Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
February 28, 2018

As a member of the Making the Shift team, I’ve noticed a curious sort of trend: quite often, when I start talking about the importance of “youth choice” in the context of youth homelessness service delivery, people falter. It seems to me that many people are intrigued by the idea in theory but then get stuck on how it could possibly work out in practice. And I can understand that – it’s not opposition to young people having choices, it’s just hard to picture how it would work: What choices would youth be making? How would options be presented to them? Wouldn’t this just slow down the service system more? These – and other concerns along similar lines – are important questions to ask ourselves, as long as we don’t let our underlying concerns overpower the potential to dramatically improve the lives of young people.

For anyone who has been following along in this blog series, you’ll probably recognize “youth choice” as a Core Principle in the Housing First for Youth ethos. For any new readers (welcome!) or anyone who needs a refresher, let’s take a closer look at what we’re talking about here.

What do we mean by “Youth Choice”?

To be frank, youth choice is exactly what it sounds like: young people having the opportunity to make decisions that are pertinent to their own lives. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Of course, it gets more complicated when applied to young people who are vulnerable to, or experiencing, homelessness; these youth may not be given many chances to make decisions. This may arise from an existing service system that was not designed to emphasize choice, or from a possible habit among adults to infantilize younger adults and adolescents – which can manifest in the widely-held assumption that youth can’t make their own decisions, or won’t make ones that are positive and in their “best interests.” Young people are just as deserving as their older counterparts to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have their rights upheld. Not only that, but decisions made and driven by youth are bound to be impactful, as youth can draw on their own experiences and knowledge about what they need. Young people have a right to voice their preferences and choose options that work best for them; after all, they know themselves best! This can lead to greater success, since youth are more likely to be invested in following through on choices they are involved in, and that they believe will work for them.

Part of why youth choice is so important is that it helps youth develop critical thinking skills that are essential to adult life. Choices can only really be made when youth are informed, so it is necessary to support them to retain the necessary knowledge and critical thinking to be able to make an informed decision. This could be anything from providing background information on a topic, to weighing in on pros-and-cons, to advising a youth about what choice you would make in their position and why. It can also be supporting youth in making a decision that you don’t necessarily agree with.

This brings us to a fundamental pillar of youth choice: youth must lead the work. They are the ones to choose when they are ready to begin specific services, what issues they want to work on first (or at all), and who they want to be involved in their journey. This last point can be most clearly seen in family and natural supports work, where young people decide for themselves who counts as family and who does not, regardless of biological ties. It is highly likely that youth will want to work on one challenge, or with one support, a time, building their skills and resilience over time to tackle larger challenges. This process will need to take place within a context of safety and support for the youth.

Limits to Youth Choice

One huge caveat here is the fact that there are limits to youth choice, as there are for everyone else making choices. It’s important to not mistake choices with desires or wishes; just because a youth wants something does not mean they will automatically get it. Choices have to be curbed to realistic and attainable options. For example, a young person’s “choice” to live in their own apartment without roommates in the most expensive area in town is likely not an attainable option. Instead, one might encourage them to consider living with roommates or expanding their search to more affordable neighbourhoods. The essential part is that they are still involved in making the choices, as long as such choices are appropriate for them to make.

Appropriateness is one of the limits to choice that are common among the youth population; factors like age, stage of development, and any potential delays must be considered. While we say “youth,” the reality is that there is quite an age gap between young teenagers and early twenty-somethings. What’s appropriate for a young teen may not be the same as what’s appropriate for a young adult; as young people age and mature, they should be encouraged to take on more of their own decisions. Every individual matures in different ways, so there are no set rules for choice related to age.

Limits related to potential developmental or cognitive delays are trickier to pin down, but are so important to think about – even though a youth might be a certain age, their cognitive abilities may be different than their peers. This certainly will impact the types of choices that young people can make. However, care must still be taken to ensure that youth are involved in decision-making in their own lives.

How Can Youth Choice Be Implemented Practically and Effectively?

