Grounding your Plan in Evidence
You must develop a solid understanding of the body of evidence on youth homelessness and what it takes to end it. This involves not only becoming proficient in the existing research on youth homelessness and available local information, but also taking on additional data collection and analysis if needed. You will need to tap into any available information that can shed light on the local youth homelessness situation by firstly becoming familiar with ‘what’s out there.’
So, what type of information do you need and how do you get it? This will depend on the level of coordination and data sharing in your community, as well as your research and ‘detective’ skills to get a hold of necessary information. However, there are certain pieces of data you will be able to access as a starting point. Use this information to paint a comprehensive picture of community capacity and gaps, which you can confirm in the consultation phases further.
A research agenda
Engage local researchers in the beginning of the process. Researchers can be part of your steering committee or working groups, as noted previously. Consider developing a local research agenda that identifies key research questions, aimed at enhancing your community’s understanding of youth homelessness. Develop the research agenda collaboratively with the community and researchers. The research agenda should support planning and implementation of the plan by addressing gaps in knowledge, developing program evaluation capacity and by bolstering data collection systems and practices.
A common starting point is to host a forum bringing together various researchers from your local universities and colleges, those working in government, public systems and service agencies. Refer to A Way Home for an example of a youth homelessness research agenda: http://awayhome.ca/our-work/research-agenda/. The COH can provide additional examples from Canadian communities, as well as provide support and technical assistance to develop your own research agenda.
You may locate these key sources of information on your own or with the help of your steering committee members and contacts in the community and government. Be comprehensive, but be mindful not to become overwhelmed by information.
Table 15: Information Sources
Local researchers may have already produced an analysis of trends, gaps and resources on youth homelessness that you can use to build your plan. However, it is equally common to find very little synthesized information to help you. In some cases you may need to develop a research initiative, as part of your planning process, to gather critical missing information.
For example, in Wellington County, a report on rural youth homelessness identified the need for a youth-specific strategy and was the impetus for the County to apply to Mobilizing Local Communities for support to develop a youth plan. Their first step was to hold youth focus groups with 60 youth in nine locations across rural Wellington County. A report was generated from these consultations to identify gaps. The planning group synthesized key findings from both reports and two Point-in-Time (PiT) Homeless Counts and brought these findings to a community roundtable for input. In this manner, local research was a key part of the Wellington process to develop a youth plan.
Similarly, in Edmonton, HMIS data and PiT Count reports were mined for youth-specific data, which was in turn used to develop the rationale for the local youth strategy. Edmonton Homeward Trust, who provided backbone supports to the initiative, conducted a literature review that they presented at a planning forum to kick-start the consultation process. Research and data on youth homelessness is important for two reasons. First, you must build a rationale for action. Why should youth homelessness be a local priority? Second, the solutions contained within your plan must be based on evidence. To prioritize youth homelessness, you must have a sense of the issue.
- How many youth are experiencing homelessness?
- What are their needs?
- What are their demographics?
- What are their pathways into homelessness?
- What would work best for whom and when?
- What are emerging trends we need to be aware of?
- What solutions work well?
- What solutions have proven to be less effective?
- How do policies and practices within agencies and government departments impact youth homelessness?
- What is the cost of the status quo?
- What is the cost of resolving the issue?
While existing research can provide some important clues to help you answer these basic questions, the better your local data is, the more likely that your plan is appropriately tailored to make an impact.
In some communities, the lack of available local research has meant that the planning process had to include data collection and analysis. It is not uncommon for communities to undertake a homeless PiT Count during the plan development phase and use the results to inform the process.
This was the case for Saint John, Kingston, Wellington County, Yellowknife and Brandon. For instance, Saint John conducted a youth-focused homeless count that engaged schools and other key stakeholders. The homeless count process can be adapted strategically to simultaneously engage key stakeholders but also gather critical information. Be mindful to adapt the homeless count methods to ensure the youth population is adequately enumerated given the underrepresentation of youth common in the adult shelter system that standard count methodologies tend to focus on.
For more on homeless counts and adapting these for youth, the COH has developed a Youth Count Toolkit. Additional information is available from the Homeless Hub and USISCH and on homeless counts and engaging youth. For rural communities engaging in homeless counts, another useful resource provides information on PiT Count methods, challenges and best practices. Communities that conduct regular homeless counts will have some data on youth; this should be analyzed in a manner consistent with the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness (that is, unaccompanied youth 24 and under).
Administrative data, collected through HIFIS or HMIS, can be effectively leveraged to identify youth shelter and service trends. Such data will be more comprehensive than a homeless count and, where reliable and accurate, should always be your primary data source for analysis. Where administrative is not available, you can solicit local shelters for data on occupancy, service use, demographics, etc. during a designated time period. This can produce useful data to get things started in lieu of formal data management system.
With respect to best practices, it’s important that you don’t reinvent the wheel. There is significant research on best practice programs and strategies for ending youth homelessness; such analyses are readily available online through the Homeless Hub and are even developed as toolkits for communities. Section one outlines best practice resources. In section three, we will delve deeper into promising approaches. Remember, your role is not simply to cut-and-paste such recommended approaches, but to synthesize the available information, consider its relevance to your local context and develop specific solutions that will resolve youth homeless in your community.
Finally, consider these best practices within your local context. For example, it may be best practice to build new affordable housing, but is it realistic given the socioeconomic and political context in your community? Your job is to develop a strategic youth plan that is visionary and grounded in best practice, but can be practically implemented in your community.
You should be looking at government reports and information closely as well. Has child protection undergone a major review recently? Has the Speech from the Throne mentioned vulnerable youth or homelessness? Does the province have strategies for addressing youth in general or, more specifically, youth employment, involvement with the justice system, education engagement and achievement, etc.? Where does youth homelessness fit among government priorities? What are the key policy levers which you can tie the youth plan to? Have other strategies and plans been crafted that have direct intersections with the key systems youth experiencing homelessness may access?
