By Melanie Redman, Executive Director, A Way Home Canada and Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Professor at York University

In the midst of so much happening at federal, provincial/territorial and municipal levels concerning housing and homelessness, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of some of the most vulnerable people in Canada: youth experiencing homelessness. 

Yesterday, along with MP Adam Vaughan, A Way Home Canada announced the launch of the “Making the Shift: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness Through Social Innovation” project at an event hosted by York University. With this federal investment, we are going to ensure we have a strong proof of concept and evidence base on models of prevention and Housing First for Youth. We will then take these models to scale, in order to ensure better outcomes for more than 1,300 young people and their families over the next two years during phase one.

The Making the Shift project will provide prevention and Housing First for Youth interventions to young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in 10 communities in two provinces -- Alberta and Ontario-- where there are existing or emerging provincial strategies to end youth homelessness. 

The main purpose of this project is to support communities and all levels of government to make the shift away from a reliance on emergency response, to a more strategic investment in the prevention and ending of youth homelessness. This means developing a comprehensive knowledge base on prevention and support programs that result in lasting positive changes for homeless youth or youth at risk of homelessness. We’ve chosen to focus on models of family reunification (Family First), Youth Reconnect and Housing First for Youth because there is an existing knowledge base that we can build upon, through a series of demonstration projects that lay the groundwork for scaling these models nationally. (Note: We will be supporting the efforts of Coalition founding member Raising the Roof concerning the scale of a shelter diversion model known as Host Homes.) 

When young people become homeless, they typically become part of the “Not Engaged in Education or Training” population, a group that hasn’t had an education and employment focus placed on them. The proposed interventions in Making the Shift will ensure that these young people achieve housing stability and have natural supports, such as family, that are essential as they receive support to stay in school or access training and employment. And by serving these young people, we will also build an evidence base to inform sound public policy and investment. This will, in turn, stabilize and increase their employment and education participation and success. 

The Making the Shift project is a partnership of A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, two provinces, and dozens of community partners. Supporting the work of the “Making the Shift” demonstration projects will be the Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab (YHSIL) led by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Its role is to identify and imagine policy and practice innovations that have a high potential of contributing to effective solutions. The YHSIL will also be responsible for the research and evaluation necessary to establish “proof of concept”, as well as the knowledge development components necessary to enable taking such intervention models to scale. 

The value of the research and evaluation component of our demonstration projects cannot be overstressed. We know that the successful “At Home/Chez Soi” project has been highly influential in shaping government policy in Canada. The evidence base for youth homelessness interventions, including Housing First for Youth, is currently not as strong. These demonstration projects, if successful, are poised to provide a key evidence base for all levels of government interested in prioritizing youth homelessness.  

We will be taking prevention models with an evidence base elsewhere in the world, as well as the key innovation of Housing First for Youth (co-developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, youth with lived experience, the Hamilton Street Youth Planning Collaborative and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness), and providing proof of concept and ‘facts on the ground’ in Canada. All of the knowledge developed through evaluation will contribute to knowledge development and dissemination, including toolkit development. And through our evaluation work and research, we will focus on developing clear outcomes measures that demonstrate positive impacts on young people, including housing stability, health and wellness, educational engagement and achievement, and labour force participation. We want more for young Canadians than just housing stability -- we want them to have access to what any of us want for our own children.

Beyond the life of the Making the Shift project, the YHSIL will continue to identify, demonstrate, evaluate, disseminate, mobilize and scale innovations in policy and practice across the full spectrum – this will prevent young people from becoming homeless, and if they do, preventing them from ever becoming homeless again.

A Way Home was launched as a coalition in order to have maximum impact on the issue and the time has come for us to ramp up our collective efforts to ensure the job is done. 

The time for innovation is now, because we can truly end youth homelessness, if we want to.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Government of Canada. The project is funded through Employment and Social Development Canada and Skills Link.