What’s the best housing option for young people who become homeless? This is an important question, because when we design programs for homeless youth, we often create what I call “homeless services – junior”. We take the adult system – emergency shelters, etc., and just change the age limit. This is also true of some of our models of housing and support, whether transitional housing or Housing First. Sure, we understand that young people have different needs, and so we build in life skills, mentoring, training, etc. But the fundamentals of the program are all the same. For instance, it is typically the case that we impose time limits on how long someone can stay (one year residency, maybe eighteen months), and because of the pressure to transition youth to independence, a focus on education often takes a back seat to training and work.
So what do homeless youth need? When talking about how to address young people who are homeless, the best place to start is to think about what any young person needs – what my own sons need, for instance. Most of us take it for granted that growing into adulthood takes time, and that to get there, young people learn skills, behaviours, confidence and ways of being, one bit at a time. It's a time of learning, testing, succeeding and failing, and picking oneself up and dusting oneself off. In order to get there, youth need meaningful and respectful relations and encounters with adults and other young people. We know that we need to help young people stay in school for as long as possible, for in this economy, education and credentialism are more important than ever. The failure to complete high school means youth are less competitive in the labour market, as well as at a greater risk for future health problems and dependence on government supports. We know that growing into adulthood takes time. The days when you could leave home at seventeen, get a job and set yourself up in your own place are long gone. Because of changes to the economy (including a lack of full time entry level jobs that pay living wages), young people are staying at home longer and longer. A recent report from Statistics Canada showed that almost 43% of young people between the ages of 20 and 29 still live with their parents!
So, if we know all of this to be true, why do we treat young people so differently when they become homeless? Why does education get tossed out the window, and why the rush to living independently? Does it make sense to take traumatized youth and rush them into the responsibilities of adulthood, when they lack the necessary life skills, confidence, supports and the ability to compete in the job market? We need to rethink how we deal with homeless youth.
What if the goal of accommodation and supports was a transition to adulthood, rather than simply to independence? If we did that, things would look a lot different. One promising model that could be adapted in the Canadian context is the Foyer. This is a transitional housing model that is quite well developed in the United Kingdom and other European countries, and has been adapted and transformed in Australia. This is a model we can make work in Canada, by blending it with things we have learned about how to address youth homelessness here. The Canadian Homelessess Research Network report on Foyers (and accompanying toolkit) lays out in great detail what a Foyer is, what the research says about its effectiveness as a model of accommodation and supports, and how we can develop it here. What makes the Foyer an effective model of transitional housing is the following: first, it needs to be designed to meet the needs of developing adolescents and young adults. It is more than a roof over one’s head. Second, young people should be able to stay as long as they need to. Foyers in the UK typically have a two-year limit. Ideally, it should be open ended. After all, I don’t give my children a time limit on moving out. Third, education is at the centre of the Foyer model. While young people can also participate in training and employment, engagement in education will have the longest lasting impact on their lives. Fourth, the Foyer supports meaningful engagement. This means learning to establish solid relationships with adults and other youth, opportunities to get involved in the community, and to engage in activities – whether sports, arts, cooking etc. - that inspire and are fulfilling in their own right. The Foyer experience in the UK and Australia demonstrates that this model can be adapted and implemented in urban and rural areas, and that different models of housing can be used, whether a more institutional setting with multiple rooms, or a dispersed housing model.
The Foyer promises to change the way we respond to the needs of young people who become homeless. It is a model of accommodation and supports built to nurture the transition to adulthood in a safe, respectful and meaningful way. I would want nothing less for my own children.