Answer these questions by building on existing relationships with public servants and political allies and strategizing with your planning group. Incorporate a review of existing policy as part of the plan development process and present this information to your steering committee. Through this process you may identify additional stakeholders to consult. This will also provide you with a framework for policy changes and funding requests to support the implementation of the plan.
In your conversations with government representatives, probe for which areas are most likely to garner buy-in, develop an understanding of who’s who and identify the most effective process for advancing change. An excellent example of funding ‘policy levers’ for ending youth homelessness can be found in the Government of Alberta’s Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness: Appendix 1 and 3, which outline how the proposed direction aligns with broader government initiatives and the mandates and of various departments.
If you have committee members who are in government, leverage their expertise. They can point you to information, provide critical background context, facilitate access to reports and introduce you to key contacts. They can also point you in the right direction in terms of building support in government for the plan and advise on how best to approach the right decision makers. Of course, such allies may not be on your formal steering committee; you may have other relationships you can leverage to this end.
As a non-profit organization taking on an advocacy role, you may be diving into unfamiliar territory and may even feel uneasy about being perceived as adversarial to government. Or, you may be concerned about losing charitable status. Familiarize yourself with Canada Revenue Agency’s regulations on charitable advocacy. A useful overview from Imagine Canada is available here.
If you are able to tie your activities and asks to existing government policy and direction, in many ways you are re-affirming their direction rather than ‘calling them out.’ By positioning your asks within existing frameworks, the youth plan can be a means of helping government enact their vision in community. The way you take on policy work should leverage and enhance your relationships with government, rather than strain them. We will look at this further in the coming section on Engaging and Influencing Government.
Aligning with local initiatives
Align with other local initiatives such as broader community plans to end homelessness, poverty reduction plans, additional and mental health strategies, etc. Connecting with such coalitions/lead organizations and developing a sense of their work and potential areas of alignment will help your plan development process while ensuring these groups are informed about your initiative.
When it comes to local homelessness initiatives, it is imperative that you are able to articulate how the youth plan ‘fits’ within the broader goals of the community. Where the potential for misalignment exists, a clear message developed ahead of time can go a long way toward alleviating misunderstandings and tensions in community.
Here are some thorny questions that can arise in these situations, which you may want to think about ahead of time:
- Why do we need a youth plan? We already have a local plan to end homelessness.
- What’s different about a youth plan?
- Won’t this take away from other groups?
- What about other populations, like women or families, do we need a special plan for them too?
As an example, let’s look closely at Alberta, a province with a provincial youth plan in place. Alberta has a broader provincial plan for ending homelessness and all seven cities have local plans to end homelessness, but only Edmonton and Calgary have specific youth plans. Calgary was the first city to develop a youth plan, which was followed by the provincial government’s youth plan in 2015 and then Edmonton’s soon thereafter.
In Calgary’s case, the initial plan was launched in 2011 and positioned as an extension of the Calgary Plan to End Homelessness focused on youth; it was launched as a collaborative endeavour between the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) and the youth sector. However, for a number of reasons, the actual implementation of the proposed actions was limited from 2011 to 2015 and the local youth sector sought to ‘refresh’ the plan given a number of key local changes. There was a general sense from participating stakeholders that the plan did not represent the collective will of the community to the fullest extent.
Since the plan was launched four years ago, considerable changes ensued that needed to be considered as the planning group embarked on the refresh process. These include the launch of the Alberta Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness (2015), which sets provincial policy direction and is driving new dollars to community to respond to the issue as well as the renewed Updated Calgary Plan to End Homelessness (2015). Both of these plans emphasize the critical role community ownership and joint accountability play in order to fully implement priority actions on homelessness.
The change in political leadership in Alberta to an NDP government also presented a unique opportunity to inform a new course for the province around social policy that advances an end to youth homelessness. The provincial youth plan signalled a new level of openness in government around policy and practice changes to advance common objectives, particularly relevant in the work with Child Intervention Services and Corrections.
The 2013 Child and Youth Advocates Special Report and the Human Services, Child and Family Services Division’s work on a revisioned Child Intervention Practice Framework point to significant reform underway at a systems level around natural supports and transitions that aligns with our ending youth homelessness objectives. At a regional level, Calgary and Area Child and Family Service’s work on developing a Permanency Framework, rolling out Outcomes-based Service Delivery and implementing the Signs of Safety approach further affirmed the need for re-thinking the local approach to ending and preventing youth homelessness leveraging this direction at the system level.
The work on the ground has also shifted as new learning emerges, particularly around family reunification, prevention and healthy transitions. There is unprecedented data and research available to inform a renewed direction and there are new partners at the youth sector table.
As a result, the planning group working on refreshing the youth plan undertook an initial policy scan to assist them in identifying levers for their work. The table below summarizes the key policy directions they identified with relevance to the youth plan refresh.
Table 16: Policy Lever Analysis Example
Service system mapping
Mapping out the current service system for youth experiencing homelessness will give you a good starting place for understanding current resources and a basis for analyzing gaps. A system mapping exercise can be useful in identifying the potential organizations you need to engage. How you access the information to develop this system map can vary.
You may be in a small community where you know who the players are; you may be in a community where the resources are already well analyzed and organized in a youth street survival guide. But you may also work in a context where such information is not readily available. Devise a way to collate it anew. Consider an online survey to assess current capacity and perceived needs around youth homelessness. You can also host gatherings among diverse providers to collect this information and gather input on current trends, gaps and emerging opportunities.
Be strategic about how you engage with and assess youth homelessness when it comes to adult-serving agencies. It is essential that your plan address youth homelessness, not the youth-serving system. Homeless youth often access adult shelters and services. Failing to recognize and include such providers in your planning work will hinder your initial assessment of the local situation and the solutions you generate.