When we talk about youth choice, it is often in the context of service delivery – that youth are to take part in choosing services they may require and where they would like to receive said services. This is a great place to start because it is relatively simple to ease elements of youth choice into existing service delivery models. Youth can actively engage in setting their own goals and contribute to developing programs they feel will benefit them, for example. In housing programs, youth can explore the different models of accommodation (transitional housing, supportive housing, scatter-site, etc.) and consider which option they would prefer. When developing new programs for youth, it is crucial that flexibility is built into the design so youth would be able to join or leave the program as they choose.  

It is important to note that, in a practical sense, youth must have the freedom to change their mind after making a decision and to try something else. As discussed earlier, young people are developing their decision-making (and life) skills and so they will need some space to make mistakes and learn from them. Not everyone will get it right on their first try and that’s okay! Failure is a natural part of life and we all experience it. Encouragement from supportive adults can help a youth learn from a setback or failure and develop their personal coping skills and resiliency.  


So, after this careful study of what youth choice is, isn’t, and could be, what are we left with? Hopefully, with the sense that youth choice is not daunting or overwhelming, and, far more importantly, that it is achievable – and even desirable – to implement across youth-serving systems. There are so many benefits to including youth in decision-making processes, both at the individual level (such as building life skills and resiliency) and the systems level (such as increasing youth engagement en masse) that, it would honestly be tough to list them all here. If nothing else, implementing a youth choice policy is an excellent and clear example of respecting youth as autonomous beings who are capable of making choices; specifically, choices that they determine are best for themselves and their own needs.

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 fifth installment in the blog series; click to read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.

A Way Home
February 21, 2018

In 2013, a handful of Canadian national and local partners working on housing and homelessness came together with the support of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation to launch a national pilot project called “Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness (MLC).” The intent of the pilot was to support up to 10 communities, with populations of 50,000 - 200,000, to craft and implement plans to prevent and end youth homelessness. The MLC was in response to growing recognition that communities must have targeted strategies to address youth homelessness embedded in their community strategies on homelessness writ large. These targeted youth strategies must also respond to the needs of developing adolescents and necessitate a focus on prevention. 

Fast forward to 2018: a lot has happened to move the dial on ending youth homelessness in Canada since then. Those original MLC partners realized we needed to “go big” on the issue of youth homelessness, so we launched A Way Home Canada. Almost overnight, communities, states and even countries around the world took our lead and launched their own A Way Home coalitions. This growing international movement for change has its roots in the recognition that we must invest in prevention, and we also need to work across the systems that drive young people into homelessness to ensure they are part of the solutions. As a national coalition, everything we do is through the lens of Collective Impact, and on the ground, we support communities across the country to do the same.

One of the best examples of Collective Impact I’ve seen in action at the community level is in Kingston, Ontario. Kingston was one of the first MLC pilot project communities. Over the last five years, with leadership from the United Way KFLA, Kingston has done the heavy lifting of not only developing a strategy, but implementing that strategy. Now Kingston is starting to see the fruits of their labour manifest in positive results for young people! They’re moving the dial on the issue of youth homelessness, and in the process, sharing their rich learning with the rest of us. Here is their recent report that illustrates just what’s happening!

I recently had the opportunity to ask Bhavana Varma, President & CEO of the United Way KFLA, a few questions about their fantastic efforts in Kingston.


Q: Why did your community decide to prioritize youth homelessness?

A: Our United Way had facilitated the development of a community plan on homelessness a couple of times and, in each plan, we noted the need to address youth homelessness. It was only when we signed up to be a pilot with MLC, that we started looking at the data and realized we needed to have a targeted approach. Speaking to youth who had experienced homelessness, and learning more about the issue from our community partners, reinforced the need to address the issue and it was their conversations that compelled us to proceed with the development and implementation of the plan to end youth homelessness.  

Q: What do you think were key drivers for your success?

