Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
October 12, 2017

Today’s topic is Housing First for Youth (spoiler alert: it’s not the same as Housing First)

Innovation isn’t a word that typically comes to mind when thinking about youth homelessness solutions. We usually reserve innovation for things that change the world as we once knew it – you know, like the printing press or space travel. And yet, there are lots of reasons why Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) is innovative – it builds on the examples set in communities and countries around the world, it favours preventing youth homelessness over responding to it afterwards, it doesn’t require abstinence or sobriety from participants, and its focus is on the rights and dignity of young people who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing homelessness. These are reason enough to label HF4Y as a departure from the norm, but by far the most innovative aspect of HF4Y is its overall goal of supporting wellness and successful growth into adulthood, rather than simply meeting basic needs.

This is the crux of the Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) concept – that it is not enough to house youth experiencing homelessness, but it is necessary to provide them with ongoing supports to ensure they have a successful transition to adulthood. We have to realize that many youth who have been, or who are currently homeless lack experience and the necessary life skills to live independently, which means that they need solutions that are built to last. That’s where HF4Y comes in.

With the release of the THIS is Housing First for Youth program model guide, we are reminded that although there are programs in place around the world, not everyone is familiar with HF4Y. So, let’s take a closer look at what it is and is not:

What is HF4Y?

HF4Y can be seen as an intervention model, or a program, or even a guiding philosophy. It is a rights-based approach that immediately provides young people (aged 13-24) who are homeless or at-risk of becoming so with housing and personalized supports based on their individual needs. HF4Y can also be taken a step further and adapted into a homelessness prevention model, or a way to support young people leaving corrections, care, or mental health facilities.

HF4Y was developed from the original Pathways model for adults which, as the At Home/Chez Soi project research found, was inadequate at addressing the needs of developing young people. Youth homelessness is distinct from adult homelessness and demands distinct solutions. Thus, the HF4Y model was developed in partnership with researchers, service providers, policy makers, and youth with lived experience of homelessness, who all agreed that simply applying the adult Housing First model to young people would not achieve their goals. A new model was needed, with new principles that were concerned entirely with youth.

To that end, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada led an extensive consultation process on HF4Y in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The feedback received led to the resulting core principles that are at the heart of the new program model guide:

Core Principles

  • A right to housing with no preconditions

  • Youth choice, youth voice, and self-determination

  • Positive youth development and wellness orientation

  • Individualized, client-driven supports with no time limits

  • Social inclusion and community integration

Housing first for youth banner
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A fundamental aspect of all Housing First models, including HF4Y, is providing housing without first demanding that individuals prove they are “ready” (typically through abstaining from substance use). Everyone is ready for a home.

When it comes to providing housing, it is so important that young people have options available to them; of course, there are limits to these choices, as there would be for anyone looking a home, but the basic idea is that youth must have a hand in deciding where they want to live, whether or not they want a roommate, and other housing-related concerns. This can be tricky in tight housing markets, but one of the pillars of the HF4Y approach is choice.

In a similar sense, youth with lived experiences must be directly involved in developing and implementing housing solutions. After all, who knows more about what youth experiencing homelessness need from a system than young people who have experienced it firsthand?

Youth will require supports for various lengths of time, based on the seemingly obvious fact that everyone progresses to adulthood at their own pace. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some youth will need little to no support once they have been housed, while others may need support for many years to come. HF4Y recognizes the problems with assigning arbitrary dates to recovery, which is why it has no time limits. It should be noted, however, that participation in any HF4Y program is based on participants adhering to two conditions: a youth must agree to weekly visits or contact with a caseworker, and if a youth has a source of income, they are expected to contribute up to 30% to the cost of rent.

What Housing First for Youth is NOT!

Aligning your program model with the core principles outlined above is crucial if you want to call it Housing First for Youth.  The reason we emphasize THIS is HF4Y is to clearly distinguish it from other program models that provide housing and supports for youth.  For instance, mainstream approaches to HF that simply accept clients under the age of 25 and nod towards the needs of young adults (hiring a youth worker as a case manager), but which otherwise does not follow the core principles outlined in our framework is NOT HF4Y.  It is Housing First with young clients.  Evidence from At Home / Chez Soi shows this approach does not lead to compelling results.