System mapping does not have to be an overwhelming endeavour – in fact, you may already have a solid inventory of various services developed – such as a Youth Street Survival Guide, a 211-resource directory or even your HPS Community Plan. Look to the St. John’s System Mapping Survey as an illustration of how to collect this information in an online format (see the Resource section).
Understandably, you will want to engage as many stakeholders as possible in your plan development. However, timelines, resources and levels of interest from stakeholders will dictate the scope of your consultation process. Carefully consider the ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ of stakeholder involvement as you develop the consultation process.
For each stakeholder, consider the following:
- Are you simply letting them know that a youth plan is being developed?
- Are you seeking input into proposed strategies?
- Do you want the stakeholder to co-own the solutions?
There are distinct levels of consultation:
- Gather information;
- Discuss or involve;
- Engage; and
Regardless of your approach, use the consultation process to build trust and goodwill.
Table 17: Consultation Levels
There are diverse strategies you can employ depending on the stakeholder in question and the purpose of the consultation. Consider what would be most effective given your goals.
Table 18: Consultation Strategies
Use the table below as a template. Identify organizations and stakeholders in each category, determine at what level they’ll be consulted and which strategies you’ll employ.
Table 19: Consultation Stakeholders
Do your homework
It is important to get grounded in the evidence first; don’t begin consultations if your planning group (backbone supports, project manager and steering committee) is not familiar with the evidence on ending youth homelessness, does not have a general sense of the issue in community, or is unsure about the potential solutions required to address the issue. This does not mean you’ve developed a plan and are simply ‘shopping it’ in community for a stamp of approval. It simply means you’ve done your homework and are taking on consultations from a solid foundation.
A sound understanding of the issue does not mean your research is complete; rather, your data collection process should include reviews of existing literature, policy, data and consultations themselves. The consultation process will likely include a diversity of methods to collect information: one-on-one interviews, small informal/formal meetings, large community forums, surveys, etc. Your job will be to collate the diverse sources of information into a coherent synthesis that shapes the proposed response.
Help stakeholders prepare for consultations by providing backgrounders, research summaries and a resource guide for further reading.
Consider how you want to break the information out to communities in a logical fashion. Most communities have at least two community sessions where broad input is sought for planning. During the first session, the focus is to set the stage: outline research findings, best practices and a synthesis of findings about youth homelessness locally. These events are generally larger in scale, inviting representatives across stakeholder groups to get informed and participate in an early dialogue about the youth plan. You can consider bringing in speakers from outside the community to give participants a sense of what is happening elsewhere in terms of promising practices and ultimately to inspire action locally. Winnipeg recently hosted such an event, where research was presented along with emerging areas of focus (see Resource section for their materials).
You can develop a facilitator’s guide to outline areas where you want input early on from participants at the event. Ideally, participants should be broken into small groups and given questions to prompt discussion. A facilitator can either be selected ahead of time or by participants. These sessions are useful to get the participants engaged in emerging areas that will drive the content of the final plan. You can set up these sessions to delve into discussions about potential solutions as well, rather than going over the issue again. Over-engagement within this phase can streamline the authoring of the plan and the steps in the following phases.
Check what you heard
The more inclusive and mindful of your biases you are, the more the plan will authentically reflect stakeholder input. This will ensure the plan is grounded in evidence and increases the likelihood that it will be successfully implemented. At times it will be difficult to look past your own opinions. Other times, stakeholder feedback will contradict the research body of evidence. Additionally, you may think you’ve heard affirmation of your direction, when in fact you’ve missed a key point entirely. Remain open-minded and flexible throughout the plan development process.
You can consider coming back to community to affirm what you’ve heard in consultations. A ‘what we heard’ document summarizing community input is often used in plan development to ensure accurate reflection of input. This also provides community stakeholders with another source of communication about the process, keeping them abreast of plan development.
Fix it before you launch it
Once you have a draft of the plan, or a good sense of your direction, it is a good idea to go back to community stakeholders and ‘check-in’ on your assumptions. Again, you can ask for input on the proposed strategies and goals, but also begin the discussion on implementation issues and foster buy-in before you release the final plan.
This can provide excellent input on areas you missed or didn’t consider adequately. The tone of the plan or even the way a particular group is written about can at times raise concerns. It is better to correct these issues in the draft stage than for these to grow into divisive points post-launch. These conversations can also serve as early testing ground for implementation as stakeholders begin to see themselves in the plan and may step up to ‘own’ particular actions before the plan is finalized.
Mind the buy-in gap
Do not frame consultations from a deficit lens. While it is important to articulate gaps and delve into the issues that contribute to youth homelessness, blaming is not conducive to buy-in or collaboration. Stakeholders need to see themselves in the plan; they need to see their role being valued and part of the vision for the future. Coming in ‘guns blazing’ on the faults of government, emergency shelters or other stakeholders will not do the broader movement any service. You need everyone willingly at the table; the tone of community and stakeholder consultations can make or break how certain groups buy-in to the plan. Alienating a key service provider early on can hurt implementation and it may cost you years of progress. Be mindful of the local politics as you set out on your consultation process.
Depending on where and when the backbone supports come in will determine if you are ‘leading’ or ‘partnering.’ For example, Alberta’s youth plan was developed following strong leadership and innovation in the community. The Alberta government viewed themselves as ‘partners’ and not ‘leaders’ with respect to the transformation required to respond to youth homelessness.
Conduct separate discussions, early on, with potential stakeholders who do not support the plan and make headway on difficult conversations before the larger group meetings take place.
You can also consider how you want to celebrate local progress and expertise, rather than simply focusing on what’s not working. A collaborative ending youth homelessness effort will be built on the foundation of existing efforts. Consider a way of acknowledging what is going well in your community and using conversations about the plan as an evolution of good work being done better, rather than labelling the existing efforts as entirely ineffective. While it is true that the status quo is no longer acceptable, blaming and faulting the stakeholders you need to build a reimagined response will undermine the new vision and way forward.