A: The plan was informed and developed by the voice of youth; this was critical to understanding the issue and potential solutions. Secondly, the support of community partners and their engagement – agencies, school boards, municipal government, and representatives from all sectors – has a significant impact on the plan’s success. We were also fortunate to get funding at the start (Innoweave) that enabled us to provide dedicated backbone coordination and funding to support the development of an education and awareness campaign. Using the Collective Impact model has enabled us to work collaboratively on this issue, using our collective efforts to understand and address the root causes of this issue. All these factors contributed to our success.  

Q: What are some of the key lessons learned?

A: Some of the key lessons learned are:

  • Listening! The importance of listening to people who are impacted by an issue -  the voice of youth is critical in framing the issue and the solutions that flow from this collective work. Not being a service provider ourselves helped us bring our amazing frontline agencies together to listen to their solutions and ideas. 
  • Funding is important – as a fundraiser and a funder, it was helpful to be able to find and invest resources to implement the pilot programs and the strategies developed through the process.
  • Being flexible and willing to change course as and when needed. The Collective Impact process can be messy and challenging at times. As we headed down one direction, we sometimes learned that we needed to course-correct; allowing that to happen made all the difference. 
  • Allow more time than you anticipate. We heard this piece of advice early on in the process and quickly learned that we need to allow ourselves time; this helped us continue the momentum and move forward.

Q: Where does Kingston go from here?

A: While we have had many successes, we still have areas we need to continue to work through. We are in the process of developing strategies to address rural youth homelessness. We are looking at addressing some barriers that were identified by youth through the course of the initiative, and hope to do some ground breaking work on how to help youth facing crises, youth with mental health issues. We are also starting the process of learning more about issues facing Indigenous youth and are giving ourselves time to understand the best way to go about this. 


Thanks so much to Bhavana and team for sharing these important insights. Over the coming months, we will continue to shine the spotlight on communities that are moving the dial on youth homelessness. Through shared learning and mutual support, we can all go further faster to ensure that every young person in Canada has what they need and deserve to thrive!

Read the United Way KFLA’s latest report on Youth Homelessness:


“Most people intuitively understand that it is better to prevent a bad thing from happening – cancer, car accidents, etc. – than to deal with the consequences.”

For more than two decades, emergency services in the forms of soup kitchens and shelters, have been the dominant response to homelessness. While these services are important in helping meet people’s immediate needs, it does not have the effect of reducing and ending homelessness. In fact, these responses can trap people in homelessness and make it very difficult to become safely and securely housed.  

In the last decade, Canadian policies and practices have begun to shift from managing homelessness to finding solutions. A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention “provides a starting place for a national conversation about how to think about responding to homelessness in a different way; one in which we also seek to shut the front door.” The Framework maps out the evidence for preventing homelessness before it begins, or moving people out of homelessness quickly, by providing people with immediate access to housing. Ultimately, prevention efforts are key to bringing an end to homelessness.

What is Homelessness Prevention?

definition of homelessness prevention
Media Folder: 

Homelessness prevention initiatives work to ensure people don’t experience homelessness. It is made up of policies and strategies that impact homelessness at the structural and systemic levels, as well as early intervention practices that address individual and situational factors.

The public health model of prevention, developed in the 1940s by Leavell and Clark, is a useful way to think about how prevention works. This model has been used in health care and health promotion to prevent cancer, diabetes, strokes, and smoking, to name a few. Later, it was adapted to prevent societal issues, such as crime and violence. Likewise, the Framework adapts the public health model to guide the implementation of homelessness prevention.   

What Are We Trying to Prevent?

It is crucial that we understand the various, complex and interconnected causes of homelessness so that we can direct legislation, policy, and practices appropriately. The causes to homelessness can be broken down into three categories:

First, there are structural factors, such as economic and societal issues that affect opportunities, environments, and outcomes for individuals. This includes poverty, discrimination, lack of affordable housing, and the impact of colonialism on Indigenous Peoples.

Second, there are systems failures, where systems of support are inadequately delivered. Barriers to accessing public systems (health, social services, and legal supports), and failed transitions from publically funded institutions (child welfare, hospitals, and corrections) are examples of systems failures.

