a practical manner.
With all that in mind, it is important to remember that no single assessment tool can do everything! The YAP Tool is meant to contribute to the decision-making process – to help workers with the decisions they must make, not to make decisions for them.
The YAP and MTS
The three communities participating in the MTS Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) demonstration projects will be using the YAP Tool to assist in facilitating their intake, assessment, and referral processes. This is a beneficial arrangement for everyone – the community partners gain a new tool to help them connect with and aid vulnerable young people, while the YAP Tool will go through a formal validation process, undertaken by an external team based at the University of Ottawa, to help solidify its legitimacy.
On a more personal note, I was given the chance to participate in a YAP tool training session last week in Ottawa that was led by our colleague (and part-time MTS collaborator) Wally Czech and attended by many of our Ottawa HF4Y community partners. The training outlined the history of the YAP Tool, the theories it builds from (for example, the importance of prevention and of assessing youth differently than adults), and went through both components of the tool in great detail. The best part – and this was surprisingly hard to decide on – was the chance to get practical experience actually using the tool. Second best was getting to ask any and all questions we had about the tool, its application, or its history – which, for an enthusiastic question-asker like myself, was a real draw. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to participate in one of these trainings, I sincerely recommend it!
The Origin of the YAP Tool
While we at MTS are very excited about the YAP Tool, we are by no means its creators. That honour rests with Wally Czech, who noticed some challenges with the existing assessment tool for intaking youth into the service system in his community of Lethbridge, AB. At the time (2013), Mr. Czech was the Housing First Specialist with the City of Lethbridge, meaning that he was in charge of all Housing First projects there. While in this position, Mr. Czech was introduced to the TAY (Transition Age Youth) research from Dr. Eric Rice and his partners who developed a Triage Tool and conducted interviews with over 700 youth experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area. The research discovered 6 “core predictors” for long term (5+ years) homelessness among the youth: running away from home; violence at home between family members; religious differences with parents or caregivers; first using marijuana before age 12; being incarcerated before age 18; and whether they have ever been, or gotten someone else, pregnant. The TAY authors and Mr. Czech agreed that the research and triage tool should be incorporated into a more extensive, youth-specific assessment tool.
Mr. Czech decided that he wanted to create a tool that wouldn’t focus exclusively on numeric scores and rankings, but instead would allow each individual’s unique story to play a role in decision-making. Enter David French (another MTS colleague!) into the story: Mr. French – who was then the Manager of Community Partnership Initiatives with the Alberta Government – was looking to develop a “needs/risk assessment tool” as a deliverable (Strategy 1.2) within Alberta’s Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness. The two brought their expertise together to develop the early editions of the YAP Tool, along with feedback and contributions from other pan-Canadian partners and would-be users. The Alberta Government has been and will continue to be a strong partner in moving forward with broad dissemination of the tool.
In the beginning, the YAP Tool was used in conjunction with the community’s existing tool, so the results could be easily compared and workers would feel comfortable using it. After an initial testing phase, the next version of the YAP Tool was adapted to be a separate assessment, formatted as a conversational interview with a short questionnaire (known as the “pre-screen”) preceding it. In its current form, the pre-screen step is mandatory for all young people who come into contact with the service system but the longer interview afterwards is largely optional, depending on what’s revealed during the first step. For example, if the pre-screen shows that a young person is stably housed but needs help elsewhere, the full interview isn’t necessary to be able to direct the youth to proper supports.
Now that the MTS demonstration projects are fully launching, it’s time for us to turn our attention to the practical questions of why and how this project is going to be different from the usual responses to youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a significant part of what makes (and will continue to make) MTS unique, with its strength-based nature, its youth orientation, and its focus on adaptability setting it apart from other assessment tools currently in use.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the fourth installment of the series; click to read the first, second, and third installments.
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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.