Maintain open communication
While you may have a formal schedule of meetings and community consultations, sometimes critical information will come to you through informal channels or happenstance. Make concerted efforts to be constantly available and open to communication with stakeholders. This will demonstrate that the planning group is open to collaboration and feedback thus, building trust and buy-in. Of course, formally communicating on plan progress through newsletters, email updates, verbal updates during stakeholder meetings, etc. is essential to maintain momentum in the community.
Excellent resources are available to help you develop your consultation approach, while taking account of best practice approaches for engaging groups such as Indigenous people, youth, government, the private sector and the media. This toolkit references these resources throughout.
The rest of this section outlines specific consultation strategies for the aforementioned groups. It draws on learning from communities who have developed or are developing youth plans to provide practical strategies for engagement.
It is essential to meaningfully involve youth throughout the development of your plan. Create a youth engagement strategy at the outset of the process and engage youth from planning through implementation.
As the real experts on their experiences, needs and interactions with organizations and systems, youth have unique perspectives on issues, are innovative problem solvers and can pose tough questions. Engaging youth will lead to more responsive and appropriate decisions to meet their needs.
From a human rights perspective, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) acknowledges the right of a child or youth to express their views, to be heard and to have their views given due weight according to their age and level of maturity. This promotes respect for children as active participants in their own lives and acknowledges their evolving capacity and gradual progression into adulthood. Further, it acknowledges the importance of a child or youth’s input to informing the decisions affecting their lives, at both an individual and systemic level. A Way Home is working with the COH and Canada Without Poverty to develop a human rights guide specific to youth homelessness community planning that will be launched in June 2016.
For information on engaging youth effectively, the Youth Engagement Toolkit for Youth Homelessness Community Planning produced by A Way Home and A Way Home Kamloops based on their planning process is available. Another resource is the Youth Engagement Toolkit Resource Guide, which provides useful guidance on engaging youth with diverse backgrounds. The Youth Voice section of the A Way Home website showcases the amazing work communities are doing to engage youth on the issue: http://awayhome.ca/youth-voices/.
The resource provides guidance on:
- Establishing a clear framework and definition of youth engagement;
- Defining youth engagement;
- Outlining the characteristics, benefits and models of youth engagement practice;
- Ethical considerations; and
- Practical strategies to youth engagement, with special focus on those of diverse backgrounds (Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, newcomer youth, youth with special needs, young parents and youth in care or custody and experiencing homelessness).
Ethical principles of youth engagement
Effective youth engagement is undertaken in an ethical, respectful way. Tokenistic or superficial activities can make youth feel like they are not respected or involved. The following principles ensure youth engagement is ethical and effective:
- Youth engagement is not a program: Youth engagement should be viewed as a natural way of working in the ending youth homelessness initiative rather than as a special program.
- Contributions match the initiative: Young people and adults who are working with the planning group should be recruited for their knowledge, skills, interests and commitment to the initiative’s mission.
- One person cannot represent many: A young person should not be considered ‘the youth voice’ at the table – it should be acknowledged that everyone at the table brings different perspectives to the issue.
- Debate as a learning tool: Debate is a key element of personal and organizational growth. The initiative should foster an environment where ideas can be raised freely, challenged and valued.
- Dignity and safety: Under no circumstances should young people or adults feel that placing themselves in an emotionally, spiritually, physically or cognitively unsafe space is expected or required by the initiative.
- Avoiding false expectations: It is important to be honest about the changing role of youth as a result of their engagement in the initiative, including recognizing that there are limitations that correspond to age, experience, education and training.
- Balance and accessibility: Most people require workplace accommodations in order to support them in making the optimal contribution to their organization, including young people.
When thinking through your youth engagement approach, consider how you can facilitate:
- Opportunities for skill development and capacity building;
- Opportunities for leadership;
- Reflection on identity;
- Development of social awareness;
- Mutual ownership;
- Positive youth-adult partnerships;
- Organizational support; and
- Achievable goals are celebrated.
Ways of engaging youth
Be reflective of the level of participation you are creating through your approach; Roger Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s participation outlines various levels you can assess your proposed approach against. Note that the first three steps are non-participation (adapted from Hart, R. (1992). Children’s Participation from Tokenism to Citizenship.)
Figure 7: Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation
Youth engagement can be incorporated into plan development in many ways; the practical suggestions below were developed with a focus on the youth plan process based on the Youth Engagement Toolkit.
Governance and policymaking: Youth can take part in key organizational decision making by serving on the steering committee or working groups. Youth can also participate in policy making, allowing their input to shape the policy agenda advanced in the plan.
Advice and guidance: Youth can offer their insights into different issues concerning the plan through youth advisory councils or youth forums. Youth can provide regular input to the planning team, can work on specific projects or can identify community needs and suggest service improvements.
Organizing and planning: Youth can help design and plan projects in lots of ways including determining service needs, developing action plans, conducting community outreach and evaluating outcomes.
Activism and outreach: Young people can work with the planning team to organize community members around issues. Youth often know how best to recruit other youth to get and stay involved.
Communication and media: Youth can help communicate key messages around the plan to the public by contributing to press releases, facilitating public forums, creating newsletters or using alternative media to tell a story.
Fundraising and philanthropy: Young people can become involved in raising and giving money through fundraising efforts. They can also become involved as volunteers during the plan development process, contributing particular skill sets to the effort.
Research and evaluation: Young people can contribute to research and quality improvement efforts by contributing their feedback. They can also be involved as evaluators and researchers by interviewing other youth or community members, working with staff to analyze data or presenting it to stakeholders.