Likewise, programs that offer housing and supports, but have in place conditions (housing and supports are not separated; time limits and graduation, etc.) or which simply house youth and then hand off supports to another organization, are not HF4Y programs.  Housing models with high case loads (20 or more) are offering light supports, and also don’t fit the program model.  So, while there is room for adaptation of course, but the name Housing First for Youth can only be applied where there is a high degree of alignment with the program model, core principles, and models of accommodation and support we identify.


Almost 20% of all individuals experiencing homelessness in Canada are young people – obviously, our existing systems are failing to adequately address their needs. If we are to improve and prevent youth homelessness, we need effective and achievable solutions; the HF4Y model described in “THIS is HF4Y” is effective, as it has been specifically designed for the needs of youth, and achievable if we collaborate across sectors and communities to bring the best practices forward.

It’s time for us to make the shift to a system that respects a young person’s right to a home, to make choices in their own lives, and to progress to adulthood at their own pace. It’s time for Housing First for Youth.


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 second installment of the series; to read the first installment, click here.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
October 10, 2017

We believe we can prevent and end youth homelessness. To support this goal, the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (MTS) was launched in April 2017 to build an evidence base on effective practices for Canada. Our aim is to learn from and support communities and policy-makers in shifting our national response to youth homelessness, from one that is over-reliant on shelters and emergency services, to one favouring prevention and Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) measures. MTS is a multi-year, collaborative effort that is funded by the Government of Canada’s Skills Link program (Employment and Social Development Canada).

Making the Shift banner
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Our overall, long-term goal, is for young people to thrive – for each to be able to make healthy transitions to adulthood, strengthened by stable housing and desired supports (including family and/or other natural supports).  


With the completion of the At Home/Chez Soi study, recently conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, research has already demonstrated the positive effects of the Pathways Housing First model for adults; however, those findings are inconclusive for youth. So, while international experience and limited community practice present some emerging evidence on the effectiveness of HF4Y, we need to know more – specifically about why and how this approach leads to better youth-specific outcomes. The same can be said for prevention program models. We need a strong evidence base, situated within the Canadian context, on specific, proven approaches to support young people to avert homelessness. This is where MTS comes in.   

Effective decision making requires a solid evidence base, which is why a long-term goal of MTS is to establish a strong evidence base for HF4Y and models of prevention in Canada. This base can then be used to inform public policy and investment. Working with community partners, MTS is launching demonstration projects in communities across Ontario and Alberta, while supporting each site with rigorous research and evaluation efforts. Demonstration projects enable us to determine whether or not a proposed policy or intervention works, by asking questions like: Does each project address the needs of those being served? What adaptations may be needed? What can other communities learn from these interventions? In these demonstration projects, each community site will have a specific focus, with a dedicated research and evaluation team to track the data and learning from program participants and community partners implementing the programs.

MTS Partnerships

MTS is a collaborative project. Here are the partners that make it happen, together:

  • A Way Home Canada (AWH) is a national coalition dedicated to preventing, reducing, and ending youth homelessness in Canada.

  • The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is a non-profit and non-partisan research institute that is committed to finding solutions to homelessness.

  • MaRS Centre for Impact Investing is a leader of the growing impact investing market in Canada.

  • Provinces of Alberta and Ontario are provincial leaders in youth homelessness: Alberta has a 10-year plan to combat homelessness and is the first province to have a plan to prevent and reduce youth homelessness specifically; Ontario, meanwhile, has identified youth homelessness as a priority area for its multi-year homelessness strategy.

  • Community partners across Alberta and Ontario where youth-serving agencies have signed on to implement the demonstration projects. These and other community partners have also contributed to the ‘THIS is Housing First for Youth’ model program guide and the Family and Natural Supports Program Model Framework.

Phase One: Demonstration Projects

Due to its size and scale, MTS has been divided into phases. In Phase One (2017-2019), community demonstration projects implementing HF4Y, Family and Natural Supports Program models, and Youth Reconnect are starting up in 10 communities: Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie, and Fort McMurray. Each community has youth-serving organizations that are committed to pilot testing these program models. Overall, more than 1,300 youth and their families will participate in the demonstration projects.

Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa will pilot test the HF4Y model with different areas of focus: in Hamilton, the project will focus on Indigenous-led care for Indigenous youth; in Toronto, the focus will be on youth exiting care; and in Ottawa, the project will work with youth currently experiencing homelessness.

The Family and Natural Supports Program projects will take place in several communities across Alberta and Ontario and will strive to show that early interventions have a positive impact on the lives of young people at-risk of, or experiencing homelessness. In addition, Hamilton will host a demonstration project on Youth Reconnect, another early intervention model supporting young people who, though not at home, are able to remain within their communities, supported by numerous other community connections.


The Making The Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab is taking a fresh approach to preventing and ending youth homelessness. Through working collaboratively, bringing practice, research and evaluation together, we are seeking to create an evidence base to inform future policies and programs. Simultaneously, we will develop resources and mobilize knowledge so that community partners across the country can access needed information to deliver effective support. We believe that if we work together, we can dramatically shift the way we address youth homelessness at the community, provincial, and national level.

Keep an eye out for more information on MTS’s next steps and the next installment of this blog series.


The “THIS is…” blog series is a look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. We will be adding new blogs to the series every month.

A Way Home
October 05, 2017

Some might think it a bit extreme to push a shopping cart across the entire country through every kind of season and weather, but Joe Roberts believes that we have to do “whatever it takes” to prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada.

Joe Roberts during his campaign across Canada
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Joe started his campaign a number of years ago with a trial run, where he walked from Calgary to Vancouver. After that, he knew it was possible to actualize his vision to push a modified shopping cart, often a symbol of homelessness, across Canada. Joe and his campaign team set out from Newfoundland on May 1, 2016 and concluded this epic journey in British Columbia just last week on Friday, September 29. A Way Home Canada’s team was there to celebrate this feat, along with team members from Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Raising the Roof (our partners in delivering The Upstream Project, supported in part by The Push for Change).

When I first met Joe and his wife Marie, who is also the campaign director for The Push, I knew that they understood something fundamental about youth homelessness. They could see that as a complex, fusion policy issue, the only effective response is to build a movement that works across the systems that drive young people into homelessness, and that by necessity, must be part of the solutions. Back then, A Way Home was only in its formative stage, but we could easily see that The Push for Change would be an important coalition member in our efforts to elevate this issue and begin to invest in prevention. With every kilometer walked, with every community or school engagement along the way, Joe and the campaign team did just that—helped us build this growing movement for change.

The Push for Change campaign covered over 9,100 kilometers and participated in more than 400 community and school events since May, 2016. After such an incredible journey, you might think Joe is ready to take a break, but Joe and Marie are working with us to plan the future of The Push for Change, and have already invested heavily in a legacy of youth homelessness prevention. One of the most effective engagement strategies has involved both trade unions and police. The support from these entities across the country has set the stage for future partnership on the issue.

The Push for Change shows us that anything is possible and confirms what Dr. Stephen Gaetz always says: we can end youth homelessness in Canada, if we want to.

The Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital
October 04, 2017

What happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Surprisingly, while there have been many studies on what drives young people to the streets and what keeps them there, there have been very few studies designed to follow young people in their journey off the streets.

In March 2015, I began 10 months of intense field work, hanging out with nine young people who had recently left the shelter system in Toronto, Canada and moved into market rent housing. My goal was relatively simple: I wanted formerly homeless young people to help me understand what kinds of things they needed in order to achieve meaningful social integration. In other words, if our society is a big circle and the young people were standing on the edge, how can we help them move inside the circle and feel like they belong?

The Study

All of the young people who participated in the study were living in Toronto and paying market rent prices. Most lived alone in rooming houses or basement suites. The majority were unemployed and receiving welfare supplements. Six of the young people had completed high school, which is significant given only about 35% of young people experiencing homelessness in Canada have completed high school (Gaetz, O’Grady, Kidd, & Schwan, 2016).