Third, there are individual and relational factors where personal circumstances, such as crises (like sudden unemployment or a house fire), mental health and addiction, housing insecurity, and interpersonal violence, can lead to homelessness.  

Who’s Responsible?

For homelessness prevention to be successful, several sectors must take responsibility and work together. The homeless sector, such as non-profit organizations, are often seen as being solely responsible for homelessness. But in order to actually prevent homelessness, we need other systems to reach out to and support people before they are in crisis. Sectors like the health, justice, child protection, housing, and education systems, all have a major role to play in housing stability.  

Homelessness prevention strategies include multiple systems and all forms of government, and collaboration between different departments and institutions to address the drivers of homelessness.       

Prevention Works

Research on homelessness prevention demonstrates that prevention strategies succeed in reducing homelessness. For example, Pawson’s evaluation of prevention strategies in Scotland found that tenancy supports, such as landlord mediation, housing advice, and family mediation, greatly contributed to decreases in eviction. Furthermore, research shows the effectiveness of discharge planning and transitional supports from mental health hospitals, correctional facilities, and shelters as homelessness prevention strategies.

There is also research aimed at particular populations that detail essential preventative approaches, such as women experiencing intimate partner violence, and school-based early intervention strategies for Youth, such as Host Homes in the UK and the Reconnect Program and Geelong Project in Australia. The Geelong project is currently being adapted to the Canadian context in the Upstream Project.

It’s Worth It

Rather than continuously investing in short-term solutions, it makes more sense to assist individuals experiencing homelessness access adequate, affordable and safe housing. Homelessness costs the Canadian economy at least $7.01 billion annually. To put this in perspective, according to the Wellesley Institute’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, “the average monthly costs of housing people while they are homeless are $1,932 for a shelter bed, $4,333 for provincial jail, or $10,900 for a hospital bed. This can be compared with the average monthly cost to the City of Toronto for rent supplements ($701) or social housing ($199.92).”

Preventing homelessness is cost-effective. Research shows that preventive measures could reduce the public cost of addressing homelessness from $56,000 (CDN) per person annually, to $14,924. From this, overall savings in terms of government expenditures could be almost $600 million (CDN) if 40,000 people were prevented from becoming homeless for one year.

It’s a Human Right

Taken together, homelessness prevention doesn’t only make sense financially; an affordable, safe, and adequate home is also a human right. Many governments, including Canada, are signatories to international treaties and covenants that outline access to housing are human rights. For example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that all signatory states must “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

Final Note

When we know that there are things we can do so that people avoid experiencing homelessness, how can we wait? Ending homelessness means working together to ensure that people are quickly, safely, and adequately housed and supported.



University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
February 14, 2018

UPDATED! Thanks to donor support, HelpSeeker is now free for all programs and users! If you want your program on this resource, go to to sign up.

There is no doubt that technology advances over the past 20 years have revolutionized our lives. This impact has sunk entire business sectors, and has given birth to sectors that were just science fiction to some growing up before personal computers. Strategic planning in corporate boardrooms nowadays are prefaced with statements akin to, “How do we become Amazon and avoid turning into Sears?”

Yet, for as much impact as technology is having in some aspects of our lives, we have been painfully slow to truly unleash its potential to solve our social challenges. Imagine the impact if we put a fraction of the effort being spent in innovation to create business intelligence tools to monitor sales or pipeline output into poverty, homelessness, violence, etc.

Big Data, augmented reality, and machine learning remain foreign concepts for our sector – yet these are poised to restructure the very nature of work and social relations. It is essential that we reimagine our work in light of these innovations.

Fig. 1: Do people experiencing homelessness have mobile phones? 

graphs on homelessness and cellphones
Media Folder: 

So, what’s this got to do with preventing and ending homelessness?

Some of our most basic assumptions about reaching those in need must be rethought leveraging technology. Take for instance the use of smartphones amongst those living in poverty and homelessness. A recent study on homeless adults found that 94% currently owned a cellphone and 97% had owned one in the last 3 months, with over half (58%) being smartphones. In comparison, 95% of the general population use cellphones, and 59% of them are smartphones (Rhoades, Wenzel, Winetrobe & Henwood).