Common strategies communities have used to involve youth in developing their youth plans include:
- Ensuring your representatives are part of the plan steering committee;
- Encouraging a youth-led approach – create space for youth to generate ideas and take leadership roles in consultations;
- Working with existing youth groups to gather information, seek input on solutions and confirm plan direction;
- Creating space for dialogue on personal experiences and solutions with youth separate from broader tables though focus groups and/or individual interviews;
- Ensuring youth are invited, welcomed and supported to participate in public forums, conferences, roundtables, etc.;
- Providing access to multiple means of communicating input – including social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.);
- Ensuring an accessible, safe space for consultation;
- Providing incentives and recognition for participation; and
- Ensuring representation from key populations of youth – particularly Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, immigrant youth, etc.
Note that you may experience pushback or even false impressions as to the level of previous/existing engagement. Service providers may report they engage youth all the time or very often, but when you probe this further, there may be few providers who have empowered youth in this way.
It’s important to consider this as you build the infrastructure for engaging people with lived experience. Also, and possibly because of this, there may be pushback from agencies (or one’s own staff) to engage youth, but you have to take a leap of faith and dive in: the payoff is huge as long as the underlying motivation is to flip the power structure and have those that should be leading playing a significant and substantial role (versus tokenism).
Engaging Youth in Edmonton
In Edmonton, youth were immersed in the plan development process in a unique way. Homeward Trust asked youth-serving agencies to identify and recruit youth who were experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. Homeward Trust provided participating youth with $25 honoraria in recognition of their expertise and time.
To ensure the 20 youth could access the consultation space, the downtown library was selected as the location for the dialogue. After an initial presentation outlining key concepts addressing youth homelessness, the youth were divided into small tables to discuss:
In a perfect world, what do we need to end youth homelessness?
Before taking on these tours as a youth-led activity, Homeward Trust consulted with youth-serving agencies to determine the feasibility of the idea and identify any potential ethical issues. In preparation for the tours, four weekly meetings were held to develop the walking routes, personal narratives and ideas of how to address systemic issues and barriers. Meetings also resulted in trust and relationship building between Homeward Trust and youth and amongst youth. To incentivize and support participation, youth were provided with dinner, transit tickets and a $125 honorarium.
To be inclusive of those youth who wanted to participate and share their stories through alternative mediums, Homeward Trust offered the opportunity to share their viewpoints through Photovoice, which combines photography with community development and social action. Youth represented their perspectives by photographing scenes capturing the realities of youth homelessness. Again, youth were supported through honoraria and bus tickets to participate.
To help youth frame their story, we asked youth four questions. For each question, the youth took one photo and provided a written response.
For examples of the work produced by youth using Photovoice, see yegyouthstrategy.ca.
Table 20: Practical Youth Engagement Tips
It is important to acknowledge the experience of Indigenous people in Canada if we are to truly end youth homelessness, particularly in light of their consistent overrepresentation in vulnerable populations. Indigenous homelessness is notably different; the structural and systemic determinants associated with colonialism, the Indian Act, treaty making, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop have resulted in considerable discriminatory impacts that are in fact intergenerational.
A sense of being homeless can be experienced from diverse perspectives: cultural, spiritual or emotional. It is more than a loss of housing. The impact of colonization, residential schooling, intergenerational trauma, ongoing discrimination and racism in Canadian society has contributed to the ongoing systematic marginalization of Indigenous people, including Indigenous youth.
This is illustrated by the higher than average proportion of Indigenous people experiencing poverty, violence, core housing need, low educational attainment and poor access to services and housing. As Indigenous people move into cities from reserves, their settlement and cultural reconnection needs must be addressed, along with the jurisdictional vacuums that impact their significantly reduced access to basic services both on and off reserves. This is notably relevant to Indigenous youth as well.
Indigenous people’s economic, spiritual and social development has been and continues to be negatively impacted by government policies and practices at the local, provincial, territorial and federal levels. In particular, the establishment of residential schools, reserves and the Indian Act resulted in a widespread and intergenerational loss of culture, language, community and identity still impacting today’s Indigenous people.
Some Indigenous youth respond to discrimination and stereotypes by distancing themselves from this part of their identity. Others have not had the opportunity to experience or develop a strong cultural identity due to the loss of teachings and traditions within their families or communities.  This is especially so for many urban Indigenous youth and those growing up in the child welfare system.
Recognizing these critical issues, A Way Home will, in the future, complement this toolkit with a more robust Indigenous module, which will include resources specific to Indigenous youth homelessness.
Key terms used:
Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous is a term used to encompass a variety of Aboriginal groups. It is most frequently used in an international, transnational or global context. This term came into wide usage during the 1970s when Aboriginal groups organized transnationally and pushed for greater presence in the United Nations (UN). In the UN, "Indigenous" is used to refer broadly to peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands who have been adversely affected by incursions by industrial economies, displacement and settlement of their traditional territories by others. This the term we recommend using in the context of community planning.
Aboriginal: A collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. The Canadian constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people: Indians (commonly referred to as First Nations), Métis and Inuit (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada).
First Nations (non-status): People who consider themselves Indians or members of a First Nation but whom the Government of Canada does not recognize as Indians under the Indian Act, either because they are unable to prove their status or have lost their status rights. Many Indian people in Canada, especially women, lost their Indian status through discriminatory practices in the past. Non-status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada).
First Nations (status): People who are entitled to have their names included on the Indian Register, an official list maintained by the federal government. Certain criteria determine who can be registered as a Status Indian. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act, which defines an Indian as “a person who, pursuant to this Act, is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian.” Status Indians are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada).
Inuit: An Aboriginal people in Northern Canada, who live in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. The word means "people" in the Inuit language — Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada).
Metis: People of mixed First Nation and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis, as distinct from First Nations people, Inuit or non-Aboriginal people. The Métis have a unique culture that draws on their diverse ancestral origins, such as Scottish, French, Ojibway and Cree (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). 
Due to the significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people among homeless populations in Canada, Indigenous communities should play a major role in all efforts to address youth homelessness. The planning process can create new opportunities for meaningful collaboration between mainstream and Indigenous communities, enabling diverse groups to come together to better understand the needs and experiences of marginalized community members.