Most of the young people were enrolled in the study for six to nine months. During that time, we would meet one-on-one, every other week, wherever it was convenient for them to meet. We would meet  at their new homes or close by most of the time, but sometimes they would take me to other places like their schools, places of employment, where they grew up, or places they liked to hang out. I purposely did not use a car during the study because I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to navigate a city of 2.8 million people on foot or public transit in all different kinds of weather. By the end of the study, I had met with most participants 13 to 19 times.

Study Findings 

As I conducted my fieldwork, I saw first-hand how social structures can be oppressive, positioning people in ways that make it remarkably challenging to move forward, despite the outside appearance of housing stability.

Three major findings emerged from the study:

1.     Chronic precarity

  • All of the young people lived below the poverty line for the entire study with most existing on welfare supplements of less than $8,000/year. After paying rent and purchasing a transit pass, most were left with just $36.00/month.
  • Even though most of the youth had graduated from high school, the only jobs that were available to them were part-time, minimum wage, seemingly dead-end jobs. And when they did start working, welfare would claw back their meager incomes.
  • Mainstream connections to people who could help participants get ahead vs. get by were either non-existent or extremely limited.

 2.     Identity evolution

  • The young people were eager to distance themselves from identities of homelessness and wanted to be seen as responsible, competent emerging adults. Unfortunately, many of the supports available to them were located in homeless shelters, reminding them of their old identities as homeless youth.
  • Participants’ identities were fragile because they were mostly linked to tangible things that could easily be taken away (like their homes). Participants had limited intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

 3.     Mastery and control undermined

  • The young people used up most of their energy on day-to-day survival instead of long-term planning. Limited intangible identity-based assets meant the young people became easily discouraged and exhausted.
  • Being unable to participate financially in our consumer-oriented culture made the young people feel even more inadequate.
  • Ironically, the move away from the shelter and into mainstream society highlighted to participants that life was going to be much more challenging for them than for other young people the same age.
    diagram of a person walking inside a wheel that is placed in a house
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The Hamster Wheel of Poverty

I sketched this picture one day, when I was having trouble representing my findings through words. The person in the picture is housed, but is trapped in a “hamster wheel” of poverty, not moving forward despite spinning. The coloured sections inside the wheel are meant to depict the game spinner from the popular Game of Life board game representing that, for the study participants, successful outcomes in the mainstream seemed more up to chance rather than something they could control. 


The young people who participated in this research showed me how challenging it can be for formerly homeless youth to move beyond day-to-day survival even after they obtain housing. Given most young people leaving homelessness will eventually end up in market rent accommodations, we need to pay attention to the findings from this study. If we truly want to prevent homelessness from reoccurring, we must provide youth leaving homelessness with all the resources and opportunities they need to integrate into the mainstream. These include:

  • Subsidized housing
  • Moving transition-related supports to less stigmatizing locations
  • More opportunities to earn a living wage
  • Free post-secondary education with no welfare claw backs
  • Subsidized or free transit passes
  • Outreach staff training on enhancing intangible identity-based assets such as a sense of purpose and control, self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • A concerted effort to connect formerly homeless young people with those in much better socioeconomic circumstances


So what happens to young people experiencing homelessness once they become housed? Well, according to the results from this study, most live a precarious existence, not really feeling like they belong, and one small misstep away from ending up homeless again. We must move beyond defining success for young people experiencing homelessness as the attainment of market rent housing and a minimum wage job or welfare supplements. These amazing young people deserve the same things we want for our own children – a life filled with purpose and meaning, and a chance to belong.


A Critical Examination of Homeless Youth Transitions to Independent Housing: Youth Perspectives on Homelessness Prevention is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see



Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Kidd, S., & Schwan, K. (2016). Without a home: The national youth homelessness survey. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.

A Way Home Canada
September 28, 2017

More than 850,000 people turn to food banks to make ends meet every month, according to Food Banks Canada. This means each month, too many Canadians are forced to choose between buying groceries and paying the rent, when no one should have to make such a choice.

When talking about hunger, it’s important to note that “hunger” and “food insecurity” carry two very different meanings. Hunger refers to the physiological state of pain and weakness an individual experiences as a result of a lack of food. On the other hand, food insecurity is a state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited. Food insecurity, whether chronic, seasonal or temporary, leads to serious nutritional consequences and negative health outcomes. The individual-level physiological experience of hunger is closely tied to, and often results from, food insecurity.