Similarly, InfoExchange reported that 95% percent of people who are homeless have mobile phones, and 80% of those have smartphones. Nearly every homeless person has a cellphone, therefore access to technology is no longer a barrier. We no longer live in the day and age of phonebooks, referral guides, and faxed forms; it’s time to move our sector into the 21st century. 

How many times have you heard from those with lived experience or those trying to help them of the difficulties of finding appropriate resources, supports, and services? Yet we can open up our smartphones and narrow down to the ‘highest rated Thai restaurant, averaging under $20 a meal, within 200m’ of our current location. Why can this same notion not be applied to those in need? The disparity of access amongst those in need of help is no longer acceptable given the technology we have at our fingertips. 

App-Based Solutions to Service Access

helpseeker logo
Media Folder: 

An elegant solution to the challenge of navigating complex eligibility criteria, location, services provided, population targeted, etc. is offered by a simple app. I developed HelpSeeker as a web-based app to help anyone in search of services and programs, whether these are shelter, housing, education, counselling, health services, domestic abuse, bullying, recreation, etc. It’s operated by Turner Innovations, a social enterprise spinoff of Turner Strategies, to solve the most common challenge I encounter across Canadian communities I work in: helping people find the right help at the right time.

As a web-based app, it is compatible with all platforms (iPhone, Android, Desktop) and utilizes geo-locations and filters to best match users with relevant real-time services. The app is free for anyone to use anywhere on iPhone and Android versions are being launched in April 2018. 

Users are provided with all programs in an immediate radius of them, which they can filter to ensure relevant services and programs. Importantly, users have the opportunity to provide feedback to the service provider on the app, thus providing programs with real-time feedback from those with lived experience.

Fig.2 - Client view of available organizations and programs within an immediate radius 

helpseeker screenshot
Media Folder: 

HelpSeeker engages programs to register their services, target populations, and locations, which are then made available in a user-friendly app format. Programs sign-up online to be part of app and pay a $10 annual fee to maintain the Canadian server and improve the app. Organizations are given the opportunity to update programs on the admin dashboard to ensure current relevant information is reaching their target clients. To manage and benchmark traffic, the analytics portion of the app gives program administrators data and trend visualization on client and program use. 

Fig. 3 - Admin Dashboard View

helpseeker screenshot
Media Folder: 

Beta Testing in Medicine Hat, AB

The app was launched in Medicine Hat, AB on Jan. 24, 2018 and within 24 hours, there were more than 40 programs signed up, including programs delivered by municipal government, health services, school boards, affordable housing bodies, shelters, food bank, parenting, and prevention programs.

We have learned how important it is to promote uptake across platforms and levels; Medicine Hat leaders mobilized the whole community to adopt the app, including the Mayor & Council, funders, public and non-profit organizations, lived experience, media, and the public at large. 

Learnings in Systems Planning & Integration

In supporting the program sign-up campaigns, we have learned the level of complexity that needs to be sorted for programs to even come onto the app – getting programs onto HelpSeeker becomes an act of systems mapping and planning across public sectors and very diverse non-profits agencies. It shows how critical this work is if we’re going to have an integrated response to complex social challenges that are cross-cutting on the ground – i.e. homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, health and wellbeing, etc.

Connecting Informal and Private Sector Sources of Support

A surprise from implementation was the signing up of programs and services, like pro bono counselling or legal and financial advice from local professionals. We would have never thought of targeting such supports in the app, yet it proved to be an easy way to maintain real-time directories of a range of supports.

Supporting Diverse Communities Regionally

Our next steps are to roll the app out across southern Alberta, including the many medium and smaller rural communities that have very few resources to weave a coordinated network of supports.