The Homeless Hub has developed a summary on Indigenous homelessness in Canada and an overview of the causes of Indigenous homelessness.
Communities like Winnipeg and Yellowknife have pointed us toward resources that can help you in developing your engagement approach with Indigenous peoples. However, these communities have only recently engaged in the planning work. Their learning will greatly benefit our collective knowledge on this issue in the future.
One emerging insight from Winnipeg is that because many youth in the city have come from rural and remote areas across Manitoba, the engagement process must be broadened to include the region. Web-based and in-person consultations are being planned with Indigenous communities and youth across the province, which comes with additional resource needs but will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of the plan.
Another point to note here is that on-reserve Indigenous people may see rural and urban places as an extension of their traditional territories; as such, when we consider our approaches we can’t simply assume we are assisting ‘migrant’ Indigenous youth not otherwise connected to urban centres. In reality, Indigenous people may not be ‘migrating’ to the city, “but rather returning to a place that they have always known, historically, economically and spiritually,” says Albert McLeod of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.
Further, we have to also be cognizant that the paradigm from which youth-serving agencies approach their work remains grounded in Western post-colonial legislation and policy. In other words, we can’t assume that the established organizations that play a key role in addressing youth homelessness are necessarily aligned with Indigenous infrastructures’ relations with governments economic development on and on-reserve and urban reserve development, etc. (Albert McLeod, Social Planning Council of Winnipeg).
The following list highlights just a few of the things to consider when engaging with Indigenous peoples. Currently, there are limited youth plans with a concerted focus on Indigenous people. This is key priority for future iterations of this toolkit.
Table 21: Considerations in Developing an EngagementApproach with IndigenousPeople
Based on the Homeless Hub’s toolkit for building partnerships with Indigenous communities in the context of a PiT Count, the following strategies are useful in considering your consultation during the youth plan development. These were adapted to include the input of communities consulted in the development of the toolkit, as well as learning from the Aboriginal Plan to End Homelessness in Calgary.
Table 22: Indigenous Engagement Strategy Examples
Engaging funders early in the plan development process can ensure they have awareness and input into the plan, while creating space to discuss their potential involvement in the implementation of the plan.
Depending on your local context, you may be better off testing the waters first rather than approaching with a funding ask from the get-go. If you have a steering committee member or other engaged stakeholder who can help you bridge a connection with a funder, you may want to work through such existing relationships.
You’re unlikely to get a positive response by ‘calling out’ funders during public meetings. You’re better off approaching them on a one-on-one basis with clear asks. You may want a representative to sit on a committee or you may want the funder to co-sponsor the plan development costs. This is the approach taken in Calgary, where diverse provincial, municipal and local funders agreed to provide resources toward the youth plan.
Consider developing a ‘funders table’ that you can brief independently of other stakeholders. The funders table can be a vehicle to inform the group of developments and seek input into the plan. Funders’ perspectives are different in many ways to those of service providers and at times it is useful to engage them in separate discussions where they can offer insights they may not readily share in open forums.
A Way Home is working to align national and provincial funders with a stake and interest in youth homelessness to strengthen the local funding relationships. As an example of the value of this alignment, A Way Home’s partnership with the Home Depot Canada Foundation has enabled a concerted investment in various communities to advance local youth homelessness objectives.
Potential funders with a stake in youth homelessness include:
- All levels of government,
- Lead organization on local plan to end homelessness,
- HPS Community Entity,
- Local United Way,
- Local community foundation and
- Local Home Depot Stores or other local businesses.
From a funder’s perspective, a youth plan can be an attractive investment particularly when they:
- Already have an interest/prioritize youth homelessness or vulnerable youth;
- Are looking to leverage collaborative, system change efforts versus programmatic interventions;
- Recognize the potential impact of a youth plan effort on their broader funding portfolios;
- May be looking to divest/recalibrate funding envelopes but require strategic direction and research; and/or
- Seek enhanced public profile, which the planning process can provide through media attention, public consultation opportunities, etc.
Funders often have multiple priorities, of which youth homelessness is but one. Be strategic in your messaging. Highlight why addressing youth homelessness is important, socially and financially. But also, identify the ways in which the funder will benefit from involvement in the process. How will their participation contribute to their own goals and overall mandate? Again, discussing your approach and key messages with individuals who know the funding organizations and key decision makers can go a long way in preparing a successful pitch.
Leverage your external experts in these contexts; a national advocate with a high profile can help you approach funders and bring public attention to the issue thus, raising its profile. In St. John’s, Choices for Youth hosted a roundtable of local and national experts from A Way Home to do just that. They successfully leveraged the onsite presence of leading experts on youth homelessness calling for provincial action on the issue and gained enhanced participation from key decision makers. Funders Together to End Homelessness from the U.S. has some excellent resources for convening funders on the issue of homelessness; there is now a Canadian chapter as well.
There are inherent power imbalances involved in engaging funders, including government, in the planning process. Yet, without their involvement and ultimately alignment of resources to the plan, there will be little chance of enacting the type of transformative change needed to end youth homelessness. While community groups may wait to engage funders in the initial stages, the earlier you bring these stakeholders to the table, the better.
Prioritize engagement with the following government departments and system partners. Note that depending on your local community, the departments will differ and the functions may be delivered through varying levels of governments. You should ensure you map these out.
- Child Protection
- Human Services
- Homeless supports
Public System Partners
- Police service
- Public & separate boards of education
- Child, youth and family services authority
- Health services
- Correctional services & young offender programs
On and Off-reserve Indigenous Leadership & Government
Government of Canada
- Indigenous Affairs & Northern Development
- Economic and social development
- Justice Canada
- Community & neighbourhood services
- Social housing corporation
We have identified the key government departments you should engage when planning your consultation approach, but who within those departments should you contact? Unfortunately, there is no set rule for the right person to engage and best approach to doing so. There are however some considerations. Firstly, it’s important to prioritize the target departments and decision makers you want to engage. You may have internal champions who have an interest in the issue or even have a mandate as part of their job to advance it. You likely know representatives of the key departments and public systems you want to engage, or you’ve started making those connections during the research phase of the plan. For an example of how provincial government can build a clear direction across departments, look to the Alberta Youth Plan under Appendix 3 for an example.