There is currently a growing movement to raise awareness about the solvable problem of hunger in Canada. Last week marked Hunger Awareness Week, where food banks across the country host events to tell the stories of their work and of those who use food banks.

Hunger from a global perspective

Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity and hunger; hunger exists because poverty exists.

World hunger, after a decade-long decline, spiked last year. Despite the UN’s goal of eliminating global hunger by 2030, 11 % of the world’s population experienced hunger every day in 2016. This is the first time there has been increase in world hunger since the turn of the century.

According to the UN’s The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in 2017 report, both conflict and climate change are key drivers of food insecurity. Of the 815 million chronically food-insecure and malnourished people in the world, the vast majority – 489 million people –live in countries affected by conflict

Who uses food banks in Canada? 

Canadians who visit food banks come from all backgrounds. They include families with children, individuals living on social assistance or fixed income, and employed people whose low wages do not cover basic living essentials. The latest Hunger Count captured a snapshot of food bank users in Canada:

  • Across the country, children and youth are overrepresented among people helped by food banks; while people under age 18 account for 19% of the Canadian population, they make up 36% of individuals receiving food assistance.
  • Families with children make up nearly half of households helped by food banks. Lone-parent households and their children are still one of Canada's most economically vulnerable groups. Though they make up only 10% of all Canadian households, they account for 22% of food bank users. 
  • While 7% of households helped by food banks have no income at all, food bank use is high among both working and unemployed Canadians. In fact, 1 in 6 households helped by food banks are currently or recently employed. Additionally, many people are struggling on fixed incomes:
    •   45% of households assisted are on social assistance
    •   18% receive disability-related income supports
    •   8% receive the majority of their income from a pension.
  • Single people make up 28% of all Canadian households, but account for 44% of households helped by food banks, an increase from 39% in 2008.
  • Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity; nearly half of food bank clients in Canada receive welfare as welfare rates in Canada fall below the poverty line and do not ensure food security. Additionally, 13% of people helped by food banks are immigrants and refugees.
  • People that receive disability support are another large group of food bank clients, accounting for one in five households helped by food banks as disability support is often not enough to help clients feed themselves.
  • Currently, seniors account for 4.3% of food bank users. Canada has a rapidly aging society and life expectancy is increasing. If current disability programs and rates do not improve there is an expected rise in food insecurity for this demographic. 

food banks Canada infographic: 1 in 6 people assisted by food banks are employed
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It should be noted the national picture of food bank use tends to be strongly influenced by the larger urban centres like Toronto, which can obscure the reality in small towns. Hunger is a reality for tens of thousands of the Canada’s rural residents as well. In small towns and rural areas, people accessing food banks tend to be slightly older and slightly more likely to be living on a pension. Moreover, the proportion of Indigenous Peoples accessing food banks in rural areas, at 29% of the total, is significantly higher than the national average.

Hunger and malnutrition 

As food is one of the most flexible household expenses, and it is often nutrition that suffers when money is tight. When resources for food become scarce and people’s means to access nutritious food diminish, they often rely on less-healthy, denser food choices that can lead to overweight and obesity. Therefore, food insecurity and obesity often co-exist. Many countries still face high levels of undernutrition, but they are now also experiencing an increasing burden of people suffering from obesity and diabetes.

Additionally, food insecurity and poor nutrition during pregnancy and childhood are associated with metabolic adaptations that increase the risk of numerous negative outcomes, including impaired cognitive ability, weakened performance at school and obesity in later life.

Initiatives to reduce the need for food banks

Hunger, as a symptom of poverty, is a structural problem; the world produces enough food to feed everyone. Sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty require a mix of system-based policies aimed at improving the incomes and income security of poor Canadians, such as raising social assistance rates and minimum wages, improving access to employment insurance and developing a national child care system.

To significantly reduce the need for food banks in Canada, the Hunger Count report recommends a national poverty strategy, a basic liveable income and new investments in Northern food security.

The federal government is currently developing the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, to reduce poverty and improve the economic well being of all Canadian families. To learn more about the plans, including consultations with Canadians across the country and establishing a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Poverty, visit




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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.