If you have an interest in coming on to HelpSeeker, there is no fee or contract to sign up; just follow the links to sign up your program or cruise the site to see how it works in Medicine Hat to get an idea of functionality. If you want to start a sign-up campaign for your entire community to register programs, connect directly


Dr. Alina Turner is the Principal of Turner Strategies, a consulting firm dedicated to accelerating social impact in Calgary, AB. She is also a Fellow with the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.


The Institute of Global Homelessness
February 09, 2018
Tags: IGH Hub

Roughly how many hours per week would you say you spend begging Google for information on housing programs? Looking for toolkits and policy briefs? Tracking down data from a homelessness count or finding voices of lived experience? 

When we asked this question to individuals and organizations in our network, the answers ranged from three hours in a single day to ten in a week. The Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH Hub), a new resource hub for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers working in homelessness, aims to address this problem, smoothing the way for good work to get done more quickly and easily. Launching on Feb. 1, 2018, the IGH Hub is a "one-stop shop" to connect thought leaders, advocates, academics, and on-the-ground experts to one another and to ideas and practice to ease and advance their work.

The IGH Hub was developed over the course of a year, in partnership with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, creators of the successful online library, Homeless Hub, and guided by interviews and user tests by individuals working in homelessness around the world. These sessions influenced everything from the design to proposed content and functionality based on the requests, feedback, and commentary of people working in the field. It is our hope that the IGH Hub will be a resource for and by the people who use it most.

People from every corner of the homelessness field face many of the same challenges when it comes to hunting down the resources they need: difficulty of finding information on websites in foreign languages; wide dispersal of information across hundreds of different websites and journals; research blocked by paywalls; inability to devote the necessary time to independently seeking out new research; and problems searching for region-specific content. 

We are constantly expanding what we know about what works in homelessness, and how to measure the success of local programs. Staying up-to-date on new learning and data can be an overwhelming task, particularly when new innovations and reports are coming from far-away areas of the world.

"The most difficult thing to find is translations of national papers," Anja Bohnsack, of the U.K.-based Depaul International, mused in an interview during the IGH Hub’s planning stage. "You have to get lucky and find local websites writing in your language. It’s difficult if you don’t speak the local language."

In light of this, many people wind up depending on their personal networks to find new information, which can limit their access to what is already widely circulating.

"If I don't know a specific website where I am confident that they will have the answer, I will write an email to my network to ask people directly," said Vit Lesak of the Platform for Social Housing based in Brno, Czech Republic.

But this can take time, and may not turn up anything. In these cases, it's often up to individuals to find resources wherever they can, be it online journals, newspapers, or blogs. This can be especially difficult in regions where research has been less widely published, and resources are scarce. 

Rayna Rusenko, whose research focuses on how social welfare, labor, housing, and homelessness policy shape homelessness globally, recalled finding during her work with homeless communities in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: "while so much information is readily available on homelessness and policy in the U.S., in Malaysia there was close to nothing. And people are really trying to find something.” 

The IGH Hub offers several features to address these kinds of issues:

  • Translation of all IGH Hub webpage content, including introductions and descriptions of resources, into more than 100 languages through Google translation services
  • Functionality that allows users to sort results by topic, by type, and by geographic region
  • Privileging of open access content over paid content, wherever possible
  • Curation and consolidation of research, toolkits, and practice from around the web into one easily-searchable database
  • Easy-to-find links to regional hubs, data, and reports
  • Bi-monthly newsletters featuring new research and highlighting common challenges

There is a gap between what we know globally about good systems to end homelessness, and what information is accessible locally. Opportunities to leverage connections between countries to improve systems get lost. The IGH Hub is designed to take the guesswork out of the finding new research and tools for practice and streamline the process. By finding existing positive practice and brigading evidence to support decision-makers and practitioners, we believe the IGH Hub can be a tool to help make deep systemic change.

 During its initial launch period, the IGH Hub will be adding new content daily, building a comprehensive library of research, practice, and expertise from lived experience around the world. To submit your work, write us at info[at] To find information about the IGH Hub on Twitter, follow @ighomelessness and the hashtag #IGHhub. 



Recent Tweets

Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License

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.