Identifying these allies and working to flesh out your engagement strategy with insider knowledge will be more effective than cold calls. However, in some cases you will have to make those calls in the absence of a facilitated introduction. If there is a person or group in government working on a related issue, include a meeting with such individuals early on to exchange information and potentially save each other unnecessary duplicate efforts and/or surprises. Identify potential allies through your personal networks or your planning team.
Develop a strategy to engage elected representatives and various levels within the administration. By fostering personal relationships with ministers, you can increase their ability to move certain issues. They may frequent the same social scene for example. Ministers are also part of interest groups as well. You can also try to influence public opinion, which in turn gains attention from the government.
Politics is all about people. While bureaucratic processes are designed to be open, fair and non-discriminatory; as with many other transactions, building positive relationships with the right people is helpful. It’s much easier to ask for something from someone who already has a positive impression of you than from a complete stranger. The more you understand what motivates politicians, their staff and public servants as well as their plans and priorities, the more readily you’ll be able to determine effective approaches to influence them.
To raise awareness of your ask and build relationships within administration, consider:
- Starting with who you know and work your way up;
- If you’re not getting the response you want, let your contact know you’re going to the next level so they’re not blindsided;
- Taking new ideas to the executive level responsible for that area (usually a director or above);
- Finding someone who can make decisions, think outside the box and see the big picture; and
- Regional officials may not always be plugged into head office developments so ask them who might have the latest information or is the decision making-authority.
Knowing the Key Players
The Be HIPP manual provides useful summary of description of ‘who’s who’ and their role in decision making.
Members of Provincial Legislatures
So what do you want from government?
In an ideal world, government would commit to ending youth homelessness and co-develop an evidence-based approach with community stakeholders to achieve this vision within an aggressive timeline supported by adequate resources. Of course, that may not be feasible at the outset of the planning process. In fact, your plan may raise a new vision of what the government’s role should be.
Carefully consider what you are seeking from various stakeholders in government during the plan development process. You may simply want to keep them informed and seek their participation in consultations. Or, you may indeed develop a covalent advocacy strategy around ending youth homelessness alongside your plan. You can develop a funding ask to support your plan process, test an innovative programmatic intervention or create a new funding stream specifically dedicated to implementing the plan. You may also have specific asks emerging around changes to policy in various ministries that you can advance.
You can also ask government to develop their own ending homelessness plan in conjunction with your community plan and even develop infrastructure mechanisms to facilitate cross-departmental dialogue and policy coordination to advance solutions.
The role of the government should be to:
- Establish a shared vision, provincial priorities and policy directions amongst all ministries;
- Facilitate collaboration among individuals, families and communities to prevent youth homelessness through education and awareness;
- Support the provision of coordinated and integrated supports and services at the community level;
- Provide the legislative and policy framework and funding support to address youth homelessness;
- Support opportunities to share knowledge between policy makers, academics and service providers; and
- Support existing best and promising practices and innovative research and programming.
In Alberta, a cross-ministry committee made up of key provincial departments supported the plan to end youth homelessness and to promote integration. See the Resource section for the Terms of Reference from this committee.
Consider that many people who work in government or within public systems are well aware of the system gaps and barriers youth face. Many share your frustration and want to support change. Personal, one-to-one meetings with casework supervisors or frontline managers (i.e. people connected to the frontline but also involved in systems/high-level work/strategy) can be great starting points for building allies. This, tied with alignment with system planning, can connect the dots between what is happening on the ground and what is being planned at higher levels. Also, if there are resources being allocated specifically to housing for youth this is a great carrot for systems to align, as most can dish out for supports but few can actually deal with housing. Another part of this is the potential reduction in workload for caseworkers/therapists – so many spend a large portion of their time working on housing issues. It’s all about framing their involvement as ‘what in it for you,’ because as a community, there is a lot to be gained by developing more effective responses to youth homelessness.
You’re more likely to have success if you:
● Develop a well-defined advocacy plan focused on one or two policy issues
● Adjust tactics to engage government, depending on how interested the government is in addressing homelessness in general and youth homelessness in particular;
● Align your asks with existing government activities and priorities to increase the likelihood of government buy-in;
● Focus on solutions-oriented advocacy. Either pointing out what government is doing wrong or just raising awareness are useful only if the government is not addressing homelessness, and even then, offer help, rather than simply identifying mistakes and shortcomings;
● Align yourself with other communities doing similar work, and coordinate your asks and messages. This is more effective than having each community act on its own, especially given the competition between advocacy groups.
● Produce well-researched positions and data to aid your ability to influence, especially if the government does not already have this information;
● Recruit charismatic, well-positioned leaders who are respected by government and administration to help deliver your messages and requests;
● Identify the right elected officials and administrations to approach. Work your networks for someone you already know in your community who might open a door for you, particularly with government ministers;
● Leverage solid relationships fostered with policy-makers at different levels of government,
● Be mindful of the economic environment: no matter how well-prepared you are, if you ask for funding during a time of restraint, you are less likely to get it; and
● Cultivate a reputation as a useful and credible source of information.
Here is a useful example from Newfoundland and Labrador where Choices for Youth analyzed the new government's mandate letter relevant to youth homelessness . By understanding where government is at with respect to diverse social issues relevant to youth homelessness, you can find levers to hook your issue into as opportunities arise.
Table 23: Provincial Ministers Commitments
Public policy tactics
Effective advocates develop deliberate messages, use savvy lobbying techniques and build organizational capacity. Key strategies include press conferences, op-ed pieces and guest articles, phone calls and letters to elected officials. They also plan local events such as site visits and ceremonies.
You can increase support for the ending youth homelessness initiative by:
- Raising concerns; for example, point out the negative consequences of existing or planned actions,
- Swaying decision makers’ thinking,
- Letting other opinion leaders know where you stand,
- Finding out about the priorities, concerns and interests of decision makers and who has decision-making power,
- Building new relationships, create a positive image, raise profile, build ongoing support and new allies,
- Offering solutions, exploring options and partnership opportunities,
- Raising public awareness and concern to build wider spread support for your cause.
Public Policy Tactics
The Be HIPP manual to engaging in public policy advocacy provides a number of useful tips for selecting your public policy tactics.
• When relaying a simple message;
• As a follow-up to letters, concerns, invitations;
• Alert to upcoming actions;
• To try and secure a meeting date;
• To relay the importance of an issue; and
• To get information (e.g. identifying who’s the best person to deal with).
• Use to formalize invitations; advise of your interest in meeting; raise a concern; give recognition or show appreciation; pass on congratulations or thanks.
• Can reach several people at once with the same message, making it easier to reply if your message is not complicated,
• Useful as a quick reply to those comfortable with this technology.
STRATEGIC MAILINGS: QUARTERLY UPDATES/NEWSLETTERS
• Raises awareness, ensuring others know about your ongoing contributions to the community,
• Keeps your organization on the radar screen,
• Creates a positive impression,
• Don’t create information overload by sending irrelevant information that appears unprofessional.
INVITATIONS TO A SPECIAL EVENT
• Opportunity to show what you do, others can see what success looks like and better understand what is required to succeed,
• Allows politicians to hear firsthand from the front line and those affected by your issue,
• Include politicians in fundraising efforts, educate them on how your work links to their constituents.
SHARING RESEARCH FINDINGS
• Adds legitimacy to your issue,
• Gets your issue on the government’s radar screen,
• Reinforces other messages by demonstrating evidence, especially if it adds to existing evidence.
• Write an op-ed piece, an opinion piece that appears opposite the editorial page, to raise public awareness and understanding about your issue,
• Send a letter to the editor to correct any information that is wrong or to show your organization's support or position for an issue raised in the newspaper.
ORGANIZING A TOUR OR VISIT
• Raises awareness and understanding, builds relationships,
• Invite politicians for breakfast or lunch or to see a part of your organization they would not normally see,
• Allows people to see first-hand the impact of your work, especially if personal testimonials are included.
HOSTING A COMMUNITY FORUM
• Positions you as a leader, builds momentum,
• Draws in others and gains their commitment and support,
• Raises community awareness and concern,
• Provides a venue for those affected to speak to decision makers.
ATTENDING PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS, HEARINGS OR CONSULTATIONS
• Opportunity to provide technical information and advice and share knowledge or research,
• Good for raising awareness, increasing support.
• Good for generating media attention, showing strength if other tactics are not getting desired attention.
MEETING PUBLIC SERVANTS
• Gain information about what’s happening,
• Helps to better understand constraints, concerns, possible competing interests,
• Explore possibilities; raise profile; build relationships.
BRINGING PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS TO MEET POLITICIANS
• Helps politicians put a human face to the situation and to see first-hand the realities,
• Helps build greater commitment to addressing your issue.
MEETING WITH POLITICIANS
• Provides a forum to make your views heard and to raise any concerns,
• Enables you to find out more about the government’s perspective on an issue; to hear first-hand their concerns, priorities and interests,
• To look for common issues and win-win opportunities; can explore opportunities for partnership,
• Good opportunity to make your case and position your organization in their minds,
• Recognize that meetings rarely lead to tangible commitments.
MEETING WITH POLITICAL AIDES
• Can help increase attention to the issue,
• Can assist with securing a meeting with key people,
• Can help build internal supporters or champions,
• Get advice on how to proceed, other contacts and possible strategies,
• Gain a political perspective for an issue raised in the newspaper.
MEETING WITH LEADERS IN OTHER SECTORS
• To gather support and build allies by building cross-sectoral support for your issue,
• To raise awareness and increase understanding,
• To line up representatives from sectors that normally would not be involved, to speak out, showing how widespread and mainstream is the support.
Leverage the media and the private sector in the development of your plan. The media in particular can play a powerful role in bolstering initiatives to end youth homelessness. Thinking through your media strategy and being deliberate about when and what to communicate out can help build momentum for the issue, which can in turn, increase attention from government, funders and the broader community.
Knowing when and how to engage with media, getting your story covered in a meaningful way and cultivating long-term, positive relationships can go a long way toward supporting the plan and its implementation. There is an art to writing effective communications plans and media releases while cultivating a brand for your initiative. This guide for building your communications strategy provides guidance. For specific advice on social media, another useful resource for non-profits is also available. Leverage opportunities such as meetings or if you release research results. Learn to write a good ‘hook’ to engage the media (they are in the news business and want something newsworthy). Cultivate relationships with interested reporters in your community – they can become ‘go-to’ people. Finally, it is important to develop a social media strategy (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) as this will this become a vehicle for directly engaging your community and help you to engage mainstream media, who tend to look to social media for leads and interesting stories.
Private sector foundations, corporations and individuals are another key source of knowledge, influence and resources for the initiative. Often, such allies and champions are already involved in committee and on non-profit boards. It’s Everybody’s Business: Engaging the Private Sector in Solutions to Youth Homelessness provides an overview of how to work with the private sector in this manner.
In Kamloops, private businesses provided early implementation support for the youth plan. Funds raised from these stakeholders were used to fund housing opportunities for youth. This leveraged private funds, but also allowed for the plan to be implemented in short order, without the need for major investment from government. It also showed results to the community, reinforcing support for the initiative.